20 September 2013

Match Preview: Arsenal vs. Stoke City, Emirates Stadium, September 22, 2013

One Aaron Ramsey
There's only one Aaron Ramsey ... And he's ours.
(Photo Courtesy of Wonker)

I think that we’ve all had a certain disdain for Stoke. Their style of football, their fans’ outlook on the game, basically everything about them has inspired hatred. As an American fan of the Arsenal, if you chose the Arsenal for style of play or club culture, you must have hatred for Stoke as the club whose values are the polar opposite of your club. There was all of that then that tackle happened.

On February 27th 2010, Ryan Shawcross flew in recklessly on a challenge, colliding with Aaron Ramsey’s leg, breaking Ramsey’s tibia and fibula. That challenge represented our worst fears about Stoke. After all, Arsenal has been a much better footballing side than Stoke for some time. It was the over the top physicality that worried us. It was the threat of someone getting hurt. We had seen Eduardo and Diaby crumble before. The way Stoke played, this was bound to happen. If you had had any doubt about Stoke before, your beliefs were firmly entrenched in your inner being following that tackle.

 The aftermath was important for that too. Those thick Stoke fans jeered Arsene Wenger for standing up for his players and later Aaron Ramsey for being the victim of that “incident.” Stoke manager at the time, Tony Pulis, defended Shawcross for the tackle and criticized Wenger as well. There’s no love lost between these two clubs, but don’t mistake this for a rivalry. The hatred has permeated through a contrast in footballing philosophy. Now, I’m not one to push the “good” versus “evil” narrative, but this fixture has been more “beauty” versus “beast.” Arsenal plays free flowing football with their feet and Stoke plays a bludgeoning, barbaric style more representative of the games played prior to the codification of association football (Yes, this is hyperbole).

Fittingly, the big story line going into this match is the resurgence of Aaron Ramsey. Let us not forget that Ramsey was on his way to playing like this prior to the injury. Since his return, he has been maligned by many, yours truly included, for his play. The way Ramsey played in the second half of last season and into the start of this season has simply been a revelation. One can only wonder what might have been had Ramsey never gotten hurt, but why wonder when you can enjoy his performances of the present?

Ramsey deserves to be the big story line because of his performances this season. He earned that right. He has been Arsenal’s best player and made himself indispensable in the midfield. The Welshman has 6 goals in 7 games this season. Those 6 goals have come on 7 shots on target. In a year many thought would represent the comeback of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey has stolen the spotlight.

There is also the matter of the German. You know, that öne. Mesut Özil was Arsenal’s big signing of the transfer window and he will be making his Emirates debut Sunday. I’m sure that Özil has never seen a side like Stoke in La Liga, but a player of his class can overcome that rough stuff. The squad had cohesiveness and confidence, but Özil has given them that extra swagger. The club can now play a faster style of football too. With all due respect to Santi Cazorla, Özil is quicker in his distribution of the ball and more active in his movement that has inspired those around him, particularly Wilshere and Ramsey. I expect that midfield trio to play a huge role in Sunday’s match.

I’m not sure many of you can hold Stoke in the same vault of hatred that they once occupied. After all, Tony Pulis is gone. That softens it. Stoke has also brought aboard Americans, Geoff Cameron, Maurice Edu, and Brek Shea. With Jonathan Walters pulling the strings in midfield, at times it seemed like Stoke was beginning to cross the bridge to our football. Well, truth be told, they probably have.

Stoke have started the new season fairly well under a new manager and familiar face, Mark Hughes. Despite an opening match loss to Liverpool, featuring a heart breaking penalty miss from Walters, the Potters have 7 points from 4 games. Stoke beat Premier League new boys, Crystal Palace, 2-1 in their home opener and edged West Ham 1-0 at the Boleyn Ground before a scoreless draw against Manchester City last weekend. The Potters are currently in seventh in the League table, though level on points with City, Chelsea, and Manchester United. It is a bright start by their standards.

Stoke may not be the best at being Stoke anymore (Thanks, Mark Hughes!), but I still approach this match with skepticism. They still have their right and left centre threequarters, Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth. Though Cameron is proving to be more cultured than we initially thought, he does play like a scrum half at times. They also have the clumsy Charlie Adam. The physical pieces are still there, but there are more footballers in the squad than ever.

Let’s start with Jonathan Walters because he was my Fantasy EPL sleeper agent last year. He is coming off a season in which he scored 16 goals and added 2 assists. On a team that was 19th in goals for last season, he was their closest thing to a “talisman.” Walters is goalless to start the season but is second on the team behind Adam in shots. The Potters also have Liverpool’s Oussama Assaidi on loan and what’s left of Stephen Ireland. Stoke does have some players that can play with their feet.

But don’t mistake that as an endorsement that they’ll stay away from the long ball. While Rory Delap, king of the forward pass, no longer ventures the sidelines, towel in hand (sidenote, Delap is on League Two, Burton Albion), Stoke is still threatening on set pieces. Their two main strikers are either tall, Peter Crouch, or powerful, Kenwyne Jones (I spelled his first name right on the first try!). Additionally, they have the aerial threat of Huth, Shawcross, and Cameron from the back. Arsenal will have to play clean around their own box because set pieces are where Stoke can still Stoke.

In goal, the Potters have Asmir Begovic, who Wenger has been rumored to be interested in many times, but has never made a serious move for. Begovic is probably the greatest strength that the team has. Stoke had a better goal record (7th overall) than Tottenham in the league last season thanks to the Serbian’s 110 saves. On the young season so far, Begovic has already made 17 saves and is on pace to obliterate last year’s mark. If Stoke comes out of this game with point(s), you can blame Begovic. Remember, Arsenal only scored one goal against Stoke last year (they allowed none).

For Arsenal to win this game, they’re going to have to remain composed through Stoke’s disruptive play. I could easily see a couple of Cameron, Shawcross, Adam, and Huth getting booked in this game, and Arsenal cannot afford to get dragged into that game (match reports reveals that Stoke received 5 cards in the two games last year). Again, this is another game where Theo Walcott’s pace can be the X-Factor (don’t sue me, Simon Cowell). After that midweek Champions League goal, I am tipping Theo to score again this weekend. Arsenal can put up a crooked number if they can get it past Begovic. Expect Ramsey and Giroud to play a big roles as well (easy calls, right?).

Expected Line Ups:
Arsenal: Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Flamini, Ramsey, Wilshere, Özil; Walcott, Giroud

Stoke City: Begovic; Cameron, Shawcross, Huth, Pieters; Wilson, Nzonzi, Adam, Etherington; Walters, Jones

Referee: A heaping pile of cow manure

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