Friday, 21 October 2011

Arsenal v Stoke - Preview

Not having all that much to do on Thursday night, I put the telly on, flicked over to ITV4 and settled down to watch Stoke play Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Europa League. It proved a diverting if unedifying spectacle, the most interesting element of which was watching the Stoke players attempt to deal with an unfamiliarly broad expanse of pitch (apparently the standard dimensions at the Britannia don't conform to UEFA regulations, meaning that the club's groundsmen had to paint over the touchlines in an unnatural-looking bright green, redoing the white markings about two feet further out on each side of the playing surface). As I watched I couldn't help but wonder if somewhere across London, Wenger was looking on with the same sense of bemused detachment. On the other hand, I quite liked the thought of Le Professeur glued to the screen, scrutinising Tony Pulis' team selection intently, and frantically scribbling tactical notes in an attempt to work out a masterplan for the Arsenal to thrash the Potters on Sunday. Or perhaps he doesn't need to. Arsène is still supposed to know, after all - according to some supporters at least.

Of course, it doesn't take a genius to work out how Stoke might play, particularly against the Gunners. The cynic might say they go out to break legs, but that would be unfair. Increasingly, Pulis seems inclined to field quality over brute force, and Stoke do boast a smattering of talented players - including ex-Gunners Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Upson. Still, Stoke typically play uncomplicated but effective football, relying on big forwards to capitalise on set pieces and their various other weapons of assault - which largely consist of Rory Delap's now infamous long throws (or failing that, the efforts of his equally burly-armed apprentice Ryan Shotton, judging from Thursday night's performance). It certainly worked against a nervous-looking Israeli team, even after Stoke were reduced to ten men following Cameron Jerome's first-half red card.

Stoke look to be enjoying their Europa League adventure in 2011, even if it does mean playing on Thursdays and Sundays, so much so that it seems they're quite keen to get into Europe again this season. As such they're currently hovering just outside the qualification places, occupying seventh position in the league. They've been in fairly good form of late, and the Potters will be a test for Arsenal this weekend; Stoke's uncompromising style could well disrupt the momentum that now looks to be slowly gathering, and Peter Crouch, Kenwyne Jones and the aforementioned Cameron Jerome are just the sort of players who would be more than happy to stamp all over the Gunners' tentative green shoots of recovery.

Still, after a good European result of their own in midweek, Arsenal should be in confident mood. The stats are also on our side - we have not lost at home to Stoke since 29 August 1981, according to the 'Official History of Arsenal'. That fixture was the opening game of the '81-'82 season and neither Alan Sunderland nor Graham Rix, both playing that day, managed to net us an equaliser. We eventually finished fifth in the league in 1982; doubtless some Arsenal fans would be content with a similar position at the end of 2011/12. It is not impossible for us to go one better than that, however, and therefore guarantee not just second-rate but top table European football for another year. That's some way off, admittedly, but putting together a good run in the lead-up to Christmas would certainly help the cause, and a win at the Emirates on Sunday would be another step in the right direction. It would also signify our fourth home win 'on the trot', as Wenger recently said, which is a promising sign of progress and returning confidence in itself.

With the addition of Per Mertesacker, we at last have some height at the back to deal with Stoke's muscle and aerial threat, and although their forwards are hardly free-scoring at the moment both our 6' 6" German and the slightly less imposing Laurent Koscielny will have to be on top form to keep them at bay come Sunday. Unfortunately, the injury curse has now struck the right-back position again (will no player be left untouched?) and we are likely to be without Carl Jenkinson. That probably means Djourou will fill in, which is a concern - but not one that can really be helped in the absence of another right-sided defender. It will be up to Szczesny to help marshal the back-line and command his penalty box; you can't help but think he will be busy over the course of the game, but the back four showed a collective improvement against Marseille and hopefully that will continue.

Thankfully there are no fresh injury concerns elsewhere in the team. Gervinho will probably come back into the side in favour of our erratic Russian, and Walcott will probably start - but he really needs to start finding some consistency, particularly with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain waiting - literally - in the wings. Song and Arteta are beginning to look like a very good central duo, but it remains to be seen whether Ramsey will get the nod over Rosicky. Given Aaron's nasty previous with Stoke and Tomas's much improved performances of late I would be inclined to go with the latter, but Ramsey's important and composed winner against Marseille was impressive. Hopefully RvP will keep scoring goals of his own so that his century quickly fades into the distance as the next milestone appears on the horizon - could he get to 125 goals in the club's 125th season?

It will be an interesting game and another chance to assess just how quickly - or otherwise - Arsenal have regrouped, given the turbulent start to the season. The team is more than capable of getting three points, but at the moment the Gunners must simply be prepared to apply the Stoke method and win ugly if necessary. Grinding out results with a metronomic regularity used to be an Arsenal forté, once upon a time - and when you're fighting your way up the league, a 1-0 win is as good a result as any.

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