Some things never change, some things do.
Arsenal welcome an in-form Stoke side to the Emirates that will be, in some ways, unrecognizable from the long ball merchants we’ve seen in the recent past. Mark Hughes has changed the team’s style to a great extent and they now play with the ball on the ground noticeably more often. Their average passes number (397 per game) and passing accuracy (79 percent) are better than they achieved in any season under Tony Pulis.
That said, Stoke’s main attacking weapons remain the same. They will heavily rely on crosses and balls into the box to create chances. They will also not shy away from hopeful shots from distance as many of their players can pack a punch. Add to that a well-organized, combative defence, and the tendency to get stuck in and you’ll see remnants of the old guard in the revised version.
The aggressive element of their game is going to be interesting to watch because most opponents the Gunners have faced this season haven’t really come at them hard. This game could produce some very interesting football if Hughes is bold and encourages his players to push up the pitch from the kick-off in an attempt to prevent Wenger’s men from playing the ball out from the back. Teams who’ve done this, albeit in patches, have produced some spells of pressure against Arsenal. Of course, it’s a risky strategy – and that’s the reason most teams don’t do it all the time – because if the Gunners get through the initial press they really have the quality to punish opponents. The key is in finding the balance between high pressing and choosing moments to drop back into a strong defensive shape. Succeed at that and you can force mistakes leading to genuinely threatening transitions while retaining security at the back for the most part.
There’s another element of the aggressive game, which is also the unpleasant one. This involves gratuitous kicks to the heel, a flailing arm in the face, an elbow to the back of the head, or a knee to the back, among other tricks of the dark arts. Giroud has faced a little bit of this last season but is likely to be targeted more often because of his form and growing importance to the team. Watch out for his duels/physical tussles with Huth in particular. Özil is also likely to get a welcome to the real Premier League, particularly when he receives the ball with his back to goal. How these players and their teammates react to such challenges will go a long way in determining control of this game. Stoke will struggle if the Arsenal players can shrug it off and they’ll gain some momentum if the Gunners start reacting and get fractious.
The Potters are a very well organized unit but Arsenal should have enough quality to create chances as long as they are patient and adhere to their approach. There will be some gaps between the lines and in wider areas if the ball is moved fast enough. Özil’s movement will trouble the central defenders and if he can interchange positions with Wilshere there will be chances to run at or behind the back four. But the Gunners will have to be exceptionally precise and/or need some luck to get past Begovic who is a very good shot-stopper.
Usually, Walcott is not a big threat against teams that sit deep and narrow. But in this game he could be a force if the timing works out. There are three or four players in the Arsenal side who can play a ball through and they just have to work out the right moments to draw the defenders and slide a ball in-behind. Quick, one-touch passing will be vital and the players need to minimize the tendency to run with the ball into crowded zones. That is more likely to result in threatening counter-attacks than anything else.
In defence, Arsenal will have to do something about their zonal marking aproach on set-pieces. I find it hard to imagine they’ll keep a clean sheet with that tactic against a side like Stoke, unless they really minimize the free-kicks and corners conceded in the first place.
The Gunners have done a good job of attacking the second ball against teams that play the aerial game in the recent past. This is another game where the players will have to be really switched on to pounce on balls that bounce around awkwardly in dangerous areas of the pitch. A lot of Stoke’s threat comes from the ability to make something out of the confusion that ensues in and around the penalty box after a high ball is lumped in and the header won by someone like Crouch or Jones. Crouch, in particular, has had good success against the Gunners. The full-backs will need some support if he pulls away towards their side.
Arsenal have scored first in their last 12 games and the opener could be crucial in this game too. Stoke will become very difficult to break down if they have the luxury of sitting on a lead. In contrast, the Gunners could relish the counter-attacking opportunities if they score first and draw Stoke out more often.
I do prefer some rotation but it seems unlikely that Wenger will make many changes to the side that is getting the results.
We might see,
Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Ramsey, Özil, Flamini – Walcott, Giroud, Wilshere.
Once he is fit, Arteta should come straight into the starting line-up but it would not be wise to start him so soon after his return to full training. 20 minutes in this game and maybe an hour in the midweek Cup tie seem like the better options.
There are some positives stats from an Arsenal point of view. Arsenal have won all their 5 games against Stoke at the Emirates and Mark Hughes has lost on all six visits to Arsenal as a manager. The team is also on a strong run of form with 6 consecutive wins, more than any run last season. However, the law of averages can always come into the picture and on current form there isn’t much to separate the sides. If Arsenal start strongly and score early they could control the game and have some fun. Stoke could pose serious questions if they can use their physicality and pressing to good advantage in the opening exchanges. Both sides have contrasting strengths and weaknesses and the one that manages to impose its style on the game will end the game on a satisfied note.Follow @goonerdesi