Arsenal v. Stoke: master baiters look for retaliators

At one time Mark Hughes was one of the biggest managers in the world. When the Oil Barons took over Man City, Hughes was already installed as City boss. The Sheiks opened up their coffers and told Hughes to transform City from the second best team in Manchester into a global sports brand. That January, he bought Robinho for a record fee of £32.5m, Wayne Bridge, Shay Given, and paid an absurd £20m for Nigel de Jong, who was in the last 6 months of his contract. The next summer, he took Adebayor off Arsenal’s hands, much to everyone’s relief, and added Carlos Tevez and Kolo Toure to his squad. After spending hundreds of millions of pounds and lavishing players like Adebayor and Bridge with contracts that City would never be able to get out from under, he was fired and replaced with Roberto Mancini in December of 2009.

Hughes had his chance, a chance few managers will ever be given, the chance to spend nearly unlimited money and build the team of his dreams. It took City and Mancini two years and hundreds millions more to dig out from under the rubble that Hughes raised. Hughes lasted just one year in his next job, at Fulham. Then 11 months at QPR, again spending massive amounts of money and getting very little return.

Stoke City hired Hughes and put him on a spending leash. Hughes was given almost no funds in his first two years and was able to keep Stoke in 9th place both seasons. The last two summers have seen Hughes handed around £50m in funds, basically just enough to keep up with the other clubs around him, and he also finished 9th last season. Stoke are currently in 9th place.

Hughes is often lauded as a manager who “likes to get the ball down” and whose teams “play on the ground” but the stats tell an otherwise different story. Stoke are 4th in total aerial duels and 3rd in aerial duels won. They tend to own less than 50% of possession and are 15th in short passes per game. They are also 4th in total tackles and are a highly successful tackling team. Interestingly, they are the most fouled team in the Premier League, having been fouled 199 times so far this season. This is 10 more fouls that Chelsea, who are the most dribble-happy team in the League. Stoke are actually 12th in dribbles per game. This disparity between take-ons and fouls recieved, plus the high number of tackles that they make, the low number of short passes, and the high number of aerial duels, indicates that despite their supposed “play the ball on the ground” mentality, Stoke are the same old team which relies on physical play. This physical play frustrates the opposition into committing retaliatory fouls.

Stoke haven’t been very good at capitalizing on all these fouls, however. Their set play delivery rate are low and corners are low. Possibly this is because their most fouled players are left back Pieters, CM Joe Allen, DM Imbula, and RB Geoff Cameron.

Stoke do have the most snide and dirty player in the League on their team in Charlie Adam*. Adam recently admitted he fouled Behrami to score their winner over Watford. It’s notable that he scored from a header on a set play. Adam is just now returning to full Adam form and will be well up to pulling his usual tricks.

Stoke’s Arnautovic is another player who pulls dirty tricks. His favorite is shoving a player off the pitch, into an advertising hoarding, and dislocating their shoulder.

The referee for this match is Lee Mason and considering this is a home match for Arsenal, he may want to keep the dirty tricks to a minimum. But with Mason you really never can tell.

Arsenal for their part are in tremendous form at the moment. Stoke will need to keep Arsenal’s two false 9s, Özil and Sanchez, quiet on the day. One secret to their partnership is Alexis dropping deep to collect passes and look for teammates.  Most teams expect Özil to have the ball all the time and thus try to mark him out of the game. But Wenger has given more responsibility to Alexis to create for teammates and asked Özil to instead make runs without the ball.

A fantastic example of this interplay between the two forwards came for Arsenal’s fourth goal against Basel: Alexis collected the ball deep from Ramsey, this then presented him with three players he could pick out: Ramsey, making a run to his right; Iwobi darting down the middle; or Özil, who made a little run around the defenders.

He picks Özil, who then slots for Iwobi to get his first Champions League goal of his young career. Alexis’ ability to find Özil with these aerial balls is quite prolific, actually. He has assisted to Özil 5 times this season and four have been looping aerial passes on to the head or feet of Özil, who has managed to find the perfect space to pop up into.

Özil’s greatest strength has always been his understanding of and use of underutilized space. Last season he used that ability to free up room for his teammates to operate, often popping up into open spaces, and dragging a defender with him. But this season, with Alexis given more responsibility in the creative role, Özil is free to actively attack those spaces and it is paying dividends.

Arsenal’s midfield will be tested as well and in a physical game like this I expect Wenger to remind his players, especially Xhaka and Gabriel, not to get involved. The Premier League proved once again that retaliation is always treated harsher than the original foul in last weekend’s clash between City and Chelsea. Video clearly shows Fabregas slapping Fernandinho and Fernandinho angrily reacting to the slap. Fernandinho was banned and Fabregas, who has a long reputation for snide and dirty play, was let off. Arsenal players need to remain calm in this match: Adam will absolutely intentionally foul in order to get a reaction from Xhaka; Arnautovic will be looking to make Gabriel do something stupid as well. Both of those men have previous and Mark Hughes, who isn’t very good as a manager but who made a career as a player who was notorious for dirty play, will certainly encourage his players to drag Arsenal into a pissing contest, where they have an advantage since they are so full of it.

Keep the ball down, pass it around, make sure to take the “spark” out of Hughes and Stoke.


*Fabregas is right up there with Adam


  1. It’s great that Shawcross is not fit enough to play this game. We don’t need his pantomime villainy distracting our players from the task at hand. We need to make a fast start and go up a goal or two before half time and then control the rest of the game intelligently in order to conserve energy and avoid cards ahead of the mid-week fixture.

  2. We can win this game and it will be bruising and punishing and expensive for recovery. But yeah we won the battle 3 points. But I actually hope they can’t even get into it and we completely rip the bag out of them and they are humiliated like west hammers. I want them pulling out of the stadium that evening in their big yellow bus with expressions on their faces that tell me they are deeply at odds with the universe. That they feel lost and melancholic and wish they could just fly off somewhere where no one knows them and then can just detach from the world for a while.

  3. You should just stop saying possession and instead use “pass ratio” every time instead. You’d get fewer people confused about what possession is.

  4. I’m with Rectum Spectrum. If ever there was an Arsenal side capable of humiliating Stoke it’s this one.

    After ages it seems, love to see a clean sheet as well.

  5. I suspect Wenger’s biggest choice dilemma for today’s game would be between his 10 yr pet project Walcott with a slight dip in form over the last few matches and the still not fully confirmed quantity Perez who midweek scored 3 striker’s goals (right place, right time). Am tilted towards the latter. We got a team of fine margins in the choice of players. A deep, deep squad.

    1. I’ve seen it mentioned elsewhere that Theo’s drop off may be related to Bellerin’s absence. But that’s the beauty of the squad depth we have this season: bar the (still unresolved, I suspect) conundrum of our midfield without Cazorla, we have viable alternatives everywhere.

    2. Walcott’s been incredible this season. He’s injured and coming back, so it isn’t a surprise that he’s not as prolific as early in the season. Scored against Bournemouth 3 games (2 weeks) ago, though. The vacancy is on the left of midfield, not the right. I’d play Perez ahead of both Ox and Iwobi on the left. Or play Alexis there, and let the striker do what he does best. The question is whether it negates the Ozil/Sanchez dynamic that Tim describes.

      1. Theo plus Alexis plus Perez is probably one too many striker types. We need what players like the Ox and Iwobi offer (each in their own way) on the ball. Best balance is probably one of Theo/Lucas on one side and one of Iwobi/Ox on the other, though I admit to being curious to see what Lucas can do given a run of games through the middle (with Alexis still in the side but back out wide, of course).

  6. Plus we have Giroud on the bench and hopefully Welbeck (LuANS, natch) rejoining in the New Year.

    Really like Welbz but I can’t see him getting into the rotation unless we succumb to the kind of February we have had in past years. Please no.

    1. Welbz will have a role to play. His versatility (center forward, right and left wide roles) means he’ll get games as long as we retain interest in the three remaining competitions. His role in the wide positions is particularly strategic because of his known tactical discipline and experience in those positions in big matches from his time at Man U. Incidentally, the Ox and Walcott have improved in their positional awareness and work rate in those same positions. I would really fancy Arsenal’s chances with wide options of Walcott, the Ox, Welbeck, Iwobi and Perez, late in the season when concentration and sharpness can decide high-pressure games.

  7. Welbeck gives us more options of course, but remember he left United to play more at centre forward. With the depth of our bench, he’ll be grateful for a chance to play anywhere, but long-term he’s not going to be happy. And it’s difficult to see where he’ll get regular games. I can’t seem forcing his way back to get regular first XI game time (repeat, it’s why he left United) at the expense of any of the regulars. Perez, a more clinical finisher, and Giroud, a slower but better centre forward (and the best header of the football in the game), stand a greater chance of playing than he does.

    I can’t help feeling that we’ve been making piecemeal purchases since Van Persie. We probably now have one too many strikers, as a result of being too conservative in our recent purchases. For TWO of Welbeck, Giroud and Lucas, we probably need one really top-class centre forward in the mould of Diego Costa, who, on CURRENT FORM, is the best in the league after Sanchez. Yes, I hate him, but his link play at the moment is absolutely top class, and he’s as responsible as Hazard, Moses and Kante for their incredible form at the moment.

    But we have what we have and — don’t get me wrong — I love all our guys, and consider this the deepest squad we’ve had in a while.

  8. The two standout performers from the last game — Gibbs and Perez — both on the bench. That’s squad depth.

  9. Welcome back Hector Bellerin! Three chances created and the assist to Walcott for the all important opening goal. His presence just kicks the attack into another gear. And why oh why do we alway seem to get one player back from injury at the same time another goes off injured? First place for at least a day.

  10. Job done in the end. Good work-out for the lads ahead of two potentially difficult consecutive away games. It’s not easy to get back into backs-to-the wall mode after the relative walk-overs of the West Ham and FC Basel victories. It’s nice to see the boys show fight and desire. Kudos to them and also Wenger for a good rotation of the forward options.

  11. good for the boys to get a win today. sucks that arsenal lost mustafi and hopefully, he’ll be back soon. in the meantime, good to have hector back.

    theo had a nasty look about his play since the last international break but he was very good today. likewise, iwobi isn’t really playing well but at least he’s scoring goals. xhaka, despite making some huge mistakes, is really growing in stature and influence. wenger’s integrated that kid almost perfectly. lastly, no aaron ramsey in the 18 today. is he injured? we’ll continue to monitor that situation. good weekend to be a gooner.

    i’m watching man city get killed by a team just outside of the bottom 3. pep guardiola tried to downplay the significance of the premier league’s so-called intensity. well, i think it’s getting very real to him.

  12. We looked and tired in the 1st half and penalty or no that was a sloppy elbow and take down by Xhaka.

    3 or 4 seasons ago we would have dropped points to the Orcs but this squad has the composure, depth and resilience to fight for and get the W.

    Mustafi…He said he’d give everything for the club. I guess he included his hamstring in the total contribution. Here’s hoping for a quick recovery.

  13. Couple of points on this game. I didn’t have a problem with the PK because 1. It was early in the game and this season’s Arsenal are a much stronger team mentally and would come back. 2. Any place on the pitch and that call is a foul. I’m thankful it was just a PK and not a card.
    Mertesacker’s first name is not Tomas or Thomas.
    Gabriel is serviceable RB but Bellerin is a game changer and Walcott is happy he’s back.
    In the build up to the Iwobi goal, I hope everyone noted the deliberate stamp on Sanchez by Adams. Mason who should have seen it did nothing.
    Mason did manage to get his slow ass in the way of an Arsenal move though. He’s not looking fit as a “butcher’s dog”. My apologies to Alexis’s dogs for that derogatory comment.
    Alexis’s level looked a little down and maybe we can give Perez a run out against Everton.

  14. note the nasty stamp by Adam on Alexis as Iwobi went through for the third goal. What an evil little sh*t. Also Hughes’s response to hearing about the vile chants of the Stoke “fans”. Spoke volumes about the (lack of) class of the man.

    1. I’m glad Tim on twitter pointed out something I also noticed: if Adams hadn’t purposely shortened his stride so as to stamp on Alexis, he may have gotten to the ball in time to stop Iwobi. Sweet justice, that.

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