Stoke City Preview: Tough Test Awaits New Boys
Arsenal take on Stoke City this afternoon in what is traditionally a difficult fixture for the Gunners. We have won only once in five previous meetings at the Britannia and the 1-1 draw in last season’s fixture was the only match where points were shared.
There’s no secret why Stoke cause Arsenal so much grief. Without the ball they are energetic, robust and many a times overly physical. Recent Arsenal sides haven’t handled the attention too well, allowing it to disrupt our usual pattern of smooth quick passing. In attack, Pulis’ side rely heavily on set-pieces while the Gunners have struggled to defend from such routines over the past few seasons. Add to this the intimidating atmosphere at the Britannia and it’s a fixture neither players nor fans look forward to with much anticipation.
Perhaps our best performance at Stoke was in last season’s 1-1 draw. Arsenal handled the physicality of the game quite well and showed real character and determination to come back from conceding an early goal. For once the Gunners didn’t look bullied and competed strongly in the challenges. In defense too, it was a much improved performance even though Peter Crouch’s goal was conceded from a cross. Combined with Stoke’s attempts to play the ball more along the ground, Arsenal didn’t look as uncomfortable last time around.
Right, onto the team news then.
For Stoke, Dean Whitehead was red carded against Reading last week so he’s definitely not eligible. His place could be taken by either Geoff Cameron or Wilson Palacios. Michael Kightly is sure to feature too, having made an instant impression by scoring against Reading on the opening day. Tony Pulis favours the 4-4-1-1 formation with Walters playing behind Crouch and there’s unlikely to be any change there.
Arsenal will be without Laurent Koscielny as he’s failed to recover from a calf problem but Oxlade-Chamberlain should be fit to play. Szczesny had a bit of a rib injury as well but he too is likely to recover. Other than that, every one else from the Sunderland game is eligible for selection. Despite the changes during the summer, it’s likely Arsene will continue with the 4-2-3-1 formation used last season and in the opening day draw against Sunderland.
After the stalemate against Sunderland, Arsene Wenger felt playing three strikers in the front four unbalanced the team somewhat. The most likely solution is that Lukas Podolski will be moved the left wing and charged with bringing more technical qualities to the team, in a role similar to the one Yossi Benayoun played earlier this year.
Olivier Giroud could be set for his first Arsenal start and his height and physical presence in the box might prove decisive in a tight match. With Cazorla playing in the hole, one of Gervinho or Walcott will have to be content with being on the bench. On last week’s showing, Gervinho will be favorite to start on the right.
Tactically, there are unlikely to be any surprises from either side. Stoke will defend stubbornly while constantly looking for Peter Crouch every time they get the ball. Arsenal will try to find a way through Stoke’s defenses by probing away and keeping the ball for long periods of time.
If Stoke manage to out-muscle Santi Cazorla off the ball in the opening 15 minutes, it will encourage the home team to continue pushing high up the pitch and force Arsenal to move the ball quickly forward. On the other hand, Cazorla has a habit of coming deep and pulling the midfield marker towards him. This could benefit the forward runs of Abou Diaby in particular and with his physical presence the Frenchman could pose a problem for Stoke.
While there are many factors that can influence today’s game, I feel the three below will be the crucial ones.
Early goal & Arsenal’s defense
Since returning to the Premier League, Stoke have scored first against Arsenal in all five fixtures at home. And that’s not it. On four of those five occasions, the Potters have scored the opening goal inside just 11 minutes.
If there’s one piece of statistic that encapsulates why we’ve struggled at the Britannia, then this is it. Scoring early has allowed Stoke to get organised in defense. The longer the game goes on the more frustrating it becomes for the visitors especially as the hosts also adopt a rather aggressive approach.
It’s imperative Arsenal don’t concede an early goal today. Peter Crouch and Jon Walters remain Stoke’s main threats from open play and Arsenal’s defenders will have to be wary of Crouch peeling off towards the full-backs. Mikel Arteta will have to pick up Jon Walters when the ball breaks to the home team and ensure he can’t link up too readily with Crouch or the two wide men. Arsenal’s set-piece defending improved last year and that good work should be continued today.
New boys & team cohesion
As was evident last weekend, this team needs more time to develop a cohesive game. There were plenty of misplaced passes versus Sunderland and the quicker the new signings settle down, the better will be Arsenal’ chances.
Once again, I think Cazorla will be key to this as most of the attacking play is likely to take place via the Spaniard. If he is careful with the use of the ball and creates as many chances as he did last week, then Arsenal will fancy opening up the Stoke defense.
Sunderland’s pressing & the heat
With a midday start, the weather could play a vital role in the match outcome especially as many of the players are still trying to regain their full match fitness. Warmer weather should benefit Arsenal more, the longer the game goes on the harder Stoke will find to maintain the high pressing they are likely to start the match with.
Arsenal must bear this in mind especially during the early stages of the match. If the Gunners are patient in the build up and force Stoke to chase shadows for long periods then we have a good chance of capitalizing later on in the game.
I think this game comes a little too early for Arsenal. As much as I’m excited by the new boys and all three are likely to start today, I suspect we might see a disjointed performance similar to the one against Sunderland. A lot of our hopes will rest on Santi Cazorla’s ability to control our attacking play and Giroud’s ability to finish the opportunities that come his way.
I am hoping for an Arsenal win but I think a point would not be a bad result at this point. A 1-1 draw is my prediction.
Enjoy the game. Back tomorrow with the match review.