Here we are folks. We’ve arrived at one of the least palatable games of the season for Arsenal fans. Not because the opponents are better than us. Not because we are in the worst form in the world (although a few weeks ago that could have been the case), but because it’s Stoke and oddly, we have some kind of recent history with them.
I say oddly because quite frankly, it is, as we don’t really share anything in common with the Potters other than a mutual dislike of them. They hate us because we had the temerity to be angry at one of their thugs breaking one of our players legs, then claiming ignorance for a few seasons afterwards, even continuing to go heavy-handed (and sometimes illegally in the laws of the game – yet getting away with it) in subsequent seasons. I’m thinking a particularly nasty challenge on Greedybayor a few years back by Shawcross, or pretty much any time Charlie Adam has stepped on to the pitch to play us. I’d be shocked if the Scottish poisoned dwarf isn’t playing today, just because Hughes knows he’s good for a few nasty challenges that for some reason he often gets away with.
We’ve got a good record against Stoke at home, but when it comes to their gaff, we’re horrendous. I have no idea why. We’ve gone to other more difficult places than Stoke and still come away with victories, so quite why we’ve only managed one win since they came to the Premier League – and that was when they were down to ten men after the Ramsey/Shawcross incident – is a bit of a mystery to me. But Stoke have always seemed to have had our number at the Brittania, so quite why all the pundits are chalking this up as a comfortable win is a bit beyond me, if i’m honest with you.
There’s no doubt Stoke will be up for it. Their Orclings in the crowd will be baying for the usual blood and they’ll be revelling in derailing our attempt at houdini’ing our way in to the top four, so I’m expecting nothing other than a really difficult game for us. They will start fast, they will press us and with the players having already played two games since Stoke’s last match, there will be more tired legs on the Arsenal side than the Stoke one.
That’s why I’m expecting some rotation from Arsene today. I suspect he’ll keep Koscielny out as a precaution, which means Mustafi stays at the heart of the tam, whilst Monreal has been very good. Holding might be the one to step out in favour of Gabriel but if I had my choice, he’d still be in the team. He has hardly played 50 games this season and therefore is suffering from fatigue, so his young body should have recovered sufficiently for the visit to Mordor today. When i was 21 I used to play five-a-side four times a week, so Holding will be fine. I hope.
If those three remain at the back, it pretty much forces Gibbs and Bellerin in to the wing back positions. But again, Bellerin hasn’t played as much lately and Gibbs has hardly played all season, so that shouldn’t be too much of a problem from a fatigue perspective. It is quite obvious now that this formation has a reliance on the wing backs getting forward and tucking in when defending, so by having two guys who should be well rested enough to play with the intensity that is required of the game and the position, it’s a positive point for us going in to the game today.
Midfield should continue with Xhaka and Ramsey I think, because it’s ben working so well but not only that, because other variations haven’t really worked. Coquelin is budget and we all know it. Elneny gets across the pitch and is a bit more polished than the French midfielder, but he doesn’t really do what Xhaka or Ramsey does, so if either of those players start then we won’t get the same dynamism that we do from the Swiss/Welsh axis in our midfield. The hope is that the team, stadium and the fact he’s had plenty of time injured this season, galvanises Ramsey in to another good game. Chaka will certainly have his back if there’s a ruck or two, that’s for sure.
The three in front of them will most like involve Ozil and Alexis, but I wonder who will be up top. I have a feeling that Welbeck doesn’t start today. Arsene has been managing him well in terms of fitness since he returns and he’ll be mindful that three games in a week might be too much. So I think Giroud will make the starting line up. It’s the wrong call for me. Gird is clearly a fantastic impact player and having him on from the start will be meat and drink for Shawcross et al; a non-mobile striker in our formation doesn’t work, which is why i’d love to see Perez and Alexis rotating in that central position. But Perez is clearly somebody Arsene doesn’t fancy and whilst we can all argue at how Arsene’s foolish pride and stubbornness is depriving us of a good player who could help, there’s not really a lot we can do, so the only other option would be Theo or Iwobi with Alexis up top.
I just pray it isn’t Theo. His form has nose dived when he’s played recently and in a game where you need your players to front up, Walcott is exactly the type of player who goes totally AWOL in a game like this. He wouldn’t even be on the bus for an away trip to Stoke for me. But he will be. More fool Arsene.
Stoke’s threats are clear: Arnautovich is a powerful handful. Shaquiri has that bit of guile from their right hand side, whilst Berahino will be looking to re-establish his goalscoring touch from the front. We know about his pace so it will be important that he isn’t left isolated with any of out back three. If he is, I fear he could skin us a few times, so Petr Cech might need to continue his good form in between the sticks.
Nothing other than a win today keeps hope alive. A draw will almost certainly mean we’re out of the top four race. A defeat renders the final two games dead rubbers. A victory may at least give us hope until West Ham lose to Liverpool tomorrow, but at least it would give that hope and hopefully lay to rest the demon that is our form away to Stoke.
Come on you rip roaring gunners.