Support act to the Manchester derby. Harsh but probably fair.
The Gunners are flying: second in the league and silencing doubters one result at a time. It’s too early to compare them to previous title winners, but recent performances are reminiscent of Arsenal a decade ago. The back four looks uncharacteristically solid, while their attackers are playing with freedom, guile and conviction.
- Marseille 1-2 Arsenal (CL)
- Sunderland 1-3 Arsenal (Prem)
- Arsenal 1-0 Spurs (Prem)
- Arsenal 2-0 Fenerbahce (CL)
- Fulham 1-3 Arsenal (Prem)
- Stoke 0-0 Man City (Prem)
- West Ham 0-1 Stoke (Prem)
- Stoke 3-1 Walsall (LC)
- Stoke 2-1 Palace (Prem)
- Liverpool 1-0 Stoke (Prem)
Aaron Ramsey is on a mission to prove there’s more to Wales than Gareth Bale; Olivier Giroud is playing the part of the handsome assassin; Theo Walcott is continuing to have a decisive influence. Oh, and they’ve got Mesut Ozil – the joint-highest assist maker in Europe over the last two years, tied with some fella called Messi. Any concerns Ozil might not settle immediately disappeared 11 minutes into his debut when he created the opener in a 3-1 win at Sunderland.
Coming off the back of an impressive 2-1 away in Marseille in the Champions League, Arsenal are at full power and would love to demolish their old adversaries Stoke, but Mark Hughes’ side will be no easy opponents. Aside from their opening day defeat to table-toppers Liverpool, the Potters have claimed two wins and a draw. That stalemate came against Man City – a game they should have won.
No one would criticise Hughes for reverting to the ‘How to beat Arsenal’ handbook, paying particular attention to the popular chapter ‘Park the bus’. It’s a system with a proven track record against Arsene Wenger’s side, who remain remorselessly loyal to their passing game. With a rejuvenated Kenwyne Jones equipped to bully any defence, Hughes may opt to deploy the Trinidadian as the focal point of a coiled counter-attack.
But under the tutelage of their new manager Stoke are more positive, set up to go out and win, rather than not lose. Armed with the technical abilities of Jermaine Pennant, Stephen Ireland and Marko Arnautovic, don’t be surprised to see the Potters fighting fire with fire.
Arsenal returned home from the midweek trip to France with no new casualties, but their treatment room remains chock-a-block with Santi Cazorla, Tom Rosicky, Yaya Sanogo, Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mikel Arteta and Abou Diaby all fighting for bed space. Despite being knocked out against Manchester City, courtesy of Alvaro Negredo’s knee, Stoke’s fearless German centre-back Robert Huth is fully conscious and ready to do battle with Giroud.
Player to watch: Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal)
Who is else but Rambo? The Welshman is racking up scoring numbers more akin to a clinical striker. In his ninth game this season, Wednesday’s winner against Marseille was his seventh goal – a tally he failed to reach in his previous 91 appearances. But he’s got better in all areas, according to Arsene Wenger. “Honestly, I didn't expect him to score so many goals. He's especially improved in his passing, his technical quality,” he said.
And that’s shown in his stats. Ramsey was Arsenal’s most prolific passer during their 3-1 win over Sunderland – finding a team-mate with 81 of his 88 attempts – an accuracy rate of 92%. His technical development has not marked a drop in his physicality. Ramsey made more tackles than any other player at the Stadium of Light – eight – with only one proving unsuccessful. It’s taken time for Ramsey to find his flow after Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross broke his leg in 2010. The 22-year-old has shown great mental strength to recover, shrug off criticism and come to the fore. Now, he’s flying and ready to exact revenge with finesse, rather than brawn.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Arsenal 1-0 Stoke (Prem, Feb 13)
- Stoke 0-0 Arsenal (Prem, Aug 12)
- Stoke 1-1 Arsenal (Prem, Apr 12)
- Arsenal 3-1 Stoke (Prem, Oct 11)
- Stoke 3-1 Arsenal (Prem, May 11)
Hughes is trying to drag Stoke out of the dark ages, from long ball merchants to pass masters. When a team is in transition they’re unpredictable. One week they nail their new game plan, the next they look disjointed. It’s the nature of the beast. Hughes needs to retain the strengths of the former regime - solid at the back, physical, hard-working and organised – while slowly introducing a more expansive style of play, focused on possession and not percentages. This is a balance Wenger has been trying to strike since 2005 – the last time Arsenal won a trophy. For too long the Gunners have played beautiful, without knowing how to win ugly. Current form suggests he is close to restoring that equilibrium.
Facts and figures
- The Gunners have won all five Premier League matches against Stoke City at Emirates Stadium.
- Peter Crouch has scored seven Premier League goals against Arsenal; only against Blackburn (8) has he been more prolific.
- Stoke will be the fifth team Mark Hughes has coached in an away game against Arsenal in the Premier League, but he has lost all six previous visits to north London to play the Gunners.
- Mathieu Flamini has been booked in both of his appearances for Arsenal in the Premier League this season.
- Arsenal have scored all eight of their 2013/14 Premier League goals from open play, whereas two of Stoke’s three goals have come from set-plays.
- Stoke have completed 79% of their passes in the Premier League this season; more than in any of the five Premier League seasons under Tony Pulis.
- The Potters have also averaged more passes per game this season (397) than in any of the previous five Premier League seasons under Pulis.
- Olivier Giroud is one of only nine players to score in his team’s opening four games of a Premier League season and the second Arsenal player after Jose Reyes in 2004/05.
- All four of Giroud’s goals this season have come before half-time and all before the 24th minute.
- Without Giroud’s goals this season Arsenal would still be seventh, only two points worse off than they are in reality.
Stoke have made positive strides under Hughes, but they’ve lost their last five games at the Emirates and with Arsenal in top form this should be a home win for the Gunners. 3-1 to Arsenal.