Stoke City Preview: Making It Up On The Hoof
Never has a team visiting The Emirates been more appropriate. The weather is dull, horrible, drab and wet. Which is exactly what Stoke City are. As well as being incredibly generous as they have rolled over and lost on their last eight visits to Arsenal, a run stretching back almost thirty years.
Wholesale changes can be expected to the team that took the field at Orient, an XI resembling that which took on Barcelona will be enough to beat tonight’s opponents.
Arsène though is paying the price for a congested fixture schedule as Robin van Persie and Laurent Koscielny are both missing for tonight, neither guaranteed to return for the Carling Cup Final on Sunday either. It means a reprieve for Sebastien Squillaci tonight and Arsène praying that no further injuries are suffered.
Whilst Manchester United’s game in hand is against Wigan, it is a brief respite judging by their upcoming fixture list. Arsenal has more volume but United’s tougher journey’s. Frequently the media has pointed out that this fortnight is big for Arsenal’s season. It is but they are not involved in the biggest games; United are.
If they emerge with nine out of nine from their next three fixtures, the opportunities to close the gap will be fewer. United’s next two away games are at Anfield and Stamford Bridge. It would be no surprise if they won both such is their opponents form but equally they have not won at the latter since 2002. Neither Arsenal or United will win every game between now and the end of the season. Who draws the fewest will be key.
For tonight, Arsène has noted a simple tactic to neuter the visitors threat,
What is important for us against Stoke is we [make sure] we have the ball. The more we have the ball, the less they will be dangerous in the air. We will try to dominate the game, as long as we have the ball they cannot be dangerous.
In picking on the aerial threat, Wenger makes telling observations about Stoke. Firstly, they are not so much of a threat on the ground. Secondly, he believes that the media stereotype of them as uncultured long ball merchants is not far off the mark. Lastly, Johan Djourou cannot be rested tonight as he is key to dealing with any aerial threat and there is no-one else to play centre back.
The Britannia Stadium has been a nightmare for Arsenal goalkeepers in recent seasons, unable to deal with the distinguished tactic of hoofing a ball long or throwing it for a considerable distance. Despite knowing what is coming, Almunia and Fabianski struggled until last season in the League fixture when the Spaniard coped to a degree. Szczesny has the frame to deal with any interlopers into his six-yard box and needs to ensure that they are intimidated to do so.
The team I would expect Wenger to start with is:
Szczesny; Sagna, Squillaci, Djourou, Clichy; Fàbregas, Song, Wilshere; Walcott, Chamakh, Nasri
Tempting as it might be for Wenger to go with Bendtner, he perservered with Arshavin in his spell of indifferent form and it is hard to see him doing any different with Chamakh. The Moroccan did not let him down when van Persie was out injured earlier this season but his lack of goals recently will play on his mind.
It is important for him and the team that he does not let this overwhelm his thoughts; the pressure is on others to chip in with goals already. A misfiring forward only elevates that situation. Tonight is the sort of team whom he will enjoy playing against. Neither Huth or Shawcross is dominant in the air despite their size; Chamakh will only be successful if the right supply is provided though.
Whichever way it happens, a win is imperative tonight. A sneaky one-goal deflection does not count anymore than a flair-filled one-goal win; they still bring about three points.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.