It’s a classic tale really. A tale of substance versus style. Beauty versus brawn – oh hell why be coy – it’s Arsenal versus Stoke City. I don’t think I need to clarify who is who.
Arsenal make the trip to the Britannia stadium where they have not won in their last four trips. They go in to a hostile environment against a team that hasn’t lost in 11 matches. The folks at Stoke and the Britannia stadium have done everything they can to level the playing field – so to speak. The pitch is narrower and the grass is longer. All done specifically to play to the home field advantage that is the Britannia.
It has worked out brillantly and the mid-table regulars are using to create fits for any team that has come in there. True, United and Chelsea have come in and ground out wins. Not something typically associated with Arsenal but it is likely what they will have to do to walk away from this match with points. Tony Pulis plays to his team’s strength and while his lads looked resplendent and swift crushing Man City into another trophyless season, at their heart they are bruisers. And it is something they relish.
With two big centre fowards in Sidibe and Fuller receiving the trademark long throws from Delap they have muscled their way in the air to score a ton of goals. Okay not a ton. They usually don’t score more than 1 or 2 a game. They are not a team you would associate with being prolific. But they use the muscle to their advantage and since everyone claims (and some have proven) that Arsenal have a soft underside they will obviously use their physical style to their advantage.
Alot has been made of the Brittannia stadium and the size of its pitch, the area around the pitch and the length of the grass on the pitch. All of these things are done to give them advatnages against sides like Arsenal. People may not like but its allowed. It kind of harkens to the NHL – in the playoffs, you hear of opposing team practice sessions in the dark or the visitor’s dressing room kept colder than it may be out on the ice. All of these things are done to blunt the attack of the opponents. Now you may not like it – and I don’t – I would prefer it be like NASCAR where all the cars are exactly the same and it is the individual driver that has to beat you. I believe all pitches should be the exact same dimensions and the areas around the pitch equidistant and finally – the grass all kept the same length. But it’s not and they are going to have to be dealt with by Arsene’s Army. (by the way – did you ever think you’d see a NASCAR reference in a blog about Arsenal?)
For Arsenal the mission is easy – win and get back to within two points of Man United and keep pressure on Chelsea. But it is going to be difficult. The lack of a proven attacking threat is evident. Prior to Robin Van Persie’s injury Arsenal were scoring an average of 3.2 goals per league game. Since his injury that has been reduced to 1.7.
The attack is weakened still by the absence of Andrei Arshavin yet again who sits with a thigh injury. It means that it is likely that Theo Walcott will get a start again. A lot has been said about the English lad and many people are divided about wanting him to go – and wanting him to have more time to develop. Against Sunderland last week , he improved over previous matches but still looks in decisive with the ball when he has it. The speed he has is deadly if he could put it together with a solid rocket of a foot – he might be something. Frankly, if I am Arsene I’m moving Nicky B to the wing and putting Theo in the centre. Let’s see what that does in creating chances.
Our defence will be hurting again with the absence of William Gallas. But I think this is a match that is right up Sol Campbell’s alley. Sol’s game as I have mentioned before is less to do with speed (he doesn’t have any) and its more about positioning. He reads the game so well that he beats players simply by out positioning them. Added with his height that is going to be essential for those times when Delap is given the ball to throw in around the penalty area. His size, strength and knowledge are going to come in handy in being a stopping block against Fuller or Sidibe – the most frequent recipients of Delap’s long free-throws.
Coming back to the squad – most likely on the bench – is Eduardo. The Croation has been out for a few weeks with an injury. I am curious as to the length of his stay out and am wondering if he was kept out longer than he really needed to be. The Crozillian is definitely suffering from a crisis of confidence. He looks lost with the ball and doesn’t have that killer instinct he had pre-injury. Now look that was supposed to a career-ending injury and its hard to expect anyone to come back to the way they were before something like it. I wonder if he was kept out longer to really make sure he was fully healed and to spend time working out his kinks. I don’t have anything to back this up – it’s just a hunch.
But look – we need to win. We need to win to continue fighting for the title. United are off playing in the Carling Cup final and Chelsea have an early morning date with that Arab bought club. That is likely to be rough and Chelsea are now going through a an injury crisis of their own. But we cannot worry about that we can only do what we can do and that is take care of our run of matches. A lot has been made how out of the top 3 teams, Arsenal have the easiest schedule. While that may be true – this match is probably the hardest of them all. True, we still play Spurs (but they are Spurs) and City (they do suck). Stoke are a solid team and Tony Pulis is doing a fantastic job of getting the best out of his side – with the talent they have. Arsenal need to play their game – stay focused and score.
How It Should Play Out:
Do I really need to say it? Stoke try to outmuscle and push around Arsenal. Arsenal keep the ball trying to open up Stoke. This game has a feel of the 1-0 win over Fulham, at the Cottage early in the season. Only difference – a different Manny was in goal. Bu seriously – this has draw written all over it. Thought I don’t think anyone wouldn’t disgaree with the 3 potential outcomes possible.
Players to Watch:
Arsenal: Theo Walcott. If he starts he needs to deliver. Yes, we may expect to much from the 20 year old given the promise he showed 4 years ago. And – those 3 goals against Croatia don’t happen – the kid has the talent – he needs to realize it. A game like this is where he should begin delivering on it.
Stoke: Rory Delap. Do I need to say why? The man has a gift. In a game that requires prowess with your foot – he delivers with his hands in some remarkable throw-ins. Noone may like it – but I guarantee every manager wishes they had someone who could do it.
Probable Starting XI:
Arsenal: Arshavin (knee) Diaby (knee) Gallas (calf) Merida (ankle) Van Persie (ankle) Djourou (knee) Gibbs (foot)
Stoke: Higginbottom (back) Etherington (knee)
Recent League Form:
Referee: Peter Walton
Assistant Referees: Stuart Burt & Michael Murphy
Fourth Official: Mike Jones
US: FSC 1230 EST
UK: Sky Sports 1 1730 GMT
Game Day Chat will be open: www.youaremyarsenal.com/gamedaychat