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.