Stoke away has time and again proven the undoing of Arsenal, with the Gunners having returned from the Britannia Stadium with nary a point to show for their efforts on three of the past four visits. Add to that the troubling statistic that Arsenal has not won a league game in which currently injured midfield stalwart Mikel Arteta has not played and this match is far from a gimme. All that said, let’s hypothesize that Arsenal can pull it out. Arsenal needs to leave the northern lands with a point or more, and players and fans alike really, really want the team to take all three on Saturday to maintain third in the league. (For U.S. viewers, the match airs on ESPN2 at 10am EST.)
So, Arteta’s out for the final three games, but Tomas Rosicky has bounced back from illness and will likely partner the unfairly criticized Aaron Ramsey in front of Alex Song. Abou Diaby does not even get a chance to test his ever-precarious fitness, as he’s gone viral and come down with some sort of bug himself. However, after having had to sit out the match against his home club, Yossi Benayoun is eligible again and back in the mix. This could prove hugely important, as the Israeli puts in the sort of workrate you wish for from every player. Diaby, due to his size, would possibly have gotten the nod (until hobbling off injured from trademark Stoke thuggery) ahead of Ramsey, but in his absence I’d expect Ramsey, Rosicky and Song, with Benayoun as a substitute late on.
As for the wide positions, Theo Walcott’s out and all hamstrung until season’s end, although there’s some talk of him returning for West Brom for the final match of the season on May 13. As a result, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain seems likely to swap in for Walcott, which could work well, since he’s a tough kid to muscle around. On the left, Gervinho would represent the most logical choice. Ramsey has not worked out on the left in previous test runs and is needed in the center of the pitch, regardless. (And it cannot be forgotten that Ramsey certainly remembers all too well Ryan Shawcross snapping his leg on this ground two years ago.)
For other line-up possibilities, the boss may opt for Benayoun on the left, but I do quite like the idea of advancing left back Andre Santos to an attacking wing position. He’s got an eye for goal and he has a natural inclination to go forward, and with Kieran Gibbs at left back with Santos as the left winger, things could be interesting. Ramsey does not seem to fit in the role, and Santos’ bulk could neutralize some of the physicality of the Stokesters. All that said, the natural fit would be Gervinho. Perhaps it’s too important a game to be tinkering with huge variances from the formula, though the Gibbs/Santos combo could be an idea for some future date.
Otherwise at back, aside from choice of left back, the team picks itself: Szczesny, Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen. Sagna consistently delivers, Koscielny has proven a defensive rock this season, Vermaelen offers solidity and goalscoring ability and Szczesny is a no-brainer. (Sorry, Lucasz.)
And what the hell, for striker, let’s gamble on Robin van Persie, the player and PFA Footballer of the Year who scores approximately 99% of our goals, 27 in the league thus far this season. Without Walcott, the main supply line for van Persie, and Arteta, the remaining players will need to figure out how to get service to van Persie—no small feat considering Stoke’s skill at the anti-possession game. Call it negative tactics if you wish, but at the end of the day Stoke are playing to their strengths, which is only sensible. If interested, check out Harry Pearson’s article in the Guardian about how Chelsea beat Barcelona by adopting Stoke’s brand of siege defense.
Stoke knows how to grind out results, especially at home. They’ve conceded an average of only one goal per game at Britannia Stadium this season. On home grounds, they’ve defeated Tottenham and Liverpool and held Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea. Conversely, they’ve been undone by some of the minnow teams, so perhaps the idea is to fight like minnows and emerge victorious. It worked for Sunderland, West Brom and QPR…
Smarting after the 3-0 loss to Newcastle last weekend, they’ll look to bounce back by hoofing long balls to their top-scoring height mutant Peter Crouch (9 league goals). Defender Andy Wilkinson misses out with a groin strain, while Jermaine Pennant, co-leader in assists, has recovered from virus and looks likely to start on the bench. So, tactically, expect long balls down the field to Crouch augmented by a plan to exploit Arsenal’s perennial undoing, the set piece. Corners to Crouch, deadballs to Crouch, Rory Delap Delap throw-ins to Crouch. Stoke has scored the highest proportion of goals from set-pieces in this season’s Premier League, for 63% of their goal tally.
Fortunately, according to Opta, Szczesny has nabbed 98.5 per cent of crosses he has come for this season, a better rate than any other Premier League goalie. But these are all numbers, averages over a season, and this is one 90-minute match of soccer. Suffice it to say, however, it’s important to shut down the wannabe basketball center and shut down the long-distance service to the big man.
And if the long-ball approach isn’t working for Stoke, Shawcross will undoubtedly aim to go berserker-style on ankles, legs or other available snappable body parts. He’s not that kind of player, of course, but sometimes you have to take one (off) for the team.
The Potters have won just one of their last seven games, with three draws. Let’s make that one in eight and do everything in our power to take all three points, stiff-arm the chasing pack and hang on to third.