Trip to the Potteries?
Or do we keep them on the bench, just in case?
They say the football is better up there these days. We shall see. Are we traveling to the home of ‘you’re just time-wasting with those broken bones’ or has the Britannia really become the Nou Camp of the Midlands? If this is the Nou Britannia, maybe the closed corners will keep the wind down…
In truth, manager Mark Hughes should be proud of the way his team have recovered after a woeful start to this campaign. This is not the same Stoke outfit we beat 2-nil back in September when they were in the relegation zone. Since that time only Arsenal and Leicester City have accumulated more points. Home wins vs both Manchester Clubs and Chelsea find the Potters sitting 7th place and plenty confident.
Arsenal were in a difficult moment ourselves going into the reverse fixture. Gooners were irate that we had elected to avoid the overpriced transfer market at the close of the summer window while news of longer term injuries to the likes of Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky were beginning to leak out. As such, we have to be grateful that Hughes was only just getting his new look group going. It was the first match of the new season where we appeared dominant even if we were also wasteful. On 30 minutes a sliding tackle by Francis Coquelin led to 50 yard pass from Mesut Ozil which hit Theo Walcott in stride. He beat the keeper to stake us to a lead which we defended well until Olivier Giroud doubled the advantage late on.
Stoke will want to forget that one and remember, instead, this fixture from last season, the first half in particular. In those 45 minutes they scored three goals, overwhelming our very young and makeshift back four which featured Hector Bellerin and Callum Chambers alongside Per Mertesacker and Kieran Gibbs. Damien Martinez was between the posts that day. We almost came back in the 2nd half but ended up a goal short.
It wasn’t our first struggle at the Britannia. Video footage of some of the traveling support on a train platform abusing Manager Arsene Wenger and giving some interesting advice to very late substitute Joel Campbell may be the most lasting images of that defeat. We also have the Aaron Ramsey injury way back in 2010, the only match we’ve actually won at the Britannia since Stoke rejoined the top division. Neither set of images bear a 2nd look, in my opinion.
So, into the cauldron we go. Will Stoke actually try to play football against us or will they revert to their uglier side?
Hughes actually has some thinking to do on this front as he’ll be missing Xerdan Shaqiri, Stoke’s record signing and most creative force. No, the former Bayern Munich and Internazionale man is not off representing the Lollipop Guild. Instead, he is some days short after a hamstring injury suffered against Liverpool ten days ago. Geoff Cameron, the big American wingback who suffered a similar injury, however, might be available.
In attack Hughes still has choices. Does he go with technical continental types like Marko Arnautovich, Bojan Krkic, Ibrahim Affellay and Jose Luis Mato Sanmartin (known by most as “Joselu”) or hardworking British stalwarts such as Jon Walters, Charlie Adam, Glenn Whelan or Peter Crouch? Maybe a mix? At the back, it will be more traditional. Jack Butland, the young English goalkeeper plays behind a back four likely to include Glen Johnson, Erik Pieters, Phillip Wolfscheid and the guy who at least shed a few tears when he destroyed Aaron Ramsey’s leg: Ryan Shawcross.
Ramsey got past that brutal double leg break and actually got one of the 2nd half goals in last season’s trip. He’ll again be a pivotal figure after a goal and an assist Wednesday at Liverpool, though many Gooners would prefer he focus on his defensive duties as much as his scoring. You’ll know when he’s on the ball as the Stoke faithful still boo him lustily for having the gall to put his leg where Shawcross might shatter it.
The bigger question is who will work with Rambo at the rear of our midfield.
Veteran Mathieu Flamini could get the call but so too could Captain Mikel Arteta or brand new signing Mohamed Elneny. It would be some introduction to English football to start a match at the Britannia but his teammates have already expressed admiration for the Egyptian after just a few training sessions.
Front man Olivier Giroud has called Elneny a “complete player.” The big man should know as surely Elneny must be charged with matching up with him in top of the box positions in training. It could be just such challenges at London Colney which sharpened Giroud for his turn and fire 2nd goal at Anfield which had pundits invoking the name of this website. As gorgeous as that one was, Ollie will also be ruing the sitter he missed earlier.
That one was crossed in from Theo Walcott who also has become a much debated figure in the team. Some wonder if Theo should be the main man up top or if he should be benched in favor of Alexis Sanchez who just might be finally recovered from the hamstring injury he suffered at the end of November. Another player who could make way for Alexis is Joel Campbell. That would seem harsh on the Costa Rican who has been such a huge factor in Arsenal not merely surviving–but actually thriving–during the injury crisis so many thought would see the team tumbling from the top of the league table. In fact, we actually only hit the top spot after Alexis, Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin went down. Campbell’s contribution has been a key element but it’s been a real team effort and the squad has pulled together well. As new bodies are brought in, integrating them into the broader effort–while still getting the needed results–will be the manager’s toughest task.
How does he proceed after the tough match at Anfield? My hunch is that Wenger will go for an unchanged squad but perhaps be quicker to make changes depending on the scoreline.
Subs: Macey, Gabriel, Gibbs, Arteta, Elneny, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alexis
The objective, I think, would be to control the game a bit more than we did at Anfield and, ideally, take the Stoke crowd out of the match in the early going. It seems a tall order to ask Elneny to be such a central figure in doing just that from the get-go, but maybe he’s shown enough in training to create the trust needed for such a high stakes debut. Having let the full points slip against Liverpool, taking them at Stoke would be a real boost for our title aspirations.
Alexis is a tricky one as well. He didn’t look ready on opening day vs West Ham United but still made the bench and got thrown on when we went behind. Although he was ineffective in rescuing a result that day, he was able to start and contribute a week later at Crystal Palace. It’s very hard to say anything definitive about his true level of fitness. He could be fully rested and ready to play the full 90 minutes or Wenger may just be playing mind games with Hughes, knowing how much he rates those former Barcelona players.
What do you think? Go on, give us your ideas… And, of course, go on you Gunners!!!