On the back of three-straight wins, Arsenal will look to continue their rise at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday against a Stoke City team that have lost three-straight matches. The Emirates Stadium was full of doom and gloom after back-to-back Premier League defeats last month that left Arsenal with their worst start to a season through 12 games in 32 years. But manager Arsene Wenger, with questions over his future are never far away, can now rest a little more comfortably on the bench, after beating Borussia Dortmund 2-0 to confirm qualification for the Champions League last 16 once more and recording 1-0 wins over West Brom and Southampton to rise to sixth in the Premier League.
Key to the mini-revival has been three consecutive clean sheets. And it is no surprise that the most recent two have come following the reintroduction of Laurent Koscielny and the rekindling of his partnership with Per Mertesacker that proved such a success last season. Wenger was in no doubt about how crucial he thinks the France international’s return from a long-term Achilles complaint has been following Wednesday’s win over Southampton.
“Koscielny was absolutely outstanding today and he contributes to stabilize out defense,” he said. “We missed him for nearly two months, and of course it is important.”
Given that Mathieu Debuchy is also close to a return, things are looking up at the back for Arsenal. Yet, with injuries never far away at the Emirates, there will still, rightly, be considerable pressure on Wenger to spend on a defender next month.
While Koscielny’s return from injury has been key, Arsenal have also have benefited from one of their players going down with an injury. Their three wins have coincided with Jack Wilshere being ruled out for three months with an ankle injury and his place being taken by Santi Cazorla. The Spain international has been a less than integral figure this season, but since coming back into the side he has reminded observers why he won Arsenal’s Player of the Season award in his debut campaign in England two years ago.
Cazorla produced three assists in matches against Borussia Dortmund and West Brom, although he struggled to lift the team past a strong Southampton performance. Not for the first time this season, Arsenal lacked fluidity in midfield and it wasn’t until Olivier Giroud was introduced that Arsenal began to apply concerted pressure. Providing a direct option as well as a focal point in attack, Giroud made a strong case to start against Stoke. Wenger now faces a dilemma of how to maximize the abilities of Giroud and the contrasting speed and movement of Danny Welbeck.
There is little doubt, however, who Arsenal’s most important player continues to be. Alexis Sánchez grabbed the winner on Wednesday for his 13th goal in just 19 appearances for the club. Without the Chilean’s work rate, intensity, dribbling and precise finishing, Arsenal’s disappointing start to the season would surely have been a calamitous one. In the Premier League alone, his goals have been directly responsible for seven points.
Goals have been exactly what Arsenal’s next opponents gave been lacking. Only three teams have scored fewer times than Stoke men in the Premier League this campaign. In their run of three-straight losses, Mark Hughes’s side have scored only twice, one of which was from a set-piece. Their frustration was in full evidence in the dying minutes of their 2-1 defeat to Manchester United as two stunning saves from David de Gea and an even more miraculous goalline clearance from Ashley Young denied Stoke an injury-time equalizer.
Yet, if Stoke hardly come into Saturday’s contest in the best form, they can take huge confidence from their recent record against Arsenal at the imposing Britannia Stadium. Indeed, since Stoke’s return to the Premier League in 2009, they have won four and drawn two of the seven home clashes with Arsenal. For years the narrative was predictable: Arsenal simply couldn’t handle going away to a team that, under manager Tony Pulis, had a reputation for being the most physical in the Premier League. Yet even under Hughes, who has brought more variety to Stoke’s play, Arsenal left the Potteries defeated last season.
While Hughes has altered Stoke’s style, some of its fundamental tenants remain. This season Stoke have received more yellow cards than any other team and rank third in fouls per game, according to statistics website WhoScored.com. Moreover, no team has won more aerial duels this season, while Stoke also rank highly in the number of crosses put in. Stoke now also have the pace in attack of Mame Biram Diouf and Bojan Krkic to try and exploit what is Arsenal’s current main weakness -- being caught on the break.
With Arsenal, despite the results, not yet firing on all cylinders and still lacking true physical and psychological toughness, they could well drop points once more at the Britannia.
Prediction: Stoke City 1-1 Arsenal
Kickoff time: 10 a.m. EST
TV channel: NBC Sports Premier League Extra Time
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra