Saturday, 1 March 2014

Stoke vs Arsenal: Match Preview + Sagna stuff



I hate Stoke City.

I know that Ryan Shawcross has mellowed a lot since that tackle on Aaron Ramsey. I know that the anti-football cap-wearing dimwit Tony Pulis isn't the manager of Stoke City anymore. I know that after Rory Delap retired, Stoke seldom adopt throw-ins as a method to cross the ball into the box.  I also know that under Mark Hughes, they don't employ dirty, rugby long-ball tactics to an extent.

However, I still find their fans (what is the word for...?) evil. And that's not to say I don't have good reason. How dare they plan to boo Ramsey after what their player did to him? I can't believe that a section of supporters could be so deluded, so heartless and so moronic that they plan to abuse a player who did no harm to them, only to find out that he isn't going to be taking any part in the match due to injury.

As an Arsenal supporter, I have almost been taught to hate the Spuds. (I would have anyway, what kind of club do you have to be to spend £100m and fight for fifth place?) However, if I wasn't an Arsenal supporter and watched the EPL as a neutral viewer, I'd have probably hated Chelsea, Manchester City and Stoke City much, much more.

The reasons to hate Chelsea and City are blindingly obvious. Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan have corrupted the finances of the game and won their teams accolades purely because of money. The clubs have leaned on the bottomless pits of cash to be competitive, and shamelessly bragged about that. Most of their supporters are plastic as well; I know very few Manchester City or Chelsea supporters who actually had heard of these clubs before the money rolled in.

However, hating Stoke City is entirely different; it's primarily because I don't know any other side that is so anti-Arsenal. While we play beautiful football, they keep booting the ball to their ex-Spud target man. While we have decent individuals who have a limit to their aggression (bar Flamini!), they are raw apes who thrive on Shawcrossing everyone like it's their privilege to do so.

I'm not saying that playing with aggression in football is wrong. On the contrary it's how the game is supposed to be played, because football is a contact sport. However, Stoke tend to overdo it a lot and set no limits (or indeed, technique) to their sliding challenges. While it's notable that they have cut down on that factor this season, I simply can't stop hating them. Not because of the Aaron Ramsey thing, but because of the reaction from their 'fans' later.

I'm not going to tell this team to win the match for Aaron Ramsey, that's frankly too outdated and cliched. Instead, I'm going to be as level-headed and logical as possible and hope that the team wins, simply because the next games are far from winnable. After Stoke, we face the Spuds, City, Chelsea and Everton in the league (3 away games), all of which are matches where points can and will be dropped. Oh yeah, and a crucial FA Cup tie along with a trip to Munich as well.

I know that going to the Britannia stadium and winning is a difficult task. The last time we won there was when Ramsey broke his leg. However, compared to the gauntlet we're set to go through, this is a game we should win anyhow, seeing that we're title challengers.

In team news, we have a bit of a left back crisis, with Kieran Gibbs definitely out and Nacho Monreal a doubt. If Monreal fails to make it, then Wenger should have some curious options to try out. Should he deploy a match unfit Thomas Vermaelen at left back who's crying out for game time? Or should he field Mathieu Flamini there and partner Jack Wilshere along with Mikel Arteta? Of course, there's also the possibility of Sagna covering left back and Carl Jenkinson going onto the right.

It's a tough call, but I think that Monreal would be fit and will start on the left for this game. In hindsight, it wouldn't be the worst thing. While I understand that he's not the most reliable defender in our back line, pitting Monreal against Robben is very different than against Odemwingie. I'm sure that if he starts today he'll do a good job.

If he can't start then I'd want Vermaelen on the left, mostly because I don't want to disposition Flamini or Sagna for a game in which their aggression and physicality are vital. And before you attempt to remind me that Vermaelen is being mispositioned himself, let me point out that Tommy played as a left-back for Ajax before Arsenal came calling, so that position won't be a mystery to him.

The rest of the back line picks itself, with Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny and Mertesacker. A game like Stoke MUST require the services of Flamini, who would presumably partner the equally aggressive Jack Wilshere. A good, aggressive, squad thus far I'd say.

While Giroud seems set to start after the whole model scandal has cooled, the front trio should be a bit of a welcome problem for the manager. The manager has Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gnabry, Ozil, Rosicky, Cazorla and Podolski to choose for three slots, so it'll be interesting to see what lineup he does select.

Personally, I'd go for Chamberlain on the right, Podolski on the left and Rosicky in the center - The Ox and Podolski are players that can match (or come close to matching) Stoke's physical nature, and Rosicky can have a big impact if he replicates his rough housing nature that he earlier performed against Newcastle. I for one wouldn't use this as game for Mesut Ozil's comeback - the physicality at the Britannia might startle him.

However, knowing Wenger, I'd say that Ozil is set to start. With Wenger, I'd predict that Ozil would begin with Chambo and Cazorla on the wings, and Giroud the obvious choice upfront. While I'm not particularly against this decision (Ozil will undoubtedly be raring to shake of criticism), I fear for Ozil's fitness if this does happen.

All in all, we should be having enough to beat Stoke City. With Liverpool facing a tricky away tie to Southampton and Chelsea traveling to Craven Cottage for a London derby (not to mention City not playing at all this weekend), there is a genuine chance of the top four shuffling positions. Let's choose forward today.

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In other news, interesting quotes from Bacary Sagna have come out, where he oh-so clearly stated that he loves Arsenal and wants to continue his future here. However, he also labeled the trophyless streak as "embarrassing", which just shows me how badly he wants to win at this club. However, if we win nothing, "win at this club" could quickly change to "win anywhere". We've seen it happen with Robin before, let's not continue that trend.

After the 5-2 win against the Spuds back in February 2012, van Persie had said:

“I am a true Gunner. I love this club and that’s no secret. We will soon talk about many things. There’s nothing complicated or sinister - the Club and I have both agreed to speak at the end of the season and see how things stand. The boss, Ivan Gazidis and I are all comfortable with it."

I'm sorry, but I still don't doubt that Robin character was close to the present Sagna's. However, the eventual lure for trophies caught up with him and he left the club in search of glory, just like Nasri. And Fabregas. And Clichy. And Adebayor. And Hleb. And Henry, to a certain extent.

Sagna says:

“I love Arsenal, I love playing for Arsenal, I love my team. Arsenal is the most followed team in France and I remember I used to watch them when I was in France so it was a pleasure to play for them, so why leave?"

If we don't win a trophy, I'm certain that his love for Arsenal will evaporate in a trice. And I don't blame him - ambitious footballers want to be surrounded with players that can win them rewards. I don't think that the contract length is a major issue here, Sagna is refusing to sign a new deal because he still isn't convinced that Arsenal is a club that can give him trophies. Come May, we need to turn that around.

I don't understand the concept of not giving Sagna a long term deal now. It's not like we'd make a hefty loss if the gamble of paying him a long-term deal backfires. Players like Almunia, Mannone, Eboue, Squillaci, Djourou, Santos, Denilson, Arshavin, Gervinho, Chamakh and countless others who clogged up our wage bill are long gone, which means that we can now afford a loss on a player who deserves to retire at the club anyway.

I say give Sagna what he needs, it's about time he's given a substantial pay rise on his paltry £60K salary. He's one of the best right backs in the country and one of the most versatile and loyal players at Arsenal. Not giving him a salary rise just because he's 30 is madness.

Let's hope Wenger realizes that.

P.S. Interesting stuff from Theo Walcott as well, read it if you have the time.
And Santi has signed a new deal, yay!

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )