Arsenal Depot

A depository for musings on Arsenal FC

Stoke Preview: Physical Battle Awaits Gunners

Arsenal travel to Gotham City this afternoon to take on the clueless Pooless mob of Stoke-on-Trent that call themselves a football club, while pursuing our objective of finishing third and well ahead of the other gangsters from London N17. With Batman nowhere in sight, Robin will once again have to step up and rescue the guardians of the beautiful game.

Before we get into the preview, I read a unique perspective on why Stoke City fans are so proud of their team despite the quite brutal footballing style. Do go and read Big Al’s article yesterday at A Cultured Left Foot and see if you agree.

In team news, Arsenal are without Arteta and Walcott but Benayoun returns to the squad. No other changes except Abou Diaby was feeling sick yesterday (oh dear) and will face a late test. I think he will feature on the bench regardless, midfield options not aplenty at the moment.

Stoke City have almost their entire squad available and have a fairly settled starting eleven. If Jermaine Pennant is fully fit, the former Gunner should get the nod ahead of Rory Delap, he of long throw infamy.

The Potters have been solid at home against the big teams and are currently unbeaten in their last four games at Britannia. There are some who believe that they’ve tried to play a little more expansively this season, Arsene Wenger among them. Maybe it was the taste of Europa League football or just the players at the club’s disposal. Whatever the reason, Arsenal should expect nothing less than the strong, hardworking, physical, long ball approach we’ve faced there in previous visits.

In the reverse fixture in October, the Gunners ran out 3-1 winners at the Emirates. Gervinho scored the opener with an unusually calm finish (Ramsey haters, do watch the lovely Song-esque dink-over-the-top assist by the Welshman). Although Crouch equalized after some slack clearing in the penalty area, Robin van Persie tucked away two assists from the Ivorian late in the game to secure victory.

It was one of Gervinho’s better performances, and the 30 minutes against Chelsea last week showed signs he is getting to that level again. I think he will be an important player for us this afternoon, adding pace and directness in the absence of Theo Walcott.

Probable starting elevens are on the right. Although both Gervinho and Benayoun can play on either wing,  I would start with the Ivorian on the left and the Israeli on the right.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that Bacary Sagna is better at winning the aerial ball than Gibbs at left back, so I would play him deeper today to bring more defensive solidity. The second is that Stoke’s right side will be more of an attacking threat for us with Walters and Etherington both operating there, hence it may be better to start the more defensively hardworking Benayoun on the right side to support Sagna.

I think Gibbs will play a more attacking role this afternoon in support of Gervinho. With Pennant playing against him, Kieran’s pace will be handy to track back when attacks break down. Unlike many recent matches, I expect quite a few Arsenal attacks to originate from the left wing.

In midfield, Aaron Ramsey should retain his place alongside Alex Song. I still think it’s better for Aaron to play in the Arteta role and leave the creative duties to the in-form Rosicky. He will also add a bit of much-needed physicality in the middle of the park if he plays slightly deeper.

Going forward, the Gunners’ best hope will be to move the ball quickly and not allow the hosts to put pressure on them – especially early on as this will set a pattern for the rest of the game. If our midfielders get caught on the ball, the crowd will bay for blood and the Potters will increase the physical intensity – something we don’t deal with very well. Song and Ramsey are often guilty of trying to dribble past a packed midfield. This approach against the Potters today will be fraught with danger – both to the result and to the physical well-being of the players.

Stoke City are pretty miserly in scoring goals, having netted just 32 times this season, the least of all Premier League teams. 21 of those have come at the Britannia though, where they average 1.6 goals a game. Their mode of attack is quite predictable. The Potters will try to cause problems by lumping the ball forward to Crouch, who will hold it up and bring Walters and Etherington into play, while Pennant’s pace and skill on the ball can cause the Arsenal defense concern down Stoke’s right.

However, the home team will be most dangerous from set plays, a route which they utilise often and with great success. Wojciech Szczesny will need to be decisive in coming out or staying put. Besides Crouch, the defenders will have to keep an eye on Huth and Shawcross from corners, free-kicks and Delap specials. The midfield will have to deal with constant pressure from strong midfielders and defenders and ensure it does not disrupt their rhythm and tempo.

Any positive result today will be based on a solid defensive performance, the players should make no mistake about that. If we don’t concede, we will give ourselves a great chance to get maximum points because we are sure to create a few opportunities of our own.

Robin van Persie is going through a goal drought at the moment. All Gooners will be hoping the captain can find his scoring touch again when a chance does drop his way. If not, then someone else from the team needs to step up and convert opportunity into goal – the point/s will be invaluable in the battle for third.

A point from the Britannia will not be a bad result for Arsenal. Although I am hoping for a Gunners victory, my prediction is for a 1-1 draw.

Do come back tomorrow for the match review. Enjoy the game.

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