Monday, December 11, 2023

Stoke preview: tough but winnable

Right then, it’s an early start today as we play Stoke at the Brittania Stadium, kicking off at 1.30pm.

It is a game which brings an almost unique challenge. Stoke’s style is something we’ve found difficult to cope with in recent seasons, especially at their place, while there’s an enmity between the two managers, the clubs, and the fans in the wake of the Aaron Ramsey incident. And while Arsenal blogs and websites are expected to be biased – football fans don’t really do forgive and forget – it’s been rather pathetically whipped up this morning by some of the national press too.

Yet nothing should be a surprise in any way. We know how they play and that we’re going to face a tough, physical battle against a team that will test us in the air and from set pieces. We haven’t always had the greatest success in dealing with such threats but with Steve Bould on board you would hope that we’ve been working specifically to counter what they have to offer. Our Achilles heel of conceding to teams who have less of the ball might well be tested today against a side who had, percentage wise, less of the ball than any other team in the Premier League last season.

Arsene Wenger says:

At Stoke it is a question of being strong enough to dictate your style. If we manage to do that, I’ll enjoy it, if we do not manage to do that, I won’t enjoy it at all because then we will really suffer.

They have a specific style that is always difficult to face. They defend very well, and their football is based on efficiency and that always demands a great concentration level.

It will provide a real test for the new boys in particular but I don’t think they’ll be cowed in any way. They are professional footballers, they’ve experienced teams who play in a direct, physical manner before, and I would be tempted to start with all three of them today. Assuming Szczesny is fit I’d play Szczesny – Jenkinson – Mertesacker – Vermaelen – Gibbs – Arteta – Diaby – Cazorla – Podolski – Giroud – Walcott/Gervinho, with a slight leaning towards Theo.

It’ll be interesting to see if Stoke put a man on Cazorla but with Podolski down the left we’d have a direct outlet, someone who won’t care less about Stoke’s style of play and someone unlikely to be intimidated, while Giroud’s physical presence in the box will give their defence something to think about. In midfield the loss of Song, so to speak, means there’s more responsibility on Mikel Arteta and Abou Diaby to not only control the game but to win the ball back when Stoke have it. They should, however, provide a decent platform for our possession game.

And that’s the key. We know Stoke will work hard, we know they’ll get stuck in to try and deny us time on the ball we way we like it, but if we don’t rise to the inevitable bait and concentrate on our own game then I’m confident we have what it takes to win today. And while a draw, in regular circumstances, would be an acceptable result from this fixture, the 0-0 against Sunderland means these three points today are far more important. I don’t buy into any of the ‘crisis’ nonsense spouted in the wake of last weekend’s game but after that game, selling Song, and ‘failing’ to bring in Sahin it strikes me forgiveness and understanding would be in short supply if we didn’t do well today.

Whether that puts more pressure on our players we’ll have to wait and see. As much as anyone they’ll be aware that two points were dropped last week against a team we should have beaten, picking up three today against a team who everyone accepts provide a stern test would send us into the week ahead in good spirits and higher up the table, which is, of course, the most important thing of all. Wenger’s words about concentration are vital. Any lapses and we’ll be punished, but if we can avoid shooting ourselves in the foot I think we’ve got enough cause them real damage too. Fingers crossed.

In other news, Olivier Giroud talks to Amy Lawrence in today’s Observer, and how the sale of van Persie means there’s more pressure on him to perform and to score goals straight away. He doesn’t seem worried though, saying:

It works for me, because when you are a footballer you want to play. Inevitably, with Robin gone it will give me more playing time. People will expect a lot, and I really feel the desire to fulfil this expectation. It is better than if I was sitting on the bench.

Let’s hope he finds his feet quickly because we do need him to. Other more illustrious strikers have taken some time to get their goalscoring boots on after arriving at the club, but Giroud is, essentially, tasked with replacing a man who scored a record number of goals in the previous 18 months. He can’t dwell on that though because that’s not the benchmark for him. Wenger is looking for a more balanced approach to goalscoring, the responsibility will be shared throughout the team, but it’d be good to see him get off the mark today.

As always we’ve got full live blog coverage of the game today. It’s up to the second live commentary brought to you in association with Paddy Power. Check back later on for another post with all the details or you can bookmark the default live blog page and updates will appear automatically. We’ve improved the system this season as well, if you access it from your phone or other mobile device you’ll get a mobile friendly theme which is easy to follow when you’re supposed to be paying attention to your kids/family/church or other Sunday duties.

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And that’s really about that. I’m ignoring any and all transfer speculation in today’s blog. Next week is going to be frantic with the window closing on Friday so we’ll have plenty to occupy us in that regard. I suspect we’re going to be busy so that should keep people happy, but today is all about the football and taking three points back from Stoke.

Till tomorrow.

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