After two steps forward, the next one should not go backwards. That is the mantra for Arsene and his players this Sunday as they welcome, perhaps reluctantly, Stoke City to the Emirates.
At home the Gunners have generally done well against the Potters. But Arsene probably played his best eleven against Marseille while Stoke were able to rest a number of players for their European adventure. It could work against the Gunners in a game that will have high intensity and demand a lot physically.
Tactically, the two sides couldn’t be more apart. Under normal circumstances, Stoke would get bodies behind and sit back. Crouch would be their target man with Walters making runs in support along with one of the wingers. They’d try to score on the break or win a throw/free-kick, which is their bread and butter as far as attacking goes. It also happens to be Arsenal’s Achilles heel that has been having the kind of setbacks that Vermaelen did. While the last couple of games have been good from a defensive point of view, I am not taking anything for granted. Szczesny and Mertesacker will have something to prove in this game, as will Koscielny.
Interestingly, I have a feeling Pulis could be more adventurous in this game and push his players further forward to press the Gunners. Marseille, Dortmund, and other teams have shown they could trouble the Gunners with such a tactic. It would be risky but a lot more positive. Or the Stoke manager might just look at Arsenal’s visit to Blackburn and think there is a better chance of getting a result by playing on the counter. In any case, as with most teams recently, Stoke will feel this is their best chance of getting something out of a game away to Arsenal.
For the Gunners, I feel the current period is a bit similar to a part of the 08-09 season where the side played four 0-0 draws after a poor start. The current form and group of players is not the same as that season but the rebuilding phase is consistent. I won’t be surprised if this isn’t an extravagant display. In fact, I hope it isn’t because the risk of taking that backwards step would be too high if the Gunners go gung-ho in attack.
The midfield has to stay deeper even if Arsenal lack bodies in the box. The balance between midfielders arriving in the box or getting into advanced positions with the players providing defensive cover has not been achieved and in such cases a cautious approach is pragmatic. The front three should be able to fashion some good chances even with a patient approach.
If I am not mistaken, Stoke did have a relatively weaker record at defending set-pieces last season. It would be delightfully ironical if the Gunners were to nick this one via a solitary goal from a free-kick or a corner, which seems long overdue anyway.
Wenger has an unenviable task of picking the starting line-up after two gruelling encounters in the past week. As Le Boss said, he often thinks of resting Van Persie on a Monday but ends up picking him by the end of the week. Frankly, I can’t make up my mind about this one.
Stoke are always a dangerous opponent as far as physical injuries go although they aren’t quite as bad away from home where the referees are less lenient towards their thuggish ways. Should Van Persie be risked against such a side at a time when the Dutchman seems like the only real world class player in the side? What would happen to the recovery and the season if De Kapitein is knocked out for a few weeks, if not more?
On the other hand, without Van Persie, will this team have enough confidence to score? What will happen to the recovery if the side doesn’t even create a few good chances?
As I said, not an easy choice, and in such cases I’d support the manager in whatever decision he makes.
The back five should be the same that finished the game at Marseille. Djourou should show his recent shaky form is behind him. The Swiss internationals height and physical presence can be very useful in such a game but it will come to naught if mistakes aren’t cut out.
Song and Arteta should start in the middle but will Rosicky be able to handle three games in a week? Benayoun or Ramsey could come in for Little Mozart. One of them might even start on the wing if Wenger wants better technical quality on the pitch.
Wenger will probably have to pick two from Arshavin, Walcott, and Gervinho. The Russian didn’t have a particularly great outing against Marseille but deserves another chance alongside the Ivorian who impressed after coming on for Walcott. Theo might not be that effective against a team that is sitting back.
Preferred starting line-up,
Szczesny – Djourou, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Santos – Song, Ramsey, Arteta – Gervinho, RvP, Arshavin.
I expect this to be a tougher game than the previous two and Stoke will certainly offer a bigger challenge than Sunderland did. In that context, even another hard fought win will be a sign of progress.
Limiting the number of set-pieces and throws conceded along with a better defensive performances in such situations will be a confidence booster not only for the squad but also for the fans. Needless to say it could just as easily go the other way if things don’t turn out as desired.
The most important part however, is that the players not make any silly mistakes due to carelessness or a lack of focus. That will be hard to take and will set the recovery back to square one.
I want to end by wishing Le Boss a happy birthday and many, many happy returns of the day at the Emirates.