Injuries are never far from the surface when you talk about Arsenal vs. Stoke City fixtures these days. Farmer Pulis, the architect of agricultural tactics, has much to answer for in that sense. He fanned the flames with a ‘they don’t like it up ’em’ attitude and the burning embers of that ethos still exist today. We talk about Arnautovic and Shawcross while Stoke-ites struggle with the basic concept of language. It’s that kind of relationship.
How we could have done with Sead Kolasinac back then. Wenger christened him “the strongest” player he’s worked with which is not much of an accolade when the competition is Igor Stepanovs, Jose Antonio Reyes and Robert Pires. Tough guys don’t feature much in our pantheon of the Wenger Years. The backdrop to this is the ‘celebration’ of Jese’s ACL injury resulting from Kolasinac’s challenge in a Champions League match.
And that celebration, along with the footballing navvies at other clubs, is at the heart of why the native footballers of these shores are so inept. The razzmatazz of the Premier League revolves around pace and power; skill and technique are a poor second as English clubs struggle to free themselves of the chains of a century or more of the professional game.
It’s why an English club is light years from winning the Champions League without a favourable draw to the final stages. This fixture used to typify the two extremes of the English game and to some extent it does. Meld the two sides attributes together and there’s a good continental team to be made. As it is now, Stoke are resolutely mid-table and we’re resolutely not buying anyone to bridge the gap to the top of the table.
There’s A Preview In Here Somewhere
We go into the game with the prospect of a full-strength(ish) back three. Per Mertesacker – whose Guardian interview is must-read – could play his first Premier League game since Adam was a boy in the Garden of Eden while Shkodran Mustafi will surely return.
The cup final was Mertesacker’s redemption song. Written off, he is determined isto prove everyone wrong, not that he feels the need to do so. However, we’ve reached the point where painful decisions are set to be made and I don’t think Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is going to like them if the BFG returns to the starting line-up. I don’t think he’s going to like it even if Mertesacker doesn’t return to the line-up.
The back three is the big decision for Arsène. I don’t think he’ll change the forwards nor the centre of midfield. The question is who plays alongside Rob Holding and Mustafi. Kolasinac is a powerhouse, hence Wenger’s comments about strength and there may be a temptation to keep him in the centre but I think it’s Nacho Monreal who will retain the left side of the trio until next week.
For the Bosnian, it’s time to unleash him as a left wing-back. Xherdan Shaqiri will be in his sights and the Swiss international is noted for his defensive hard work. There’s space to exploit and Kolasinac’s reputation as an attacking force is impressive. Or the YouTube reel of him in that role was impressive.
Which basically leaves Ox fighting Hector Bellerin for the right wing-back role. The young Spaniard’s copybook was blotted for many and where before there were qualms about leaving him out, few exist now. However, is that the right decision, particularly since his replacement is no more consistent?
Young Guns Go For It
Football is very much a ‘now’ sport and right now Ox is doing well but it’s taken time to get here on a consistent basis. Last week, Ox and Bellerin swapped wing-back roles with the Spaniard moving to the left. It worked; we won, that’s how we know it worked. However, do you want a specialist right back or a wide midfielder in that role?
Personally, I go with Bellerin when we’re at full strength or close to it. That’s a personal choice; Ox, in my view, is more naturally challenging Danny Welbeck for an attacking role. Shift Özil to the left and bring Ox in on the right. I like Welbeck’s effort but I’m not sold on his finishing; he’s never hit double figures in a Premier League season. Perhaps he will this time if he can avoid injury disrupting his campaign as it has done in recent years. I suspect, however, that he’s the one to make way for Alexis next weekend at Anfield.
It’s a tough choice for the manager this weekend. Last season’s crushing victory dispelled the notion that we can’t win at the Potteries and something similarly ruthless is required today. The XI I would start with is:
Cech; Holding, Mustafi, Monreal; Bellerin, Ramsey, Xhaka, Kolasinac; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Özil; Lacazette
The reality is Welbeck in for Ox; last week’s goal will have boosted his confidence but we have two specialist left-backs; no need for the Ox on the left experiment to continue. Square pegs, this week, don’t need to be forced into round holes.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.