By Naveen Maliakkal
While Mark Hughes’ Stoke tend not to play like Tony Pulis’ Stoke, this Saturday, Arsenal will probably see Stoke return to their deep-defending, possession-shunning, and counter-attacking way that defined the Pulis era.
Hughes’ sides have not done anything special when they play Arsenal. When they do have the ball, they may look to play the ball long, especially if Peter Crouch starts up front. Such long balls will probably go into wide areas, looking to match up the tall center forward against a full back rather than a center back. Such reliance on aerial ability could lead to Stoke finding some joy on set-pieces, even though they have only scored one goal from set pieces this season.
(Looking at the 7amkickoff Index, I see that 4 of Arsenal’s last 9 goals conceded were from headers, off crosses, from open play. The other five were an O.G., a penalty, a fast break, a cross to feet, and a direct free kick as the result of a fast break. Arsenal also had 5 clean sheets in that time. Tim)
However, with the dribbling ability of Bojan and the potential for Johnathan Walters to miss the match with a knee injury, Stoke could look to play more passes into the space between the defensive line and last midfield line, instead of going over the top. If they look to play Mame Biram Diouf instead of a target man up front, then it could lead to Stoke playing Charlie Adam and/or Steven Ireland to provide more players with the ability to provide the diagonal ball or incisive pass to set the quicker center forward on his way to goal. However, playing with the likes of Charlie Adam or Steven Ireland does impose a cost defensively, and could lead to Hughes keeping those two on the bench.
They will probably look to keep their defensive shape compact, limiting the amount of space between the lines. Stoke will probably set up in a compact 4-4-1-1 shape, as having four men in a defensive line seems the best way to control a particular vertical level of the pitch. Hopefully, Arsenal will do a better job breaking down their opposition than they did in last season’s defeat to The Potters.
In last season’s 1-0 defeat¹, Arsenal played Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, and Lukas Podolski behind Olivier Giroud. With Cazorla and Rosicky, Arsenal had two players who wanted to stay in more central areas, while Podolski offered little down the left. This made it easy for Stoke to mark Arsenal’s fullbacks, when they went ahead. Combine that with the fact that Arsenal had an attacking liability in Bacary Sagna at right-back (why Manchester City signed him as a back-up right back is beyond me), and Arsenal struggled to create enough in that match.
Looking at this season’s team, the fact that Arsenal will probably have a front trio including the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck/Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain, along with a superior attacking option at right back in Calum Chambers, means that Arsenal will have a greater potential to stretch Stoke City’s lines. While having too much positional width in attack makes a team rather susceptible to counter attacks because the team has too much space to put pressure on the ball or to cover passing lanes if they lose possession, it could prove beneficial in attack.
However, it would be preferable to stretch Stoke’s defense with a more compact and intelligent positional set-up, along with better ball movement. A team that sits deep and compact has to work quite hard to control the spaces they want to control if they go up against a side that has control of the ball and an ability to control spaces in possession. Without control of the ball, the defending team can be at the mercy of the side with the ball. Even if they do not score in the first 70 minutes, much like a boxer spending the early rounds landing body shots, the side dominating the ball and space has done quite a bit of damage. With lowered energy levels, a team’s ability to make tackles and interceptions decreases, while their ability to control space becomes compromised. Football is a game of 90 minutes. Keeping a clean sheet for 80 minutes does not matter, if it comes at too great of a cost for a team to close out the match.
To that point, Arsenal cannot get frustrated and needlessly force the issue. That is exactly the kind of play Stoke want. They want Arsenal to try to force the issue and attack gaps that do not exist, rather than create and exploit holes that appear in The Potters defense. That is part of the reason they will look to foul Arsenal quite a bit. In addition to winning the ball and the physical attrition it can impose on Arsenal, they hope that such a rough style of play will cause mental attrition². At some point, Arsenal need to show more faith in their superiority over the opponent, stay with the playing style, and not throw resources forward or try to force the ball through Stoke.
In this sense, not having Jack Wilshere in the side may help Arsenal in this respect. For all of Wilshere’s ability on the ball, his poor decision-making between when to pass and when to dribble can lead to him dribbling into a wall of defenders. Combine this with his worrying lack of composure/poise when things do not go his way, either arguing or throwing himself in a retaliatory action/poor tackle (It is sometimes hard to tell whether a particular tackle of his is just terrible, just retaliatory, or both), and Arsenal seem better off without him in this match.
Continuing with this theme of not panicking in possession/getting frustrated, against Stoke, with the aerial advantage they have, crosses in the air do not look like a profitable way of creating chances, at least early on. Even though the wide areas may be where the easy space is, Arsenal should not look to exploit that space to play high crosses into the box. Maybe later in the game, if they have successfully worn down Stoke with good ball movement and positional play, such crosses could become useful, particularly if Olivier Giroud plays the role of supersub again.
Against Everton and against Southampton, Olivier Giroud’s introduction helped to change the match. In both matches, a fresh Giroud had his way with tired defenders as Arsenal chased the points. As the opponent tires, concedes possession, and drops deeper, a player like Giroud has a greater ability to take advantage of his size and strength. He can bully defenders; he can occupy areas, in the on-side space, closer to goal; his lack of top end speed matters less because of the lack of off-side space to exploit; his ability to hold the ball up against tired defenders allows Arsenal to better exploit more advantageous spaces. He seems like a fantastic option off the bench to chase a match.
However, if he can provide this at the end of games, would you not want this ability throughout the match? I would argue that the differential in freshness/fitness matters heavily for a player like Giroud. If he starts the match against Stoke, he does not start with that physical advantage. Instead, like the rest of Arsenal’s starters, he will physically decline as the match goes on. Therefore, it seems unwise to linearly extrapolate the production of a substitute to come up with an estimate of production over 90 minutes³.
Looking at the bigger picture, Olivier Giroud also seems like a player who has a significant drop-off in performance, when comparing fully fit and fresh and any other fitness and energy combination. Watch the first North London Derby from the 2013-14 season, and then watch the one in March of that season. The difference between a fresh Giroud in the first match and a physically worn-down Giroud in the final NLD is striking. And it makes sense given how much more he played last season compared any other season of his career.
Last season, he started 43 matches, logging 3725 minutes on the pitch, between Champions League and English Premier League games. During 2012/13, he played 41 matches between the two competitions, with only 28 starts, logging a total of 2715 minutes. In his final two seasons at Montpelier, he played 36 matches in 2011/12 and 37 matches in 2010/11, logging 3205 minutes and 2920 minutes respectively. Given the increase in minutes and matches that Giroud had last season, combined with his need to be at his best physically to play to the level Arsenal need of him, it makes sense that his performance tailed off massively as the season went along.
Therefore, to get the most out of Olivier Giroud, to have him consistently perform at the level Arsenal need, the Frenchman probably should not start a large majority of Arsenal’s matches. Instead, he should probably start occasionally, maybe 25 times a season, and have a significant proportion of his minutes come as a supersub, particularly when Arsenal chase a match. Obviously, Giroud wants to start every match. Such a playing policy could cause some discontent for the center forward. However, with the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck capable of playing that role, Arsenal have a greater need for high quality performances rather than a high quantity of appearances from Giroud.
¹5 points dropped to United, 3 points dropped to Stoke, 2 points dropped to Swansea. For all the talk of Arsenal not winning the title because they did not perform in “big” games, those are 10 points of which Arsenal should have won at least 8. There is your title.
²To make an analogy to the NFL, last season, the Seattle Seahawks seemed to take a similar approach when it came to defending receivers. Guessing correctly that referees would not blow the whistle every time they held a receiver or contacted one illegally, Seattle took advantage of this to no end. Combine this with the talent they had and it made for one of the greatest secondaries in my lifetime. Maybe such a thought process exists in the minds of combative clubs. “They might call us for a foul or a yellow card every now and then, but no referee wants to continuous stop the game for fouls”. Therefore, the lax enforcement, in an effort to promote “flow”, provides an incentive for such tactics. This provides a different explanation to why Arsenal seem to not get calls like other teams. Opponents revealed that referees have a desire to not blow the whistle all the time, making such combative tactics more profitable. Combine this with a perceived and sometimes real tendency for Arsenal to lose their attacking discipline in the face of such adversity, forcing the play, leading to turnovers, and providing counter-attacking opportunities, and we have some significant positive reinforcement of this set of behaviors.
³The idea of sub-effects also comes up in the per90 numbers and was on full display in the 2014 World Cup, particularly with Belgium, who brought on an athletic CF, either Origi or Lukaku, to take advantage of tired defenders.