Ryan Shawcross, Tony Pulis, Stoke City… These names are more than enough to get the blood boiling.
It will be a tough challenge for the Gunners, especially young Ramsey, when Arsenal visit the Britannia Stadium for the first time after that horrific injury. But if the players can show anything remotely resembling the mental strength that helped them win that game, I’m confident we can add to the four successive league wins against the Potters.
The ref for this fixture is Mark Halsey and it does leave me worried. He is an old fashioned official who lets the play flow. The ref might give some free-kicks but he likes to keep his cards in his pockets. This means the thugs will be able to get away with countless fouls and rough tackles. When calculated violence meets a feeble official things can get out of hand very quickly. Hopefully, it won’t end in the same kind of tragedy that Peter Walton’s ineptitude caused last time around.
Tactically speaking, I expect Stoke will start with a high level of intensity. The hosts will press (more like push, kick, stomp, etc) higher up the pitch early on and will try to win free-kicks, corners, and throws in the Arsenal half. They will also play long balls on the flanks at every opportunity in order to win the aforementioned set-pieces. After all, the hosts have scored almost half their goals from set-pieces whereas Arsenal have conceded quite a few from the same.
The first fifteen minutes of this match will be critical. If Arsenal can survive that period without conceding a goal the game will get progressively easier.
Szczesny will be busy in the initial stages and this should be a good chance for the youngster to prove himself in an ugly, hostile away game. The pressure and the nature of attacks on his goal will be unique in many ways. I hope he doesn’t leave his line too often and lets the outfield players attack the balls floated or thrown into the box. That means bulk of the responsibility should be on Koscielny and Djourou (if he is passed fit).
Another important aspect of defending against a team like Stoke is alertness at the back post and inside the box. Many of their goals come from knock-ons or a scramble in the box. The midfielders and those who get post-duty will have to remain vigilant to prevent clean shots on goal from such situations.
The Gunners will also have to ensure they don’t panic if the ref fails to control the game and things get nasty in the opening exchanges. The crowd will be behind the home side and they will try to get the ball and bodies into the Arsenal box by hook or more likely by crook. The defenders have to maintain their composure in such a case and should avoid the tendency of hoofing the ball to safety. Obviously, the midfield has to help out by being available near the defence. This way they can challenge for the second ball and can also collect the ball from the back five.
Holding on to the ball under pressure, especially when the opponents are pushing or kicking you, can help alleviate the pressure and can also lead to counter-attacks. With Theo on the flanks Arsenal can cause some serious damage early on by controlling the ball and moving it at pace.
In attack Theo and Robin should have the pace and the movement to trouble the Stoke defence. Ramsey should also get a chance to add to his winner against United as long as he is alert to possibilities in the final third.
Arsene has a couple of tough decisions to make with regard to his team selection. Diaby, Cesc, and Nasri are unavailable while Djourou and Clichy will have to undergo tests.
The midfield should be the same that dominated the park against United. Wilshere has had a gruelling season and is running out of steam. Ramsey and Song will have to take more responsibility.
Up front, RvP and Walcott are sure to start. On the left, Arshavin might be the popular choice in the absence of Nasri but I’d prefer Eboue or Rosicky, both of whom can offer better defensive cover and thereby balance the starting line-up. It will be even more important if Gibbs is starting at left-back.
Vermaelen could make a welcome return to the squad. I don’t expect to see him in the starting line-up straight away but a few minutes, late in the game, should be good even if it’s in the midfield.
Preferred starting eleven,
Szczesny – Sagna, Djourou, Koscielny, Clichy – Song, Ramsey, Wilshere – Walcott, RvP, Eboue.
I don’t expect Le Boss to pick Eboue. Arshavin will probably be his choice. Hopefully, the lack of balance won’t be fatal.
This game isn’t as important as it could have been but that doesn’t mean it’s as worthless as some might consider it to be. The players have a lot more than pride to play for. Here’s to a fighting display and a smashing result.
PS: Have you seen this truly insightful table. Just in case you are unaware, that is how the Premier League table would have looked if all the shots that hit the woodwork had gone in. The margins really are that fine! Thanks to YW over at ACLF for sharing it.