So it’s Stoke on a warm Sunday afternoon. Will it be any different? The scenario might not match the cliche but the football most certainly will. This is a classic battle between two diametrically opposite philosophies where both sides understand the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. It just boils down to the execution on a given day.
Stoke are a physical side but they tend to up the ante even more in the early minutes of games against Arsenal. Their tactic usually is to prevent Arsenal from striking any sort of a rhythm. Following that, it’s mostly about getting the ball into advanced areas in search of set-pieces and throws. This simple approach has worked for the home side as they’ve taken the lead against Arsenal on all five occasions the sides have met at the Britannia. In four of those games the lead has come inside 11 minutes.
Mertesacker talked about switching on quickly. Clearly, the players and the coaching staff are aware of Stoke’s early impetus. Whether they can deal with it remains to be seen.
Typically, Tony Pulis’ side tends to ease off after the initial burst of pressing, especially if it results in a goal. Their game subsequently relies on organization, coordination, and hard work in defence while constantly looking for opportunities to break forward. They make clever use of their physical strengths and the flanks to create decisive moments on counter-attacks. It’s a real challenge for the central defenders and the midfielders covering them. Arteta and Diaby can prove they’re good enough to play in deeper positions throughout the season if they can consistently challenge for and win the second balls. They’ll also have to sweep up in front of the back four particularly clearing any square balls that are played across the penalty box.
The issue with Stoke’s style is that it often relies on the leniency of the referee as it results in a melee in the penalty box or when the duels start resembling a wrestling bout. Lee Mason was extremely card shy in the midweek Chelsea-Reading fixture and that could work in favour of the hosts.
Arsenal’s new signings will be surprised at the intensity of the physical challenges but they’ll have to adapt quickly. Wenger wants his team to adhere to their game and passing the ball under pressure is one way to counter Stoke. For that to work though, every player has to be on top of his game and they have to show the ability and willingness to take a few knocks. The new players should be prepared to play on under challenges that might be considered fouls in the leagues they’ve come from.
Wenger also has a team selection headache. Playing two quick but technically limited wingers has not been working for a while now. Arsene has to find a better balance. He has some choices but none of them seem ideal.
For instance, Wenger could put Podolski on the left with Giroud down the middle and one of Walcott or Gervinho on the right in front of the same midfield that started against Sunderland. However, it seems to me that Arsene sees Podolski as a key played in a central role so he might not be so keen to shift the German to a flank. Secondly, Stoke are stronger when attacking down the right and one could wonder just how diligently Poldi will track back to support the full back.
The other option is to put Cazorla on a flank of his choice while bringing Ramsey into the midfield to offer greater energy and work rate along with improved technical balance. In such a scenario, only two of Gervinho, Walcott, Giroud, and Podolski can start. Arsenal might also lack pace on the break, which can be an issue if Stoke press cohesively and assertively.
With a similar playing eleven as the choice above, Arsene could also put Ramsey on a flank if he wants to keep Cazorla central.
Szczesny is scheduled for a late fitness test and there might be doubts over Fabianski’s fitness as well. This could prove to be a major source of concern for the Gunners.
Preferred starting eleven,
? – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Diaby, Ramsey, Arteta – Cazorla, Giroud, Gervinho.
I don’t know who’ll start in goal. The back four and the two deep lying midfielders should retain their places from the Sunderland game.
I’d like to see Ramsey in the middle for his work rate and ability to move the ball around with Cazorla on the right having the freedom to drift around the pitch when Arsenal get the ball forward. Giroud seems like a better choice to me upfront as he’s got the kind of physical presence that can be an asset in both penalty boxes. He also has the ability to pull wide and become an outlet for the side when the opponents are pressing effectively. The big Frenchman can also be a target in the box if the Stoke defence plays deep and narrow. Gervinho can provide pace and decent defensive cover on the left. The width will have to come from one or both full-backs.
For Arsenal, the key will be in their ability to hold on to the ball for long periods. By accomplishing that the Gunners give themselves the chance to break Stoke down. It won’t be easy, certainly not if the pace of passing and movement is similar to the opening fixture, but that’s really the only way the Gunners can get any points from this game. They can’t take the hosts on at the physical battle. It’s about bringing the game to your comfort level rather than fighting on the opponents’ strong points. In order to achieve this, the players will not only have to suffer through the physical challenges while maintaining control over the ball, they’ll also have to maintain their composure and avoid retaliatory fouls that could lead to dangerous set-pieces, bookings, and red cards.
Given the fact that Arsenal have won once in five visits to this ground while losing thrice, it’s obvious that any result will be a commendable achievement. A defeat will not be surprising but it can be demoralizing given the opening day draw and the tough fixtures in the upcoming weeks. A win, in contrast, could be the perfect tonic before the big fixtures.Follow @goonerdesi