Attention returns to the thing that matters, football. Not the sideshow of a transfer window but an actual match. The visit of Stoke City to The Emirates following on from the home draw against Liverpool in midweek offers an early opportunity to implement the defensive improvements that have been worked on since that match. I mean, they have been worked on, haven’t they?
The reverse fixture at the start of the season encapsulated the early change in Arsenal, defensive change diminishing the attacking prowess. There was a balance between the two which we saw briefly as we swung past on the way to attacking obliteration. Events this season have unfurled with the only concern about the forward line is that it seems to be light in number, one more striker would offer options from the bench and in the event of injury, cover. That view was shared by the manager in the transfer window in his ultimately doomed pursuit of David Villa.
To put this afternoon’s match in perspective, Arsenal have scored more goals at home this season than the total goals in Stoke’s twelve away matches in this season’s Premier League. The home defence has made a virtue out of conceding first, the visitors attack is averaging less than a goal a game on its travels. This is an afternoon when surely Arsenal will get that part of the game right, isn’t it? And this is a fixture which favours Arsenal, some thirty years have passed since Lee Chapman scored the only goal to return maximum points to The Potteries. Indeed, Stoke will need to buck history, having only scored once in their five February trips to this part of North London.
Continuing that record might involve the debut of Nacho Monreal this afternoon, Arsène noting that the Spaniard would be ‘available’. It’s helluva welcome to English football. Despite attempts to become less agricultural, Tony Pullis knows his men have thrived in the physical aspect of their encounters with Arsenal since returning to the Premier League. That and in the away games, putting men behind the ball. According to the reports which accompanied his signing, Monreal is “positionally astute” and good in the air, all of which appear to be the required criteria for a left back this afternoon. It was amusing to read the wide range of analysis over his signature, ranging from this morning’s assessment that he has been bought to replace Kieran Gibbs which let’s face it is some improvement on the view that his arrival was as back-up to Andre Santos. I know the Brazilian needs some confidence boosting but that is stretching a point.
The midfield battle will be fought at 20,000 feet with air traffic control acting as the de facto referee. It will be a battle for the Arsenal players, one which the likes of Wilshere will undoubtedly enjoy. Mikel Arteta is back in training but I am not sure he will start. The physical element of the game makes it likely to me that Abou Diaby will be in the starting line-up. Whether that will be at the expense of Aaron Ramsey or vindicating suggestions that Santi Cazorla is open to guess. I guess that Monreal’s inclusion may influence that decision, Arteta and Cazorla might give more linguistic comfort to the debutant despite learning English since last Summer. However, that cannot be a key factor in team selection beyond the defence. Thomas Vermaelen is the doubt, suffering problems with his ankle according to the manager. In the event that he does not recover, Laurent Koscielny will no doubt deputise.
The line-up I would expect at kick-off is:
Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen (Koscielny), Monreal; Diaby, Cazorla, Wilshere; Walcott, Giroud, Podolski
This is the first of four home games this month although only two of them are in the Premier League. Yet like the visits of Blackburn and Aston Villa, victory is expected. Lukas Podolski spoke of the need to stop conceding goals first, in essence putting the team on the backfoot from early on. Whilst recovery is an admirable attribute for a team to have when it is required with alarming regularity, the cause is an ingrained habit, a sign that lessons are not being learned. You sense that this is a squad which does not react to positives out of games immediately, they need several matches to believe that a pattern has emerged. The converse though is not true so this month offers the opportunity to build the habit of clean sheets, starting today against a team which has won one of its last 21 away Premier League matches. That’s one in more than a season’s worth of games. Surely this is an opportunity too good to miss?
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.