Finally, after what seems like an extraordinary amount of time passing – Arsenal return to action this weekend.
We have had the tumultuous transfer window, and been left the scraps of international football to gnaw on whilst we waited for the Premiership to once more kick into gear. It was only four games into the season before the infernal international break gave us a hiatus from domestic football that wasn’t entirely welcome, but from here on in, the games come thick and fast.
September sees Arsenal play six games in the Premiership, the Champions League and the Capital One Cup ( a wonderful visit to White Hart Lane to once more lock horns with our neighbours who lurk in the shadows ), but first up is a tricky match versus Stoke City.
The Potters have regularly been a stumbling block for the Gunners’ aspirations in recent seasons, but not at The Emirates, with Arsene Wenger’s side winning the last seven at home. In fact, Stoke haven’t yet registered a win against Arsenal in the Premier League era at Highbury or The Emirates stadium. The story is entirely different at The Brittania however, with Arsenal failing to win there since 2010 and last season Stoke chalking up a 3-2 victory.
With this match at the home of Arsenal then, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a home banker, but Stoke have the know how to beat the Gunners and have transformed the image they had under Tony Pulis. With some Spanish imports and the recruitment of Mark Hughes as manager, Stoke now play a far more aesthetically pleasing form of football which can trouble any side.
Arsenal have had a tepid start to the season, with a loss on the opening day of the season to West Ham and a tense, unconvincing win against Newcastle sandwiching another tight victory against an impressive Crystal Palace and an exciting but goalless draw against Liverpool. The main gripe that Gooners have is that despite Wenger and the player’s claims that they would hit the ground running and learn from their disastrous start last season, the team have failed to kick into top gear at any time thus far this season.
Chances have not been liberally sprinkled in Arsenal’s games and they have been more reliant on a facet of their game that many thought they didn’t possess in spades – grit. This is evidenced by midfield general Francis Coquelin being awarded Arsenal’s Player of the Month for August. His prowling and cleaning up in front of the defence have saved many points already this season and has left fans hoping his temper doesn’t lead into a suspension.
Arsenal have Danny Welbeck out long term and have also suffered disappointment in the news that Jack Wilshere – injured from pre-season with a hairline fracture – will not feature in the squad for this weekend. One piece of good news is that Per Mertesacker returns to training after illness but it remains to be seen if Arsene opts to stay with Gabriel partnering Koscielny as he did so effectively Vs Newcastle. Gabriel also marshalled an error-strewn Chambers in the Liverpool stalemate and would be justifiably irked if Mertesacker slotted in to the defence instantly, but Per has the respect of the squad and normally wears the armband on the pitch. Add to this Wenger’s preference for Mertesacker’s calming influence at the back and it could go either way. Koscielny, who recently turned 30yrs old, has had no adverse effects in training or on international duty and will play.
Regarding the international duties that numerous players have returned from – surprisingly, the normally injury-jinxed Arsenal players have come back to their club completely unscathed. Unfortunately, this is offset by the news that fans favourite Tomas Rosicky has undergone a similar operation that Welbeck has had, which in turn means a similar lay-off for the Czech playmaker.
Olivier Giroud may not have picked up an injury whilst playing for Les Bleus, but he was booed by his own fans as he drew a blank in front of goal. Confidence is of the utmost importance for a striker and this may have an effect on the finely coiffured Gaul, but he should play. Whether Wenger decides to opt for the speedy Walcott up front in the sole striking slot is not yet clear, but it is an option that he has utilised already this term.
Stoke had a number of players away on European Qualifying calls, but weren’t so lucky with injuries. Marko Arnautovic helped his country Austria to clinch qualification but had to play through injury. Since his return, Mark Hughes claims he hasn’t been able to train so he will decide on Friday if he can take part against Arsenal. Biram Diouf and Glenn Whelan will also face fitness tests if they are to play any part in the game.
This match is amped up considerably by the recent bad blood between the fans. This started when Aaron Ramsey suffered a double leg break from a Ryan Shawcross challenge. Fans took umbrage from each others response and the game is played in derby conditions. This will be no different.
The biggest indicator is that Arsenal have won the last seven at home Vs the Potters, although West Ham winning at Anfield for the first time in over 50 years two weeks ago shows that traditions are there to be broken. The Gunners will need not only the grit they have shown in recent games to grab all three points. They will need to rediscover the finesse and exquisite passing that is their forte if they want the win. Stoke pose an altogether different threat than they did a couple of seasons ago.
Hopefully this will lead to an open game with plenty of action, but Mark Hughes isn’t averse to digging a trench and launching counter attacks. Seeing as they have an awful away record, Stoke may abandon their recent transformation and go back to more familiar tactics which have borne fruit in previous games.
Prediction? I’d go for a 3-1 win, and Arsenal to make it eight unbeaten at home against Stoke.