Saturday, 6 December 2014

Arsenal's Premier League Trip To Stoke Previewed

Arsenal just can't stop winning and keeping clean sheets at the moment and they're a very good combination for any team. While they still might not be at their sparkling best they are definitely playing with more effort and confidence than they were only a few weeks ago. Winning breeds confidence for any team and so does defensive solidity and that's what we're seeing right now.

Southampton did what most teams do when they come to the Emirates on Wednesday night and set themselves up to defend and try to get something on the break or from a set piece. It didn't look like Arsenal would get the win but that man Alexis Sanchez was in the right place at the right time to put away Aaron Ramsey's cutback. It was still far from vintage Arsenal, but it was a far better performance than the one which saw them win 1-0 away to West Brom last Saturday. 

They face a trip to Stoke today and it's a ground where Arsenal have struggled in the past. Under Tony Pulis Stoke set themselves up to defend in depth and hit teams from long balls, set pieces and long throw ins. They also liked to get in their faces and prevent them from playing football and no team more so than Arsenal.

It worked for them quite often and they didn't particularly care how they stopped their opponents playing as Aaron Ramsey will testify to. The leg break he suffered up there in 2010 was horrifying and it's a mark of the class of Stoke that so many of their fans boo him to this day every time Arsenal play them. Their reasoning appears to be his unwillingness to accept an apology from the culprit, Ryan Shawcross, who cut through his leg like a knife through butter that day.

Shawcross may claim he didn't mean it and there's nothing to suggest he intentionally set out to cause such a severe injury, but the injury was a direct cause of an overly agressive and very badly timed challenge. I have no doubt Shawcross was determined to stop Ramsey getting past him by whatever means it took and the injury was a result of his recklessness. There's always the train of thought that the Arsenal players are so quick and nippy that they're asking for it really, but that defence has no basis in fact and reminds me too much of the defence the lowest forms of life use. 

Ramsey was lucky to come back and ever play again and he finally became the player all of his potential promised last season. This season hasn't been so easy for him as he has struggled for form in an Arsenal team who have been far from impressive all too often. I have no doubt the Stoke fans will have a go at him again and I would like nothing more than to see Ramsey score the winning goal late on to put them in their place (the pits of Mordor seems to be a popular opinion as to where they belong).

Stoke have changed their style quite a bit since the departure of Pulis, but Mark Hughes will have no problem sending his team out to put the boot in whenever they think they can get away with it. He has some willing participants in his team such as Shawcross and Charlie Adam and Arsenal will need a strong referee to cut it out early on. I won't be holding my breath on that count, but I still think Arsenal can play their way through and around Stoke and continue their winning ways.

In the last week Stoke have been unlucky to lose 2-1 away to both Liverpool and United and have saved their best performances for games against the league's better sides. Their ground was seen as a fortress in previous seasons, but this season they have done better away from home so far. They have only won two of their six home games and have only scored six goals in those games.

I expect Arsenal to be the ones doing all the attacking despite being the away team and for Stoke to look to hit them on the break or from set pieces. They have some good players who can cause Arsenal some real problems, but Arsenal have better players who can give Stoke a torrid afternoon. I'm hoping the momentum they're currently gathering will continue and the performances will continue to improve with it.

At least Arsenal don't have to worry about going to Galatasaray in midweek looking for a result as they have already sewn up their qualification for the last 16 in the Champions League. There's still an outside chance for Arsenal to win the group, but I fully expect to see quite a few changes to the side which will play against Stoke. There's isn't a phenomenal amount of change to the Arsenal team at the moment with injuries being the main reason for any change and I expect the same tomorrow.

There might be more rotation when the whole squad is available, but it would take the most optimistic of people to think Arsenal will put all of their continuing injury problems behind them and have a full squad to choose from. As it is Nacho Monreal won't be available today and Kieran Gibbs will come in at left back once he's OK to play. 

There will be a late decision made on Laurent Koscielny as he looks to play his third game in eight days after returning from injury. It's a far from ideal scenario with Koscielny as he got injured from being over played in the first place and it has to be hoped we aren't tempting fate with him. He's a very important player in the Arsenal team and they defend a lot better when he plays. If he's not up to the task it will mean Hector Bellerin will have to come in at right back with Calum Chambers switching to the centre of the defence, but hopefully that scenario won't play out.

Olivier Giroud didn't start against Southampton and there's a good chance he will play after he made such a good impression when he came off the bench. Who he will come in for is another matter, but I suspect it will be Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as he's usually the first player to miss out when changes are made. Arsene Wenger has been able to reintroduce Giroud into the team bit by bit as he has Danny Welbeck too and it should be to Giroud's advantage unlike the situation facing Koscielny.

I can't say I'm overly confident of Arsenal winning but I think they will do if they can put enough pressure on the Stoke defence. Stoke might not be doing too well at home so far, but they have only conceded seven goals in their six home games and it won't be easy to break them down. Time and again this season Alexis has been the man to make the difference for Arsenal and there's no reason to believe he won't win it for them again.

I have no doubt Stoke will have his card well and truly marked and will set out to stop him from the first minute to the last. I wouldn't be surprised to see them taking turns to foul him, but he's good enough to take what they hand out and pay them back in the best way possible. 

With the three teams directly above Arsenal not playing until Sunday and Monday there's a real chance for Arsenal to make progress up the table. A win would see them level on points with third placed Southampton although they are currently seven goals behind them on goal difference. If Arsenal can do their bit it might just makes things a little tougher for the teams ahead of them when they play. Ideally Arsenal will do just that with some style and Ramsey putting in a man of the match performance to put Stoke to the sword. I'll be happy once they win though and will gladly take a lucky late win as long as they can keep the momentum going.

That's it for today.

See you tomorrow.

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