Arsenal travel to Stoke knowing that nothing less than three points will suffice; it’s the same as every game at this time of the season. A fixture which has been troublesome in the past is seen as respite from the intensity of the current segment of the fixture list. Ghosts of the past echo every time the two sides meet, this morning the playlist is like today’s match; just for Kicks, here and in the right-hand sidebar.
The assumption is that Chelsea will ease to a comfortable victory at Craven Cottage and Arsenal need to keep pace at the top. Stoke have won one of their last ten Premier League matches, at home to Manchester United a month ago. In the same way Wimbledon revelled in bloodying the nose of the big clubs, Stoke are once again doing likewise. Having taken four points from the three games so far against top four teams and in a match where they have enjoyed relative success since returning to the top flight, I am sure that the hosts will fancy their chances of getting at least a point today.
But as Bacary Sagna points out in an interview on the official site, it is not about anyone other than Arsenal’s players. He, more than most in the side, knows the type of match today will be and how hard it has been for the players to impose their style on this fixture down the years. Yet that is what Arsenal must do to win. It’s what they have done in similar matches this season and what they must do once more if, as Sagna observes, the lessons of previous failures are to be learned.
Sagna is one solution to Wenger’s predicament over left back. Kieran Gibbs might pass a fitness test and render the question irrelevant. It’s a risk Arsène has to take even though he might be wary given the England international’s aborted return against Bayern. Talk earlier in the week centred around drafting Thomas Vermaelen into the starting line-up and it is an idea which has merit. The Belgian offers some aerial support but equally, his pace could be exposed by the hosts. Personally, I would switch Sagna to the left and bring Jenkinson as right back.
It is easy to stereotype Stoke as one-dimensional but that may be harsh. With Pulis’ departure, perhaps they wanted to be more ‘liked’ in the football community. Appointing Mark Hughes was not likely to improve that in this neck of the woods; his time with Blackeye Rovers hardly bodes well in that sense but it is easy to sneer at the style of play. If Stoke put the ball on the deck and pass it around, Arsenal will most likely devour them; it is about playing to their strengths and using their resources effectively. It is up to Wenger and his players to overcome this and frankly there is going to be little to surprise them; football has not been reinvented in The Potteries and it is always disappointing not to get a win here. In a season where the squad has defied critics, winning in some style might cut one more string of criticism.
No doubt Arsenal will prepare for a physical encounter and I expect that having made a virtue out of enjoying the ‘dirty work’, Mathieu Flamini will play centrally. The decision for the manager is whether he is accompanied by Wilshere or Arteta. That assumes Rosicky will join Özil and Cazorla in a triumverate supporting Giroud. Again that is not so clear-cut; today is one where Lukas Podolski’s uncomplaining work defensively might be more appreciated. It seems unlikely that the German will start given how he has been used so far this season. Personally, I think Wilshere will get the nod over Rosicky, allowing a more traditional midfield pairing centrally.
It leaves the line-up:
Szczesny; Sagna (Jenkinson), Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs (Sagna); Wilshere, Arteta, Flamini; Özil, Cazorla; Giroud
Wenger’s options are improving as the season reaches a crucial point with injured players such as Ramsey returning to training. It helps alleviate tiredness as did his decision to give the players two days rest this week. The intensity of the coming matches is compounded with the farcical staging of international friendlies as the Champions League knockout phase begins. I am sure the manager would have preferred to play in Munich next week ahead of the FA Cup Quarter-Final with Everton, having a free week ahead of the Premier League encounter with Spurs. They will be influential in the title race playing Chelsea and Arsenal in successive weeks. All the while, Manchester City are still a fortnight away from a League match; it is vital for the top two that they win their games to intensify pressure on the third-placed team to isolate them, to ensure that any slip on their part is punished. Starting with a win today.
Reports this morning suggest Wenger is not committing to his new deal because of jibes and concerns about whether his squad can win trophies again. It may have an element of truth but if as is suggested, the deal is to be announced on the day of his 1,000th match, it is hard to see how there is anything of a story. Designed to provoke a response from the club or Arsène, there will no doubt be silence about the future. And why not, why should he be rushed into a decision? There is some irony that what may be his most successful season for the best part of a decade could conceivably be the one where he misses out on Champions League football. It’s that tight at the top with United not entirely ruled out of a top five finish despite being distinctly average and preparing for failure by lining up lucrative friendlies to fill the gap of European nights.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.