Two teams desperate for some form with only one league victory between them in 2013. Arsenal will face a completely different challenge to the midweek draw with Liverpool, who pressed intelligently and counter attacked with purpose. They will also be short at left back, with Kieran Gibbs injured, Andre Santos seemingly departing and new signing Nachos Monreal unlikely to be thrown straight in, so Thomas Vermaelen may move across from centre back with Laurent Koscielny coming in. In contrast Stoke face another opponent with a contrasting style of play, but are unlikely to reuse the 3-5-2 system that was implemented against Wigan. Tony Pulis likes his team to be aggressive against the top sides, but their recent record against Arsenal suggests a defensive gameplan aimed at denying the home side space.
Stoke’s deep defence
Against the top teams Tony Pulis instructs his Stoke side to defend deep and close out the space between defence and midfield. With Stoke’s midfield lacking a natural holding player this usually involves a bank of five stationed ahead of a bank of four, with only the wide midfielders breaking forward in support of the lone forward. This Arsenal side lack the fluency of their predecessors, with three of their attacking players joining the club last summer, and therefore require space to fashion scoring chances. With Stoke looking to deny them that space it is little surprise that Tony Pulis’ side were able to secure a goalless draw in the reverse fixture earlier in the season.
Arsenal’s attacking roles have changed in recent years. A decade ago their wide midfielders in a 4-4-1-1 were intricate playmakers like Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg capable of finding space in crowded midfields. Years later following a move to a 4-3-3 system, these players became wide forwards like Samir Nasri, Alexander Hleb and Andrey Arshavin, all comfortable receiving the ball to feet when surrounded by opposing defenders. Today Arsene Wenger has far more direct attacking players in Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott, both preferring to receive the ball in space and run at defenders rather than having to evade them with their first touch. Of their current players only advanced playmaker Santi Cazorla, and Jack Wilshere when moving forward from midfield, are able to operate effectively in congested areas of the pitch.
It is for this reason that Arsenal have become so reliant upon counter attacking this season and why they have struggled against packed defences, evidenced by goalless draws against Stoke, Sunderland and Aston Villa. If Stoke are successful in denying space for Podolski and Walcott, much of the responsibility will rest on Cazorla and Wilshere to create chances.
Matthew Etherington and Jonathan Walters
With Peter Crouch likely to play as a lone forward and Stoke’s midfield expected to sit deep, wide midfielders Etherington and Walters will need to get forward to offer an attacking threat. Crouch’s hold up play focuses on first time knock downs and flicked headers from aerially balls, but without a team-mate in close proximity Arsenal’s defenders will be able to regain possession quickly. Stoke will need to offer an attacking threat to prevent Arsenal being able to lay siege to their defence. If Arsenal’s full backs are able to attack without fear and Wilshere can move forward from midfield Stoke’s defensive shell will be stretched.
But Stoke should also be confident of causing their opponents’ defence problems. Arsenal lack leadership at the back and can be vulnerable to crosses into the penalty box, not necessarily the initial ball in but where the ball can drop after a forward’s knock down or defensive clearance. Etherington is a fine crosser of the ball, Crouch is a constant threat in the air, and Walters is excellent at feeding off balls going loose in or around the penalty area. If Stoke can get this link-up working – Etherington crossing, Crouch jumping with defenders, Walters attacking the dropping ball – then they have every chance of grabbing a goal. The obvious threat to this is Arsenal’s strength on the counter attack, so any forays forward will have to be made without comprising defensive solidity.
Giroud offers Arsenal a different option to other forwards they have had in recent years, providing strength in the air combined with an ability to find space in the penalty area. The Frenchman is a natural goalscorer, and has settled into the side after a slow start to his Premier League career. With Podolski and Walcott likely to be crowded out, Giroud will be vital against Stoke to pounce on opportunities in the penalty box. In particular the striker is particularly adept at making runs in front of defenders to meet crosses, which will be especially important as he is unlikely to have success in the air against Stoke’s defensive pairing of Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth. Ultimately Stoke are likely to prevent Arsenal from making many clear goalscoring chances so they will need Giroud to capitalise on anything that comes his way.
The natural pattern of the game will be Arsenal dominating possession and attempting to find space in Stoke’s half, who in turn will look to get the ball upfield to Crouch whenever they secure the ball. If Stoke fail to adequately support Crouch from midfield then Arsenal will be able to commit more and more players to attacking positions and are likely to overwhelm Stoke. But Pulis should recognise that Arsenal are vulnerable, and a side in need of points will have to weigh up the benefits of looking to steal a goal against the gamble to play for a goalless draw. Arsenal’s style and motivation is clear; the pattern of this game will hinge on Pulis’ ambition.