The FourFourTwo Preview: Arsenal vs Stoke
Staffordshire steel meets London lightweights, now with added chilli.
- Arsenal 2-0 Hull (FAC)
- So’ton 2-0 Arsenal (Prem)
- West Ham 1-2 Arsenal (Prem)
- Arsenal 2-1 QPR (Prem)
- Liverpool 2-2 Arsenal (Prem)
- Stoke 3-1 Wrexham (FAC)
- Stoke 1-1 Man Utd (Prem)
- Stoke 2-0 WBA (Prem)
- Everton 0-1 Stoke (Prem)
- Stoke 0-2 Chelsea (Prem)
Wojciech Szczesny's dad probably wasn't thinking too hard about the possible impact on his own son when, at a fragile period of the season for Arsenal and with tensions high after a defeat against Southampton which left them sixth in the table and - worse still - behind Spurs, he labelled one of the Gunners' key defenders a 'rhinoceros'.
“Laurent Koscielny should immediately have run [back] to protect Wojciech, and Per Mertesacker should have stood in the goal," said Szczesny's father Maciej in an interview with Polish newspaper Przeglad Sportowy this week. "Unfortunately they did not do that and gave him zero support, and in that situation Mertesacker showed the agility of a rhinoceros."
Worse still for his son Wojciech's prospects of enamouring Arsene Wenger, after two costly mistakes in that 2-0 defeat at Southampton on New Year's Day that saw the Polish keeper dropped, Szczesny senior also had this to say. "I have heard Wojciech smokes sometimes but he’s not that stupid to smoke in the dressing room.”
By now, perhaps Arsenal fans are used to the idea that their players may enjoy a crafty fag every now and then. Szczesny isn't the first to be accused - Jack Wilshere has had his own puff problems - but Wenger was sufficiently dismayed by Szczesny's conduct at St Mary's to drop him for last weekend's FA Cup win over Hull.
And the general air of uncertainty about a defence which has conceded more goals this season than their weekend opponents Stoke will not be helped by Papa Szczesny's comments. Yet to feature in the Premier League this season, the fumes emerging from Arsenal's dressing room could well be to David Ospina's benefit.
Stoke are unbeaten in their trips to London this season, notably taking all three points at White Hart Lane in November, and the last time the Potters met the Gunners it ended in triumph for Mark Hughes' men. Arsenal's record in Staffordshire is dire - only one win in the 25 years since an FA Cup tie 1990. But while this may give supporters of a Stoke persuasion cause for optimism, the Potters' record in London may dampen the mood: they haven't picked up so much as a point in Arsenal's backyard since 1981.
Yet 33 points after 20 games is Arsenal's lowest league tally since 1994/95. That season the Gunners finished 12th. Rhinos, cigarettes and whatever else, it's time for Wenger's men to get serious.
Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Mathieu Flamini are back in training, with Ozil in line for a surprise return on Sunday, but Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta, Serge Gnabry and Abou Diaby are all out.
Stoke have issues in attack, where Mame Biram Diouf has flown off for Africa Cup of Nations duty and Bojan Krkic is struggling with hamstring woes. Peter Crouch will lead the line, and his eight goals against Arsenal is a career record against any opponent (along with Blackburn). Victor Moses, Peter Odemwingie and Steve Sidwell are all absent through injury.
Key battle: Per Mertesacker vs Peter Crouch
Given the criticism the German World Cup-winner has faced this season, all eyes will be on The Defence Pole, as Mertesacker was nicknamed in the Bundesliga, to keep his sheet clean and his hide out of trouble.
Against him: Crouch, whose scoring record against the Gunners - while not quite Didier Drogba-esque - is remarkable nonetheless. Crouch gave Manchester United a tough time of it in Stoke's last league outing, helping earn the Potters a 1-1 draw with an assist and very nearly winning the game with a header off the post. It's the battle of the beanpoles, AND IT'S LIVE.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Stoke 3-2 Arsenal (PL, Dec 14)
- Stoke 1-0 Arsenal (PL, Mar 14)
- Arsenal 3-1 Stoke (PL, Sep 13)
- Arsenal 1-0 Stoke (PL, Feb 13)
- Stoke 0-0 Arsenal (PL, Aug 12)
The enmity between Mark Hughes and Arsene Wenger is well-established: such is the mutual disdain that on some occasions they've even left the stadium without shaking hands. Deplorable.
Facts and figures
- Arsenal have fielded 12 different starting back four combinations in the Premier League this season.
- Mark Hughes has never won a Premier League game away at Arsenal as an opposition coach, losing all 7 visits (with 5 different clubs).
- Only West Ham (14) have scored more headed goals than Arsenal (7), but only Burnley (11) have conceded more headed goals than the Gunners (9).
More FFT Stats Zone facts
Arsenal's home run against the Potters continues. 2-1.
Back 2-1 at 15/2 with Bet365. Odds right at time of publication