At home against the Potters we’ve always been able to conjure up some magic and soundly beat them, (see what I did there), whilst away from home we tend to lose. We’re at the Emirates for our Saturday lunchtime kick-off so I would normally be more confident going into the game, but given our recent goalscoring form at home I am a little worried. All of our meagre three goals in the league have been away, (two were own goals) but Stoke are a team that galvanises the home support because we hate them so much, so I hope we can put a few past them.
Going in our favour is the fact that Stoke are yet to win in the league this season and lost 0-1 to West Brom prior to the international break, however in their defence they were down to nine men before half time. (Unsurprisingly the last team to have two men sent off before half-time was – you guessed it – Stoke). They’ve also been struggling in front of goal, although the fact that we have too can’t be ignored. Also going in our favour are the suspensions to Afellay and Adam and the injury to fly-half, sorry, centre half Ryan Shawcross. Afellay in particular will be a big miss.
Mark Hughes has always known how to play us. I remember his Blackburn side playing some genuine anti-football in 2007 to get a 0-0 draw and Fabregas being in disbelief that he’d ever played for Barcelona. He knew then and he knows now, and this Stoke team don’t always need to play negatively to get a result. I’m still pained by memories of being 3-0 down at half time against them last year simply because they outplayed us.
Shaqiri and Bojan are quality players who can make a difference going forward, whilst Hughes has maintained the powerful spine of the team, (Shaquiri is no pushover, he looks more like a bodybuilder than a footballer). Ultimately we can expect a physical battle as usual, but these days Stoke have a lot of quality.
Stoke lined up against West Brom in a 4-2-3-1 formation similar to our own until they went down to nine. I’ll be surprised if they attempt the same at the Emirates, especially without their suspended players. You need wide forwards of real quality to make it work, and if Arnautovic comes in for Affelay they’ll struggle. Also Charlie Adam provides a lot of their attacking impetus when he plays due to his excellent range of passing, so without him distributing from deep will be a problem. For these reasons I expect Hughes to set his team up as 4-2-3-1 on paper but more as a 4-3-3 on the pitch in order to better control the midfield.
For our part Arsene doesn’t change his formation, he changes his personnel. He may opt for Theo up front in the knowledge that Stoke haven’t been coping well recently when faced with interchangeable forwards and intelligence runs into space. Rambo or the Ox on the right may also be an awkward decision, as while the Ox provides directness in attack Rambo is more likely to pick out a defence splitting pass for Theo or Alexis.
I said last week that I expect us to explode and show why we’re contenders. I think this may well be the game we do it. Stoke will be limited going forward, especially if we contain Shaqiri, and we’re likely to have long periods of dominance. If can we convert that dominance into goals we’ll hopefully have one of our players as top scorer rather than ‘own goal’.