“What we have learnt in the last two years, all of us, is that every single game is a battle where you need to be at your best if you want to win it.” – Arsene Wenger from his pre-match press conference.
With that it’s all you need to know about the effort that arsenal need to put forth this weekend versus a revitalized Stoke City.
Stoke may seem a little unrecognizable to everyone when they come in. They are no longer the purely “Neanderthal” team that played under Tony Pulis. They are playing more of an open style under new Boss Mark Hughes without abandoning any of the team’s core strengths.
Arsenal should expect a team up for the challenge of playing with them and playing them tightly as Mark Hughes will want them to. If Arsenal are going to maintain the momentum they’ve gained since the opening day debacle against Aston Villa, they will need to keep in mind Wenger’s comments and the opponent they playing. It will be a battle.
Stoke gave as good as they got against Manchester City last weekend. They were probably unlucky to actually not come away from the match with all 3 points. In watching the match they were better than their opponents for long swathes of the match. Arsenal will need to realize that this Stoke won’t look to exclusively “beat the pulp” out of Arsenal. They will look to play.
And on one level that may benefit Arsenal. Arsenal are at their fluid best when they face an opponent that wants to “play.” Where fits come in is when a team decides to not only park the bus but focus solely on harsh, over the top play.
Sure the Premier League is a rough league but the style of Tony Pulis’ Stoke was one of a bygone era and frankly Stoke were only playing to stay up and not playing to win. Now they clearly are playing to win and the Arsenal defense, which is often criticized for being porous will need to continue to prove that they are a defense, just as good as any of the teams that are often cited as being “best of the league.” (Funny thing is that this maligned defense was second in the league last year and Aston Villa aside averages letting in less than half a game in this early season.)
Arsenal and Arsene Wenger are talking about them being legitimate threats to the title race. If that’s so then that challenge has to come from the back and it also means they have to perform at home like they do on the road.
Arsenal’s 10th away win is an impressive run that extends back to their 2-0 win against Bayern Munich in March last year. It started an impressive run of 18 games with 15W 2D 1L. And while I always shrug at combining stats and records from the previous season, it’s hard to deny that it looks like the club have picked up exactly where they left off last season.
With the run of last season and the start to this season combined they are the most consistent team in the league. While we look at Wenger’s decision to run with a light squad with confusion; it seems it’s a calculated risk to preserve team unity and the continuity from last season. Without any major subtractions and minor additions (though Özil is hardly minor) the possibility of challenging for a title increases with every performance.
And a performance will be needed. If the squad do truly grasp the fact that every match is a battle then that mentality needs to continue and it needs to make home a fortress. You can’t mount a title run (whether you fall short or not) by being “okay” at home. You must be exceptional at home. The performance against Tottenham stands out as a perfect example. People want to cite the last 5 minutes or so as a team struggling to hold on.
While I try to keep a realistic, level head on things, the one thing I noticed is that Arsenal hardly ever seemed frantic in that closing minutes. Spurs had poured everything on to get that last minute point. Arsenal worked relentlessly with focus to keep the ball out of the net.
Why is this important? Because it’s that kind of focus that has continue throughout and has to be part of this match this weekend. Arsenal must focus on taking the match to Stoke and force them to realize while they may have “upped their game,” Arsenal are taking it to a whole different level.
The hope then becomes that a foundation is fortified and people start to realize this squad is for real. Sure it’s Stoke and by all accounts it should be an Arsenal win regardless of the ambitions or status of the club. But with all the focus on Chelsea foundering under Mourinho, United and City still trying to find their ways under their new managers, it’s a perfect time for Arsenal to continue to force everyone to accept that Arsenal are a team in the ascendancy.
Arsenal remind me of the fictitious version of the Cleveland Indians in the movie Major League. After years of futile performances and an owner threatening to move the club, the only thing the team realizes they can do is “Win the whole damn thing.” The fictitious then goes on to win the whole damn thing.
And while Arsenal were never as far down the ladder as those fictitious Indians, the mode prior to this season has been one of despair. Finally, it looks like the club are in the right direction. My overall prognosis is and will be they are still another striker short of making a full-fledged run but as Abraham Lincoln once said when asked about changing his position on an issue –
“I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.”
In other words if Arsenal continue their impressive run, then I hope to wiser on the “needs” issue then I was when I made the previous statement.
How the match should play out:
I fully expect a wide open game and Arsenal to look for their early goal again. In every match they’ve played this season they have scored first. And while they lost the plot against Aston Villa (with some help) they are a tough team to play against when the have a lead. Look for Arsenal to once again snatch an early lead and force the game wider than it should be. Getting Stoke to further commit to going forward, will help in creating more chances for Arsenal’s killer counter. Look for Stoke to play the open game we want but look for them to still press hard and try and limit the space Arsenal have for their passing game. Hughes likes to play, but he also isn’t adverse to sticking on into Arsenal. Look for both Özil and Wilshere and possibly Ramsey to likely have their ankles nipped at when ever the occasion arises. Still, I like the momentum and confidence we are playing with. While I always urge caution, still think the Arsenal are too much for a revamped Stoke.
Players to Watch:
Arsenal. Aaron Ramsey. Simply having the time of his life. Whereas he was criticized for every little mistake he made, he simply can’t put a foot wrong right now. Plus, how sweet would it be for him to get the goal that puts the game out of reach.
Stoke. Charlie Adam. Seems to be the fulcrum of Hughes’ new look Stoke.
Injuries and Suspensions:
Arsenal: Diaby (knee), Arteta ( thigh) Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee) Podolski (calf) Rosicky (thigh) Mertesacker (illness)
Stoke: Muniesa (groin)
Last Meeting (EPL):
Arsenal: Giroud 4
Stoke: Pennant 1, Adam 1, Shawcross 1
Arsenal: Özil 1, Giroud 1, Cazorla 1, Oxlade-Chmaberlain 1, Ramsey 1, Walcott 1
Stoke: Huth 1, Walters 1
Arsenal (home): 1
Stoke (away): .5
Arsenal (home): 1.5
Stoke (away) : .5
Referee: Dean (Matches: 2. R0 Y12)
Assistants: Collin, Beswick
Fourth Official: Mason
US: CNBC Sports Network: 8:30 AM
UK: Sky Sports 1: 13.30 GMT