At the start of a big week in the Premier League–Tuesday we play Everton away before next Sunday’s showdown at Manchester City–getting off on the correct footing with a win vs Stoke seems essential.
Easier said than done. Stoke, after a miserable opening to the season which saw them in the relegation places, have climbed into the top half of the table with 18 points from their last 27 on offer. Most recently they’ve kept a pair of clean sheets and taken full points vs Burnley and at Watford. Surely Arsenal, in peak form ourselves after big wins at West Ham and Basel, presents a tougher challenge–but also a bigger scalp. Arsenal must take this fixture seriously, especially as Stoke will be fully rested while we have been playing every 3 or 4 days for several weeks in a row.
Luckily, Arsenal are showing good squad depth and were able to get a definitive 4-1 win in Switzerland despite making 6 changes from the squad that won at West Ham. My hunch is that we’ll revert to the same 11 that played in that last league match. Reports are that Hector Bellerin has recovered from an ankle injury but I wonder if he’s ready to slot straight into the starting line-up. Here’s my guess at the team sheet:
Subs: Ospina, Bellerin, Gibbs, Elneny, Ramsey, Perez, Giroud
Wenger could also mix things up in a completely different manner and, specifically, take a more adventurous approach by playing somebody like Aaron Ramsey (perhaps instead of Francis Coquelin) in the center of the pitch. Bellerin’s inclusion would also signal more attacking intent.
Perhaps it depends on trying to outguess Stoke Manager Mark Hughes. Will Hughes set up defensively in hopes of keeping a clean sheet or will he opt for a more expansive approach noting that Arsenal haven’t kept a clean sheet of our own since October? With attackers like Marko Arnautovic, Xherdan Shaqiri, Wilfried Bony, Bojan Krkic and Ibrahim Afellay, the continuing evolution of Stoke into a more attacking squad suggests that this could be a more open game than many who remember Stoke’s more rugby-like approach from the Tony Pulis era would guess. Afellay is injured for this one but so too are goal-keeper Jack Butland and team captain and Ramsey leg-breaker, Ryan Shawcross, so Hughes might not have full faith in his back line to keep a rampant Arsenal attack off the score-sheet. So, parked bus or end to end; what sort of match should we expect?
Regardless, Arsenal will have to put the recent lopsided victories behind them and also not look ahead to their upcoming travels. If our battles over the years with Stoke have proved anything, it’s not to look past this team nor expect that just turning up will be enough. It’s been tougher at the Britannia stadium but surely Stoke are not one to look past, even at home. Does the fact that we haven’t lost to Stoke at home since 1981 and have won all 8 home ties since Stoke was promoted to the Premier League mean that it will be business as usual or does it mean that our opponents are due?
As always, your thoughts are as good as mine, so have at it…