Stoke City represent somewhat of an unassailable wall to many teams. Arsenal are an opponent who have struggled against a particularly rugged Tony Pulis side since their rise to the Premier League in 2008. Stoke have beaten Arsenal twice in the last three games at the Britannia, but never at home in two appearances.
Image courtesy of Ronnie MacDonald. Under Creative Commons Licence.
The contrast in styles could not be greater, and my sensibilities are in principle much against the Stoke method. On the other hand arrogance is a deeply unattractive trait, and Pulis deserves credit for his very efficient work with Stoke no matter what the feelings you have over his style.
In reality survival in the Premier League boils down to money, and for clubs such as Stoke City, that resource is at a premium. Not only that but it is permanently limited by the fact that Stoke itself is a smaller club with limited ability to bring in large turnovers, or increase their fanbase drastically.
When resources are tight survival in the Premier League rests on a fine line. The most effective approach for these types of clubs has been developed by managers such as the recently sacked Sam Allardyce, and Pulis has his own twist. Whilst these two managers score very low on attractiveness, for economic efficiency they have some of the lowest cost per point ratios in Premier League history. Paul Tomkins book Pay as You Play makes that clear.
The Stoke City side is composed of well built, tall players, who can physically outmuscle other sides. This is a formula well-proven against Wenger, and although it can be taken too far, as with the late Shawcross tackle on Ramsey, Arsenal find life difficult against Stoke’s physical approach. Shawcross is starting his first game against the Gunners since that incident, and is unlikely to get a favourable reception.
For Stoke Rory Delap’s long throws are a particularly loathed and unique attacking innovation, whilst Ricardo Fuller will always give defenders something to worry about in the box.
Fuller scored the first goal in January’s Fourth Round FA Cup tie from a Delap long throw after just 70 seconds:
This was almost a carbon copy of the goal from the previous season at the Britannia, where Kolo Toure struggled, and Arsenal lost 2-1:
The key to defending these is to attack the ball in the box. Too often defenders are almost frozen scared when they see one of Rory’s bullets flying at them. The other goals Stoke have scored against Arsenal have been counter-attacks against an exposed defence.
However, Arsenal can take comfort in the fact that the majority of problems come at the Britannia Stadium; Arsenal dispatched Stoke 2-0 at the Emirates last season, and 4-1 there in a dead rubber end of season tie in 08-09. Stoke City haven’t won at Arsenal in any of their last five attempts, the last coming in August 1981.
This suggests that Wenger’s side should be too strong for a team who have lost 63% of their away games this season, and have only two points from their last three matches. Delap’s long ones don’t seem to have an effect here.
In the last match in February Arsenal avenged their FA Cup defeat by winning 3-1 at the Britannia in the league, equalising with a brilliant Bendtner header, but only taking the lead in the 90th minute, after the awful Ramsey leg break spurred the team on very late in the game to claim a Fabregas inspired win.
What is crucial is for the centre-backs to be more ready to deal with more aerial threats, and the physicality of the Stoke forward line. The crucial part is not to concede the first goal – Arsenal are always left exposed at the back when they push for a goal, as the balance in formation is not quite refined yet.
Expect Stoke to come and play a very compact game in North London, looking to break and hit Arsenal where they are weak. Their poor record away from home might belie a tendency to assume the win is in the bag, but with Arsenal’s erratic home form nothing is to be taken for granted, defeats to West Brom and Newcastle have made that crystal clear.
;Arsenal will be looking for a positive reaction to Monday’s disappointing defeat at Old Trafford, though Stoke will not give them an easy ride. Certainly players like Nasri and Arshavin will be expected to give a little more. Attacks down the flanks may provide some joy for Arsenal, if they can exploit what room they are given.
The sparks are already flying, somewhat damply between Pulis and Wenger over the amount of bookings Arsenal have received, which is more than Stoke this season, whilst the Arsenal team have just found out that another trip to Barcelona is in store for them in the New Year. Wenger’s old adage about mental strength may come in handy.