Stoke City Preview: Kill The Game Early For A Top Spot
Thirty seven years ago on this day, Arsenal’s first European campaign came unstuck with defeat in Liege condemning the club to a dismal Christmas in 1963. A number of people – a sizeable number – believe that this year will be no different, a European exit confirmed on paper with a re-run of last season’s quarter-final to take place in 2011.
No doubt about it, this was the toughest draw that Arsenal could have been given at present. Whether it is as Spring beckons remains to be seen; a lot of football is to be played between now and the first leg. Either side could crumble in form and the fickle hand of injury fate may yet intervene to burden the respective managers. Between now and the outcome of that tie, the Premier League, FA Cup and Carling Cup will all assume more importance.
Attention turns to this afternoon and the opportunity to return to the summit of the Premier League presents itself. Stoke City arrive at The Emirates not having won at Arsenal since 1981. Their five subsequent visits have seen them concede sixteen goals and score just two. If the nadir of the 1997/98 season happened with defeat on 13th December 1997, the same can be said of the home defeat to Newcastle in 2001 on today’s date. That too sparked an unbeaten run that ended with the title being delivered. Perhaps this time around we could take today as being the start of the run, sort of foregoing the formalities if you like.
Of course, the fixture is overshadowed by last season’s encounter at The Britannia Stadium, fires fuelled by the news this week that Shawcross is to be given extra protection by minders, media fires unnecessarily fanned by the club especially as Arsene has sought to defuse the situation beforehand. Still, it merely serves to reinforce opinions about them in the same way that the Stoke fan shown on national television this week repeatedly kicking his own head does.
On the back of the defeat at Old Trafford, the Arsenal side needs to be refreshed. Rarely would I suggest change just for the sake of it but today is one of those occasions. With a ‘traditionally English’ outlook from their manager, Stoke’s approach will need rigorous attention from the defence. Djourou is better in the air than Squillaci and Koscielny, which ought to be enough of a reason for his inclusion. Whilst that may be harsh on the one who is dropped to make way for him, some of the clearances on Monday were woeful. Not that the central pairing were the only culprits in that respect but distribution needs to be excellent for Arsenal’s style of play to be completely effective.
Wenger admitted in his press conference that a win today can only be forged on the back of a solid defensive display. That applies throughout the team with forwards defending from the front, pressing their opponents quickly to force them to surrender possession cheaply. Equally, the midfield need to reassert themselves defensively, Alex Song working in tandem with his partners to ensure that when two push forward one stays back. All of these simple matters failed to materialise at Old Trafford. A lack of concentration, application, whatever you want to call it but they need to have been resolved before kick-off.
There is a nervousness surrounding Arsenal’s home league performances this Autumn; it gives hope to visiting teams, hope that can be crushed with one convincing victory. That may not be reflected in the scoreline as Stoke have yet to concede more than two goals in any one Premier League game this season. It is not the sign of an impregnable defence, simply one that makes opponents work for their goals rather than cheaply shipping them in matches.
With that in mind, Arsene will want a passing midfield in full flow. I would make just one change from Monday, bringing back Cesc to start, the hope being that an unassailable lead could be established by the hour whereupon he can be replaced. His inclusion at Rosicky’s expense would be no surprise. Equally, dropping Arshavin, switching Nasri to the left and bring Walcott on the right would present an opportunity to stretch the play to the wings more crisply than has happened recently.
Caution should be applied to that theory though. Too often in recent weeks, gaps have appeared between the midfield and defence where attack has been too prevalent on the minds of the players. It is all well and good pressing forward but minding the gap should not be the sole preserve of rail passengers.
Wenger is limited with other changes, numerically and keeping the team understandings going. Bendtner is unlikely to be involved with a child expected soon – perhaps already arrived by the time you read this – whilst goalkeeping duties might be continued by Szczesny with Fabianski’s hip injury not fully recovered. Crosses were dealt with comfortably by the younger Pole on Monday and a number of those can be expected from the flanks today, even before Delap gets a throw in opportunity.
The line-up I would like Wenger to go with is:
Szczesny; Sagna, Djourou, Koscielny, Clichy; Fabregas, Song, Wilshere; Walcott, Chamakh, Nasri
van Persie might start instead of Walcott which would make the formation a more notional 4-1-3-2 but I suspect Arsene is still looking to bring him back in stages. The same could be said of Fabregas whose exclusion might bring about a reprieve for Arshavin but that seems unlikely. Had victory been achieved at Old Trafford, there would have been a strong case for an unchanged side. It was not and the lack of drive suggests changes are needed.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.