Stoke v. Arsenal Preview: pressing, counters, headers, and more

We keep being told that Mark Hughes has changed this Stoke side. That they are no longer the in-your-face team which snapped Aaron Ramsey’s leg in two. That Hughes has them playing cultured football. And then we get quotes like this “But if we go out with the attitude we showed at Everton – running, chasing down balls, getting in their faces – it will be tough for them.”

Come to think of it, maybe Stoke have changed a bit because that’s not really all that fire-and-brimstone a quote. It’s more like just saying the obvious: Arsenal can’t handle the press, so we are going to press them. And Cameron is right, pressing Arsenal is the correct tactic.

He goes on, describing how their new back three formation – yes, they are also playing a hipster back 3 and I’m waiting to see if they will play a back three, while wearing trucker caps, ironic tee-shirts, sporting handlebar mustaches, and all riding unicycles – how their new back three formation helps them to attack:

“Over the last three weeks or so we’ve nailed down the back three a little bit more and it’s something to build on. It allows Bojan and (Xherdan) Shaqiri to get on the ball higher up the pitch and we have more numbers in front of us to screen us.

“As soon as we get on the ball, (Kurt) Zouma and myself can drop into the space and it releases those guys to get on the ball earlier.”

Instead of just pounding the ball into the opposition box, Stoke seem to have started using some… tactics. It’s an amazing transformation Mark Hughes has wrought but also one which Arsenal need to be wary of.

Shaqiri and Bojan between the lines could potentially be a nightmare situation for Arsenal’s back three. Shaqiri is quick and nimble, like Arsenal’s own Cazorla, and his ability to exploit one-on-ones with the likes of Mustafi/Holding/Koscielny or if Mertesacker has to play could prove dangerous. Arsenal may need to station the policeman, Francis Coquelin, in that area just to provide cover. Though, if Wenger actually does that I’d be surprised. Instead, I expect Arsenal’s midfield to be bypassed as we see Ramsey sprinting forward and Xhaka unable to cover his countryman. Thus putting pressure on Arsenal’s back three.

Stoke aren’t as orcish as they once were, neither are Arsenal as effete as they once were. Arsenal seem to have lost the ability to play around the opposition press and instead now play a much more direct style of play.

You’ll probably think I’m savaging Arsenal and that I’m praising Stoke, I’m not. But the truth is that where Arsenal once used to hit teams on the counter, they are now a much slower team in possession. Wenger was once known for his teams playing “up the ladder”. In the Invincibles, the ball used to pass from Campbell to Vieira to Bergkamp or Henry and then shot. But since 2011, Arsenal’s counter-attacking style has dried up.

This lack of incisive passing up the pitch is a product of opposition teams counter-pressing – they don’t immediately drop as soon as Arsenal get the ball and instead like to “get in their faces” as Geoff Cameron so eloquently put it. If Arsenal try to spring the counter, teams kill it off with the press, forcing Arsenal to pass back to the keeper and center backs.

This also means that Arsenal lose the ball more when they do maintain possession. And is epitomized by 5th place Arsenal’s star player, Alexis Sanchez, holding the ball out on the wing, and looking to play in a cross to a teammate bombing forward.

That said, some things change, and some things stay the same. In 2011 Arsenal topped the Premier League with 57% possession. Last year Arsenal were 4th in the League with 56.5% possession. Similarly, in 2011, Stoke led the League with 16 Aerial Duels won per game and last season they were 3rd in the League with 21.3 per game.

Thus the truth is somewhere between. In 2011, Stoke averaged 69% passing, a League low. In 2016, the Hughes effect was full blown and they were a 75% passing team. Similarly the focus on set plays has dropped off. In 2011, Stoke scored 16 goals off set plays, last season they scored just 9.

Interestingly, Arsenal have also changed. In as much as I remember the peak banter era Arsenal as a slow team which controlled possession in the opposition area, they did lead the League that season with 10 counter attacking goals and only scored 6 goals off set pieces. Over the last two seasons, Arsenal relied much more heavily on set pieces, averaging 12.5 set play goals a season with just 2.5 counter-attacking goals.

In fact, Arsenal and Stoke both took the same number of set play shots last season (128 and 126) and Arsenal took more headed chances (89 to 83) than Stoke. Though the numbers were similar, the percentages of total shots as headers (15.7% for Arsenal and 19.5% for Stoke) were different a fact I only include because someone will point it out. But interestingly enough, Arsenal in 2011 were 4th in headed shots with 98 and Arsenal in 2016 were 5th in headed shots with 89.

I expect Stoke to press Arsenal though how long they can maintain it is the big question for them. I also expect Stoke to cause Arsenal problems up the pitch, behind Xhaka-Ramsey, with Shaqiri – though who he will pass to for the goal is another mystery. For Arsenal, we need to get Özil into those same positions as Shaqiri will find – since both teams are playing the hipster 343 – and for him to pick out the runs of Lacazette, who is an expert at finding spaces between defenders.

Could be a close game, however, as when the game gets tight toward the end, I expect Hughes to call Peter time and get Crouch on for some long bombs. Crouch won 6 headers in 18 minutes in his last outing, proving that when the chips are down, Stoke revert to orcball.



      1. We won once in our previous 7 visits there and that was last season when they had phoned it in. I am not that confident about getting all 3 points.

  1. Mustafi/Holding/Koscielny or if Mertesacker has to play


    Koscielny is suspended. I have a feeling it will be Mustafi, Mertesacker, and Monreal. 3M. Or I could see Wenger fielding Holding instead of Mertesacker. In any case, I’m praying he doesn’t (mis)use Kolasinac at CB. Need that guy on the wing.

  2. Hard to see us winning this game. We won there last year when they had nothing to play for and it showed in their attitude. I doubt we will find it as easy this time around. If our defense doesn’t improve drastically, we are going to concede at least a couple of goals and I don’t see our defense improving that much until Koz comes back. Mustafi doesn’t exactly instill confidence. I guarantee you he is going to give the ball away.

    Those stats are really interesting. Stylistically, are we more similar to Stoke than we care to admit? Barf!

    Explicit instructions should be given to our wing backs not to bomb forward at the same time. If one of them stays back to help Xhaka defensively when Ramsey makes his forward run, then we can deal with Shaqiri and Bojan. Alternatively, we can switch to a 4-3-3 with Ox and Ramsey flanking Xhaka. Neither is going to happen. I am fully resigned to dropping points this weekend.

    1. We got away with some downright shabby defending against Leicester, and it wasn’t just because of a makeshift back line. Don’t think we’ll be as lucky away to Stoke. But, who knows, maybe Cech will remember that he’s an experienced keeper, Xhaka won’t assist the opposition as well as his own teammates, and Holding will have one of his good games.

  3. Away win. Start Giroud to bully the bullies, and provide extra defensive cover at set-pieces.

    From right to left, this is how we should line up…
    Back 3 of Mustafi, Mertesacker, Monreal
    wingbacks Ox and Kolasinac
    central midfield of Ramsey (depending on fitness) and Xhaka
    front 3 of Lacazette, Giroud, Ozil

  4. Mustafi, Mert, Kola
    Bellerin Xhaka Ramsey Ox
    Ozil lacazette welbz

    Ox goes on a rampage
    Lacazette scores twice, once off a welbec scuff
    Kola scores
    And we win 3-0

  5. Gabriel has officially joined Valencia for 2 mules and a few boxes of naranjas. If we had any foresight, we would have asked him to kindly change his name to an ‘inho’ and sold him to Barca for an ungodly sum of money. Yet another opportunity missed.

    1. Two average January signings in two years, the other being Elneny. Hey, transfers are not an exact science — sometimes they work out; sometimes they don’t. But man, since Gabriel and following the summer of 2015 when we signed no outfield players, we don’t seem to have nailed this transfer thing.

      1. I don’t think Gabriel was that great but I also don’t think we should have sold him for 10m. We will miss him this season when (not if) all our defenders are injured or suspended and we have to play multiple fullbacks as CBs. Wait, we’re one week in and that’s already happened!

          1. Chambers yes, Holding? Too soon to say. And if its a straight choice between a 26 year old Brazilian and a 20ish Brit, I choose the latter. Especially since we might lose 4 homegrown players in 12 months (OX, Wilshere, Gibbs, Sczczczczny).

          2. But why is it a straight choice? Surely there’s room for both, considering Mert, Kos, and Monreal are coming to the end of their careers, and with Kos’s injury issues. And I think people have gone WAY overboard with Holding, which will only make it harder for him when his form dips (as it is showing signs of doing now). He’s got potential to be an excellent player, but he’s really raw and makes quite a few mistakes, especially with the ball. And finally, if we needed to sell Gabriel, surely we could’ve held out for more than 10m!
            It feels like Wenger’s failed to get rid of the players he wants (and should) sell (Gibbs, Ospina, Debuchy, Jenks, for starters), so now we’re stuck selling players who could actually contribute significantly to the squad.

  6. Since the Orcs got back to the top flight in 2008 we are 11-3-4 and though all those 4 wins came at their place we have not lost to them since 2014.

    I like us for the game despite some of the genuine concerns discussed here. 3-1 for the good guys.

  7. Though our CD against Leicester was poor, I felt that in comparison with CD containg Musti and Kosh, they passed out the ball quicker which helped set the tone for our quick passing game. Musti particularly misplaces too many passes as he is always trying to pass his balls through the lines. I hope he recognizes his limitations there and curbs it. Tomorrow I expect a back line of Mustì, Per, Monreal.

    Possibly an added reason for the drop in our counter attacking numbers is that epl teams on the average park the bus a lot more these days than before.

  8. First three games of the season: Leicester (H), Stoke (A), Liverpool (A).

    Optimistic Expectation: W,W,D (7 pts)
    Realistic Expectation: W,D,L (4 pts)
    Pessimistic Expectation: D,L,L (1 pt)

    Luckily we have 3 points on board, though it wasn’t easy. A draw and a loss in the next two games would probably be realistic. Anything better than that would be a positive.

    1. Just to expand on this, gave us a 64% chance of beating Leicester. They give us a 49% chance of beating Stoke (24% chance of a draw), which is higher than I would give us, and a 33% chance of being Liverpool (23% chance of a draw). That seems about right.

      After that we have Bournemouth (72%), Chelsea (26%; bit low given recent history), West Brom (68%).

      10 points after 6 games, including two away to top-4 rivals and 1 away to a bogey team. That should be the expectation.

  9. So tomorrow we will have Sadio Berahino reviving his career…which is currently inside the dead man’s chest lying at the bottom of sea floor. Now that we survived a Mike Dean on opening day, I hope Andre Marriner does not fall for Clever crouch and send off Per Mertesacker instead of him..s

  10. “Ramsay sprinting forward and Xhaka unable to cover”

    I think this could be the story of the season.

    I just wish we would focus on having the best starting eleven, maybe 15/16, and have much less focus on squad depth. I know you need the depth but I think it is the quality dimension that needs addressing much more urgently.

  11. Gabriel is a good player, passing and bringing up the ball not so much.
    Appreciated his aggressiveness.
    The counter data is not so clear, as Leicester barely even brought the team past the halfway line, so it is impossible to counter a team that has everyone behind the ball. Need to define what the word counter means in context.

    Arsenal are going to blast these fools, as they increased their confidence from last year. Early goal should should see our team take them apart.

    Glad to have a strong back three in the lineup!

  12. Not thrilled with the selection and formation today, but hope that Wenger’s got it right.

    1. Really short back line. Against Stoke.

      BTW, never fail to be fascinated by the booing of Ramsey, who had the temerity to get his leg broken.

      And folks, Ramsey is an attacking midfielder. So he…. (gasp!) joins the attack! And has scored in our last two competitive games! Get used to it. Don’t get all this moaning and groaning. We seem to blame Ramsey for the shortcomings in Xhaka’s game. How about we get an all-round midfielder who can compete with both and slot in with either?

  13. So much wrong with this Arsenal performance so far. So wasteful going forward (especially Ox), and so sloppy in midfield (especially Xhaka).

    1. And I’m still waiting for Welbeck to make a smart move or a good touch. So frustrating

  14. 3 in the back or 4 in the back. It makes no difference if the back line is full of makeshift players. Why Mertesacker was on the bench only god knows.

  15. And every Arsenal player wants to do these Hollywood passes. Why? I hope this ends the fascination with Chanberlain. So frustrating to watch him. As if he is giving a message to Wenger- don’t play me in wingback, I am a CM.

  16. Well that was disappointing. Two big slices of bad luck, though. Still, luck or no luck, this squad doesn’t look like it has the ability win squat. We sell Gabriel the same week we play Monreal in central defence. Yes, he’s not the world’s best central defender but as 3rd or 4th choice, he’ll do. Dont play Nacho there.

    1. And don’t play Kolasinac there. I have a brilliant idea for Wenger: play players in their best/specialist positions! Bellerin on the left? Two left-backs in the center of defense? Ox on the field? What is he thinking?

    2. I think Nacho can play there, provided it’s in a back three and not beside another left back and a short, not-especially-in-form CB. Agree about the Gabriel thing.

  17. This was the type of ref performance that gives the ” there’s a conspiracy to keep Arsenal down” believers ammunition in their arguments.

    Yes, Lacazette was technically offsides by two inches or so, but technically speaking Bellerin and Welbeck were both fouled in the penalty area and none were given.

    Arsenal dominated all stats with possession 3:1 and yet managed to commit more fouls than Stoke, which is an amazing feat in itself.

    For the Stoke goal a typical Arsenal mid clusterfuk
    Ramsey high up the pitch on the left wing almost out of the picture, while Xhaka loses the ball in the area he should never lose the ball in. Some things never change.

    1. So Xhaka loses the ball, mention Ramsey first. Some thing indeed never change. Both Ozil, the intended recipient of the pass, and Xhaka, the wayward supplier, did a cr** job of tracking back and winning it back after it broke down. Monreal also didn’t read Jese’s run, and where was our right-sided defender (Mustafi), to shepherd the Stoke player wide and out of the passing lane? The Welshman is blameless. All that said, a smart finish from Jese. Cech would have been more concerned about his near post, but Jese found the target from a difficult angle. Good goal.

      1. No, he’s not blameless. Of course he wasn’t the main one at fault in this instance, but he makes WAY too many forward runs (particularly for a central midfielder in a team that commits as many players forward as Arsenal). It’s a problem, arguably one of the main reasons for our continued midfield disfunction. Many of us have been complaining about this for ages now, but Wenger and Ramsey seem completely oblivious to the problem.
        If Ramsey wasn’t, year in and year out, in spite of any dips in form and any lack of productivity (for someone seemingly concentrating entirely on scoring goals, he hasn’t actually scored/assisted that many over the last few seasons), one of the very first names on the team sheet, us fans would probably cut him a lot more slack and be less likely to make him a scapegoat. So as usual, the buck stops with Wenger. His continued refusal to properly strengthen and his unswerving and total loyalty to a handful of his “favorites,” who, for whatever reasons, have continually fallen short, is destroying his legacy.

      2. Claude
        I can understand your level of sensitivity about Ramsey getting heightened whenever his name is mentioned( him being your favorite player and all), but perhaps you need to read my comment again.
        I’m not blaming Ramsy for the goal, although PFo makes a valid point about Ramsey’s lack of discipline in defensive situations.
        I merely mentioned him because he was Xhaka’s mid partner and when your direct partner on the pitch is in an advance position( as Ramsey was) you don’t make risky passes in your own half with a score tied in a difficult away game. That’s all.

        1. Ramsey isn’t my favourite player… Alexis is, and I quite like Kosc and Per. But it’s not the point, really. I just hate a too-set narrative — a story seemingly written in advance. Xhaka coughed up the ball, Ozil failed to collect, neither track back, but somehow the conversation is about Ramsey. Ramsey was not “out of position.” He is not Xhaka’s minder or enforcer. Sure everyone has defensive responsibility, but Xhaka has got to improve his defensive awareness and execution, and not, as is often suggested here, be dependent on having the ideal partner, whatever that is. Xhaka of last year would have kicked Jese to stop him. Today he gave him far too much of an easy run, after which the one-two with the other Stoke player was not dealt with by Monreal or Mustafi.

          As for Pfo’s contention that he “makes too many forward runs”, that is subjective and not composed of much by way of analysis. His runs got us two game-changing goals in our last two competitive matches.

          1. Yes, it’s subjective. The analysis to back up the claim has been made many, many times on this website, by me and others, including Tim. But of course it can’t be established as fact. However, my point was that simply pointing out it wasn’t Ramsey who gave the ball away, or who then was poor in defending the situation, is not sufficient to establish that he carries none of the blame when these sorts of things happen to us. It’s not even just about covering for Xhaka. It’s about consistently (much more often than not) being close enough to Xhaka for Granit to pass him the ball (yet without all those passes being momentum-killing sideways balls). That’s what good midfields do for each other: they show in space, receive, pass, and move. It’s all well and good to have the likes and Ramsey and Walcott consistently making those “runs in behind” all the brainless commentators are obsessed with, but when they do it too often (and both of them do it too often), it leads to other players being stranded, especially against the press, and our buildup play being disrupted.

          2. ClaudeIvan

            There’s a difference in Ramsey’s making late runs into the box the way Lampard did for Chelsea to create advantages and confuse defenders as to who should be picking him up( that’s how he scored the goals you are referring to), and what he does so often when he just wanders around the pitch no matter where our build up happens to be at the time.

            PFo is exactly right when he says that this handicaps his closest teammates performances. No matter what brand of total football you want to play, you still need a telepathic understanding between teammates and that’s hard to achieve when one midfielder spends majority of the game away from his ,supposedly , other midfield partner.

      3. At this point, I will no longer criticize Ramsey for his positioning while we’re in possession. He’s clearly playing as instructed. If Wenger wanted Ramsey to stop playing as our fourth forward, he’d instruct him to hold back. What does Wenger highlight every time he talks about Ramsey? The quality of his runs into the box. Wenger has tactically set up the side to take advantage of what he perceives as Ramsey’s strength. While I heartily disagree that Ramsey deserves to be indulged in this way because other than his purple patch season he’s shown himself to be a below average finisher, leaving the midfield wide open is Wenger’s tactical genius.

        1. I take your point, though I wonder if it’s less about Arsene instructing him to do this explicitly, as if it’s some sort of (attempted) master plan, and more about just failing to give him that much in the way of instructions either way and letting Ramsey play the way he feels like.

          1. To clarify: obviously Wenger loves the getting-in-the-box part of Ramsey’s game, but I think he naively and over-optimistically thinks Ramsey can also do the rest of the job of a CM alongside Xhaka without really having to curb any of his forward enthusiasm. The alternative is that Wenger actually believes that Xhaka (a good player, but no Pat Vieira!) can perform all the jobs of a deep midfield by himself, even in the hyper competitive, hyper sophisticated modern English game. This is just insane.

          2. Just a slight addendum: Vieria had Petit and Gilberto Silva alongside him, so it’s not like he was operating without cover.

  18. Mustafi was lucky. He did a rash tackle earlier too in the first half. Seems like the saying “Build your team from the back” doesn’t apply to AW. He thinks he can throw any defender in the backline. Anyway, our backline is so error prone because nobody knows where they might be playing on a given day. All the best to the players. They are in for a tough response from the fans this season. And only Wenger is responsible for it.

  19. Stoke really exploited the flaws in our game on display vs Leicester.

    Xhaka’s reckless passing gifted another goal, lots of harmless possession, players not in their natural positions, poor one on one and team defending on top of wasteful finishing.

  20. Wenger needs to choose between Bellerin and Ox to start at RWB, and play Kolasinac on the other side. playing two right sided players in the wing back positions isn’t doing anyone any favors. Personally I’d start with the Ox, despite the frustrating aspects of his game, as he consistently beats his fullback and creates dangerous situations when stationed on the right flank and advised to keep his game simple. I think Bellerin’s got a huge future, but I don’t think his form in 2017 has really merited his being an automatic starter (there are a few others I’d say that about in this team too…). We need to buy another central midfielder, and we need to play at least one more actual center back in the back three (revolutionary, I know). Then we need to keep the same back six for a run of games and concentrate on defensive work in training. And we need to work out a functioning midfield who can beat the press and stop coughing the ball up in bad positions.

  21. Agree with much said, but for f’s sake, did stOke even come to play- at home?

    Arsenal owned the game, saw 2 handballs, a penalty, a goal taken back and somehow the right back on the opposing team not even carded. Surreal!

    When Kos and Sanchez come back that game we win, should have won anyway. The Arsenal came to play and get the 3 points that everyone is on about.

    Yes, it was a cluster f type goal, but Jese had much to do, and scored a really clean goal. That is the breaks and one can’t get them all the time.

    Yes- am pissed, but it is just the start to the season and we had more changes today at the back which contributed to the goal.

    The Arsenal will move up, stOke will take points off of the top 6.

    Still want Arsene to sign a DM!!!!!

  22. The linesman got the Laccazette offiside decision right, but only by luck, and as Tom says “technically”. The advantage in these very tight calls should go to the attacking player. And two possible penalty calls not given. Everything else (passing to the opposition before they score etc, and our strange back three selection) not withstanding, I thought we were not all that bad although as much as I like him why does Welbeck have an air kick every single game he plays?
    Untold are in meltdown again. The only joy I get from us losing is thier lying match report and assinine commenters.

    1. I think the current interpretation of the offside rule, where literally a sliver of a body part–only detectable by slow-mo video technology–being beyond the defender is all it takes to count as offside, is just bizarre. I don’t have a perfect way to fix the rule, but something should be done. Would much prefer to see the “advantage goes to the attacker” directive brought back in.

      1. The offside rule was originally introduced in order to prevent serial goal-hanging (or cherry picking, as we Americans say). Having a tiny bit of your boot/knee/buttock beyond the defender obviously does not constitute goal hanging on any reasonable interpretation.

      2. But that’s unrealistic in terms of decision making for the ref. I have a lot of sympathy, there’s no humanly possible way to see the incident correctly. And it’s a snap decision made in milliseconds, there is little room to consider such a decision through another filter. It was close and those things happen.

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