Arsenal are visiting Stoke. Normally, there wouldn’t be any need to mention Chelsea. Or Newcastle. But this time around we have to, with a passing mention of Spurs thrown in.
The Champions League semi-finals threw up some not entirely unexpected surprises. Roberto Di Matteo, Just a year after being sacked from West Brom where his attacking style put the club’s survival at risk, will lead the Chelsea bus to Munich for the Champions League Final. Given the way they’ve gone past Napoli and Barca, you can’t write them off. And if they do win the Champions League, the 4th placed team in England will miss out as the Blues will get a chance to defend their trophy. That means Arsenal have to finish third to ensure their presence at the biggest stage next season.
Newcastle are 3 points behind the Gunners with a game in hand. They do have tougher games but barring the City one the others seem winnable on their current form, especially if Chelsea take the League lightly. So Arsenal must win 2 of their next three and match Newcastle’s result with City in the third. In that case goal difference should be enough to hold on to 3rd place.
Interestingly, Spurs are a further three points behind Newcastle. If they win all their four games and Arsenal and Newcastle lose one while winning the rest, all three teams will be tied on points. Once again goal difference could be key.
Although winning all three would undoubtedly be the ideal way to go, it doesn’t seem a realistic proposition given the current form. The visit to Stoke is usually a tough one – Arsenal have lost 3 of the last 4 – so the bookies will probably rate this as the toughest fixture of the three with longer odds on a win for the Gunners.
Tony Pulis’ unique tactics – to use the term very liberally – have caused a number of problems for Wenger’s men. This game should be no different.
We can expect a number of long balls aimed towards Crouch with Walters challenging for the second ball. Pennant and Etherington on the wings will also have crucial roles in attack as they’ll be asked to put in a number of balls into the box, to run in behind from flick-ons, and to attack the back post.
Stoke’s basic attacking approach is simple. Get enough balls and bodies into the opposition box and fight there. Some luck with deflections, with defensive errors or lapses in concentration, or simply from fouls not given can lead to goals.
Given the fact that they’re at home they’ll also get the benefit of doubt – again a term used generously – in almost all physical duels. This makes them very effective at home and a difficult side to beat. City, United, and Chelsea have only managed a draw at the Brittania while Liverpool and Spurs have lost. Newcastle are the only team from the top 8 to get a win there with Arsenal and Everton still to play.
Part of their home strength is also based on a very well-organized defence. They’re not an easy team to break down and Arsenal will have to find better ways than simply crossing the ball from wide areas. Huth, Shawcross, and Co will dominate such situations without breaking a sweat.
Ironically, Stoke have occasionally been vulnerable on set-pieces – which is also their biggest attacking strength – and the Gunners, especially Vermaelen, could benefit from quality deliveries. This is a contradiction with their general aerial dominance but it will be a big mistake if Arsenal don’t try hard on set-pieces thinking they won’t get much from them.
In attack, it will be interesting to see the choices that Arsene makes. Walcott is injured so there is an opening on the right wing. The left wing has anyway seen numerous changes – or little experiments – over the last few weeks.
Gervinho or Oxlade-Chamberlain could start on the right. My preference is for the Ivorian. AOC is still too inexperienced for this level and often gets lost on the pitch. Gervinho has his set of weaknesses but he can make a big impact on the game if he can sustain the sharpness he showed as a sub against Chelsea for the entire duration of the game.
On the left Arsene could pick Benayoun who’s been effective in a couple of recent games or he could go with Santos who had an interesting – for want of a better description – few minutes against Chelsea in that role. The Israeli is clearly more experienced in that role while the Brazilian will have to learn on the job. On the other hand, Santos would offer better defensive support and physical presence in the box. He’s also less likely to be brushed off the ball when compared to his relatively lightweight teammate.
In the midfield Arsene will probably go with the same trio that started against Chelsea. Diaby, given his physicality, would have been a good option but it wouldn’t be wise to start a player who’s struggled with injuries for so long against a team like Stoke.
The problem with Song – Rosicky – Ramsey in the middle is that they could struggle to bring the ball out. Stoke tend to start the game at a very high intensity and will put pressure on the ball in an effort to deny the players any time and space. Against Liverpool, early on against Newcastle, and in the first half against Chelsea, this tactic worked for the opposition and Arsenal were either wasteful in possession or lost the ball cheaply in dangerous areas. The hosts will be hoping for such mistakes and will try to break quickly down the wings once they win the ball back. If the full-backs have been pushed up, as the Gunners usually do, this could open up avenues for attack and at the very least Stoke could win throws and set-pieces deep in the Arsenal half.
Coming back from a goal down will be difficult despite the visitors’ league leading stats regarding the same. If Stoke score first the best Arsenal will get is a draw. The opening exchanges – first 20-25 minutes or the time of the first goal, whichever is earlier – will test Arsenal’s ability to hold the ball and build the play from the back under pressure.
I’d like to see the following line-up,
Szczesny – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Song, Rosicky, Ramsey – Gervinho, RvP, Santos.
I’d also ask Gibbs to stay deeper and look out for runners. Santos should be asked to stay wide on the left when the ball is in a central area and to tuck in when it goes wide. He’d have to double up as a technical midfielder concentrating on possession play and a winger, toggling between the roles depending on the patterns of play. The Brazilian also has the ability to thread balls through for the other two attackers but it’d be unfair to expect them to have perfect understanding with hardly any practice together.
At the back, Koscielny and Vermaelen will also have to be extra vigilant to track the runs of Walters as one of them will have to duel with Crouch depending on the positions the striker takes up. I’d expect him to pull towards his left between Sagna and Koscielny but teams often try to test Arsenal’s left side, so he could alternate between the two.
Depending on whether Walters presses higher up the pitch or Etherington pushes forward, Arsenal could have an extra man in midfield or on the right. This would be the most likely channel to bring the ball out but they should try to find a better balance between the two flanks otherwise it becomes relatively easier for the defenders to retain a shape to defend a flank and crosses from that side.
To be honest, I don’t expect points from this game. Even a solitary point will be a good result. Three will be a massive one. If everything falls into place and the ref doesn’t have a big influence on the events the Gunners could get something but it doesn’t happen often. A battling, injury-free display is all one can ask for. That will at least give Arsenal a fighting chance.Follow @goonerdesi