So here we are. That wonderful of rare things: a 3pm kick off.
You can have your Friday nights under the lights, shove your Saturday early evening kick-offs, take all the ‘Super Sunday’s’ you want. I’m a traditionalist at heart with some things and the 3pm kick offs are my not-so-guilty pleasure.It’s The Orcs today and I think we all know what is needed here – a decent slaying of a team in which we’ve always faired quite well in the past at home – it’s normally the away fixture that has us licking our wounds. It’s my first game at The Emirates this season, fully a month since the season started and I’m absolutely raring to go I have to say. It feels like I’ve been really suffocated of my football fix over the last few weeks, managing to only see our lads perform away at Wembley and Newcastle, but I’ve really wanted to get back to home comforts by heading over to the Islington Area, so I’m rather excited about today.
When you look at our overall performances so far this season, it’d be tough to articulate why I should be so excited though, because we’re not exactly ripping up trees. We’ve faced a stuttering start and have hardly looked convincing, but gosh-darn-it, you try and get through a whole month without travelling to your preferred cathedral of choice, when you’re as devout as I am.
Perhaps it’s a good time to play Stoke. Perhaps not. Ryan’s been Shawcrocked and the Arsenal kit man is happy he doesn’t have to order in an extra supply of shinnies, due to the notable absence of Charlie Adam through suspension. Hughes has also admitted there are doubts over Diouf and Johnson, whilst Bojan is still recovering from his ACL and will most likely start off on the comfy leather bucket seats in the dugout. Stoke are yet to win in the league and don’t tend to pick up points against us.
So if you read my stuff regularly, you’ll know I’m really rather apprehensive about the game, because when too many variables appear in your favour something usually comes along to kick you in the knickers.
We’re also not facing the Stoke of seasons past. Under Hughes they have amassed quite some talent in their ranks. I don’t know what kind of hallucinogenic Shaqiri was fed to convince him that Staffordshire was only a stones throw from the M25, but it worked, so along with Arnauativic and Affelay Stoke have quite a lot of ball players. Thankfully they’ll be missing Affelay through suspension too.
The days of clobbermesiters like Huth and Crouch appear to be dwindling and perhaps the war that has raged in The Potteries is being won by the race of men, with even perennial pantomime villain Shawcross not helping to perpetuate the narrative of ‘Good versus Evil’ that we’ve liked to maintain since they entered the Premier League.
Stoke will look to use their tricky and quick players to catch us cold on the counter and so we’ll need to keep an eye on overloading our attacks too much. No wandering for you, Big Per.
To beat this Stoke team we have to take advantage of their weaknesses at full back. Pieters and Johnson (if he plays) are decent, but if Alexis and a tricky wide man like Chamberlain play on the flanks, I’d fancy us to get chances in behind. If that happens, we need to make sure there are enough bodies in the box for the players to find. In an ideal world that would be Ramsey as well as others, but with Arsène’s penchant for playing the Welshman wide right, I don’t think we’d see both The Ox or Rambo in the same team today. I do worry that both Alexis and Ramsey may create a bit too much compressed space in front of the Stoke box – as both players like to drift inside – but if Stoke are to play a more expansive style of football, perhaps they will get too much space.
One thing Arsène has shown already with the Newcastle game, is that he’s not afraid to switch his team around based on who he thinks can unlock a team, so perhaps we are in for a surprise or two In terms of who starts.
I suspect the back four will remain in fact from the first game of the season with the return of Koscienly and Mertesacker. So too, I think, will be the case of Coquelin and Cazorla. There’s an outside bet that Arsène will look to give Arteta a run out instead of Coquelin if he thinks Stoke might sit and hold for a point, which I certainly wouldn’t have a problem with, given Arteta’s clear technical superiority in possession over Le Coq. However if, as we expect, Stoke will offer more than they’ve ever offered before going forward, Arsène might still feel he needs that destroyer in the middle of the park.
Sitting in front of them is most likely to be Özil returning from injury at St James’ Park and I don’t think we’ll see Alexis miss out. That leaves two places for one of Theo, Giroud, the Ox or Ramsey. There are others – we know that – but it is those four who will most likely. I suspect that Arsène is thinking in pairs and if Giroud plays then so will Ramsey. I don’t really know why I have that thought process, because the Ox and Theo both have pace to burn compared to the other two, so you’d have thought that it might be tempting to play Giroud and Walcott/The Ox out wide right. Perhaps the thinking is that Ramsey and Alexis moving inside all the time means they’re closer to Giroud for him to play his little flicks and close touch knocks to fellow teammates. There’s a logic to that but I do think we should be experimenting with a bit more pace. I don’t think playing Theo up top with players who want the ball inside and close to feet is the right option, because Theo is somebody who makes runs in behind. He’d rather have a team of Özil’s supplying him than Ramsey, which is why we probably haven’t seen so much of those two together.
All this is to say that I’m as stumped as the next Gooner when it comes to working out our playing style this afternoon. I just hope that we get it right. We need to start building some proper momentum now and we can’t afford the profligacy up top to continue to be a ‘thing’. The only way we do that is by winning. Heck, today, I won’t even think about winning by a decent margin. Let’s just take an uncomfortable 1-0 at this stage and start to build that confidence in the team.
Wherever you are, sing up for The Arsenal.