Focus: Why Arsenal's natural game could be more effective against Stoke than usual
Arsenal’s laboured beginning to 2015/16 has followed a familiar path. Arsene Wenger’s obsession with narrow attacking lines and intricate build-up play has led to just one goal in four matches (plus two own goals), as opposition teams familiar with the Frenchman’s stubborn consistency nullify the threat.
However, a Steven N’Zonzi-less Stoke City have struggled in central midfield so far this season, and – like a stopped clock – Arsenal’s inverted wingers and congested midfield could, for once, be the correct strategy to defeat Mark Hughes’ side. 33% of Arsenal attacks come through the middle (up slightly from 32% last season), as delicate forwards flit infield from wide positions and overload the centre of the pitch. This trend was most problematic in the 1-0 victory over Newcastle, when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alexis Sanchez consistently cut inside and ran directly into the tight throng of Newcastle defenders.
England suffered a similar problem against Switzerland, but where Roy Hodgson resolved this issue by instructing substitute Harry Kane to hug the left touchline and stretch the opposition backline (leading to two goals from that side), Wenger rarely makes this switch and seems to be exacerbating the issue. A lack of penetrative, quick-tempo football is captured in the statistics: last season Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanchez averaged 3.6 and 3.3 dribbles per game, but this has dropped to 3.0 and 2.0 in 2015/16. Meanwhile, their obsessive attempts to thread a pinpoint pass through tight defensive shells has deepened, with Mesut Ozil and Sanchez both averaging 4 key passes this term, up from 3.1 and 2.3 in 2014/15.
However, this consistent tactical strategy is likely to yield results against Stoke, who have conceded three times this season due to a failure to apply pressure on the edge of the box. Against Liverpool, Philippe Coutinho scored after easily turning Steve Sidwell and galloping into a huge pocket of space; Norwich flicked a simple pass through from the edge of the box to equalise in their third match; and West Brom scored the winning goal after Callum McManaman was given time to turn and cross from a similar position.
The organisational skills of composed midfielder N’Zonzi are clearly being missed. He was Stoke’s most frequent midfield tackler last season (1.9 per match) and helped control the defence with his calm distribution (56.6 passes per match, 85% completion). Stoke must adapt to life without their leader quickly, and show greater defensive resolve in the heart of midfield. Against the tirelessly narrow interplay of Arsenal, Potters fans may be in for a more one-sided fixture than they have become used to in recent years.