Battle under the high ball will be key as Arsenal travel to Mordor to take on Stoke

When we took on Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium amid the dying embers of last season, we thrashed a team that was already on the beach.

In fact, Mark Hughes’s side were so lacklustre that the may as well have rolled out the deckchairs and called for the sangria, such was their general apathy towards the match, a fixture which they normally approach as if it were a derby.

It was, of course, incredibly opportune for the Gunners as they made light work of a side against whom they have tended the struggle in recent years, particularly away from home. A 4-1 win was the least they deserved.

This time around, however, at the opposite end of the season, I expect things to be almost entirely different.

Despite protestations of a change in style under Hughes, Stoke always revert to type against Arsenal, employing a sort of hybrid football/rugby/wrestling approach that typically causes us no end of problems.

Given how flimsy Arsene Wenger’s men looked against Leicester City last Friday, I expect Stoke to freshly emboldened and determined to be as physical as possible when Arsenal make the trip to the Potteries on Saturday.

The return of a few senior figures to our defence – Per Mertesacker and Shkodran Mustafi – will help add a bit of organisation and backbone to a rearguard that was makeshift at best against the Foxes.

Quite simply, we cannot afford a repeat of the sort of errors we were making at the Emirates, with players given free reign of the box to attack crosses and set pieces – which resulted in three goals for Leicester and could even have yielded one or two more.

Stoke are set piece and long ball specialists so, one would hope, the emphasis in training this week has been on attacking the high ball and taking some responsibility within the zonal marking system we employ. Too often, the much-maligned system has proven grossly ineffective if even one player is out of step. That cannot be allowed to continue.

Going forward, I have no fear that we are capable of causing Stoke all manner of problems, but that will depend a great deal on whether we get a grip on the game early enough. If we allow ourselves to be bullied by the hosts, we could easily retreat into ourselves, which plays directly into the hands of a side which thrives on weakness.

If we attack with the sort of pace and power we saw at times against Leicester, we will run rings around what is a middle-of-the-road defence. Efficiency in front of goal will also be key. Leicester had it in spades last Friday, we tend to be hugely profligate – that is not a trend we can afford to continue, particularly if we don’t start well on Saturday.

In terms of personnel, I don’t see the need to tinker too much, except for in defence, where any fit, regular centre back must be brought back in. If both Mustafi and Mertesacker are fit, so much the better, bring them both in and given Rob Holding a breather. The youngster was run a little ragged last Friday and could well do with a game out to recompose.

The balance in midfield was fairly good, with the only possible change I see being the introduction of Aaron Ramsey for Mohamed Elneny.

Other than that, we should have more than enough to get past Stoke, even if they are perennial pains in the backside. With luck, they will still be carrying a little ring rust after their extended summer break, allowing us the opportunity to strike hard and strike early. Here’s hoping, anyway!

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