Britannia Stadium, Staffordshire
March 01, 2014; 15:00 BST
Arsenal FC will travel to the Britannia on Saturday afternoon knowing that every match from now on is a must win. Brilliant away form has been marred by recent dropped points against Liverpool and Southampton. Stoke are no walk in the park either, with Chelsea and Man United suffering defeats on this ground. But while Arsenal’s aspirations hover around the title, their Saturday opponents are sucked into the relegation battle. A resilient performance against Manchester City ended in defeat but the organization and discipline was visible.
Stoke are probably one of the toughest bottom half teams to beat in the league, with some strong defensive showings and very impressive home form, Arsenal will have to be at their best to take maximum points from this game and keep mounting the pressure back on Chelsea who continue to lead the pack.
Team news and tactics
Stoke City boss would be glad to have German defender Robert Huth back in contention after a lengthy layoff has seen him most of the season so far. However Huth played 45 minutes against Burnley in his comeback game and hopes to be atleast on the bench against Arsenal hoping to displace Wilson eventually. Other than that only Assaidi remains out with a knee injury.
The lineup is expected to be the same with N’zonzi missing out again and Hughes opting for former Tottenham man Palacios in midfield with Ireland and Adam. Arnautovic and Walters will play on the flanks and look to exploit Arsenal’s attacking fullbacks, counter-punching at the first opportunity. Arnautovic has been impressive in most of Stoke’s clashes against the big sides and his trickery and movement could be a cause for concern for Jenkinson.
Peter Crouch and Charlie Adam will have to apply themselves in the limited opportunities that arise. Adam has had a new lease of life in the past couple of months and would be looking to roam just outside the box looking for an open spaces. Walters on the right will be the primary crosser in the side and with Crouch as the only target in the box, Stoke will rely on the knock downs to create their chances.
Defensively Wilson and Shawcross need to avoid getting too tight to Giroud as it will let the Arsenal midfielders running behind them. Palacios will need to break play and with Wilshere, Ozil and Cazorla all operating from deep initially, the Honduran will hope for defensive support from Adam and Ireland to hassle the nitty Arsenal midfielders.
Expected starting line-up (4-5-1): Begovic (GK); Cameron, Wilson, Shawcross, Pieters; Walters, Palacios, Ireland, Adam, Arnautovic; Crouch
Arsene Wenger welcomed back Mesut Ozil and Thomas Vermaelen in his pre match press conference and that boosts the Arsenal attack which is now almost full strength in terms of fitness. Both first team left backs Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal are uncertain of making it to the side for Saturday and this might prompt Wenger to start either Sagna or Vermaelen on the left hand side of defence. Other than that Aaron Ramsey continues his stay on the sidelines while Abou Diaby and Theo Walcott remain long term absentees.
The good news for the Gunners is that Mesut Ozil got a much needed rest and returns fresh for this game. Olivier Giroud’s brilliant performance last week means Sanogo will have to be content with a spot on the bench. Lukas Podolski lasted 90 minutes for only the 2nd time in his Arsenal career and that could mean another start for the German international.
Arsene Wenger has rotated his team smartly and other than the mini-crisis at left back, he will look to make a couple of tweaks here and there. Chamberlain’s form means he will be knocking on the door right now and with Wilshere putting in a Man of the Match performance against Sunderland last week, Chambo’s only hope is a right wing spot where Cazorla started last weekend. With Ozil expected to start it will be no surprise if Wenger decides to opt for Ox on the right and Cazorla on the left, instead of Cazorla on the right and Podolski on the left. With Sagna starting on the left, the scales could just slightly tip in favour of the former, considering Cazorla’s limited defensive work.
Then there is also the trump card in the form of Rosicky who could come on and change the game if things are not working out. The Arsenal manager has some very diverse options at hand and it can only be a good thing at this stage of the season. Getting the team selection right from the go will thus be very important.
The tactics deployed by Wenger will be similar to any other away game with Flamini expected to get the nod over Arteta who seems to struggle against sides that get too in-your-face. There could be an urge to start both of them and rely on the front 4 to get the goals but Wilshere has shown positive signs in recent weeks and is unlikely to be dropped. Flamini provides more freedom to Wilshere by dropping deep himself and that will be vital in protecting the Gunners getting outnumbered on the counter. In attack Cazorla and Ozil will need to link up as often as possible and with Giroud dropping deep, Podolski/Chamberlain will get the platform to get in behind the Stoke defence.
Arsene Wenger will be aware of the crossing ability of the Stoke wingers and also the threat possessed by Crouch and thus one would expect the centrebacks to be vying for the second balls in and around the box. Adam’s shooting prowess needs no introduction and Flamini will need to make sure he doesn’t get an opportunity to lash at the ball.
Expected started line-up (4-2-3-1): Szczesny (GK); Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Jenkinson; Wilshere, Flamini; Podolski, Ozil, Cazorla; Giroud
- Olivier Giroud has opened the scoring in 7 games this season, more than any other player in the league.
- Arsenal have hit the target with 55.5% of their shots, the highest in the league.
- Peter Crouch has netted 7 times vs the Gunners, his second highest against a single opponent(blackburn-8).
- Stoke City have scored the least number of headed goals(2) in the league while Arsenal’s 10 is the second highest.
- Stoke have committed the most fouls and picked the most number of cards in the league this season.
Player to watch out for
Santi Cazorla (Arsenal)
Santi Cazorla is returning to form just at the right time for the Gunners and with Mesut Ozil struggling to find his rhythm and looking off-colour in recent weeks the onus will be on the Spaniard to create openings against a solid Stoke City unit at the Britannia. Cazorla has the unique ability to dribble with both feet and thus draw defenders out of position with the drop of a shoulder. Wenger can opt to start him on the right and attack Pieters who tends to get tight and thereby utilize the overlapping Jenkinson to create a 2-on-1 on the right hand side. Irrespective of where he starts, what remains certain is if Stoke give him time on the ball, the Spaniard will punish the Potters.
Stoke City 1-2 Arsenal
Stoke have been one of the few teams who have constantly been difficult to beat both home and away for the big teams and Arsenal won’t find it any easier this time round. The starting lineup will give insight on how the 2 managers are approaching the game and if Wenger goes with the attacking quatret of Giroud-Cazorla-Ozil-Podolski Stoke will find it extremely difficult to keep the Gunners in check. The game is expected to be very evenly matched and one can sense Giroud will need to convert the odd chance that will come his way, if Arsenal are to win this one. The quality in the Arsenal attack and on the bench tilts this clash in their favour and the away side should come up with the 3 points.