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

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