28 February 2014

Stoke Tactical Preview: Hobbits vs. Orcs

Our trip to Brittania is rarely one to look forward to, what with the contrast in styles, the history, the general unpleasantness that surrounds the fixture. There's a silver lining in that certain bogey-men, namely Tony Pulis and Rory Delap, have moved on. The ill feelings, however, linger. As we go into the clash, a great deal of the talk has centered on the infamous Shawcross tackle, which I've taken on here and here in a perhaps-heretical attempt at recasting the villain in a softer role, that of misunderstood or unwitting kid rather than unmitigated monster. However, last I checked there will be a fair number of other players on the pitch, a score of them, more or less, and so it might be worth stepping back in order to see the forest as well as the trees.

And I do mean trees. Stoke's back four each stand over 1.84m (6') or taller, with the shortest of them left-back Erik Pieters at "only" 1.84m. Wilson (1.88m), Shawcross (1.91m), and Cameron (1.91m) offer more height than perhaps any other back four we'll face. Not to be outdone, Asmir Begovic, arguably one of the Prem's finer keepers, stands an even-more imposing 1.98m while not losing any of the reflexes, agility, or lateral movement sometimes associated with such verticality. Aerial duels, corners, and other set-pieces may end in fruitless assaults that these men can easily repel. With these obstacles in mind, it could very well be a long, tiring afternoon for Giroud (or Sanogo, should he feature) as he grapples with not one or two but four defenders who can rival them for height.

It may therefore fall to the midfield to work without more than through Giroud, who may feel like he's fighting through a tangled mass of arms, legs, and torsos even more than usual, and whose most-vital contribution might simply lie in occupying the attentions of Shawcross or Wilson in the middle. Finding lanes through which to attack, at least centrally, may lead to a long, frustrating match. What's more, Stoke seem even more committed to the shape of their defense—save Pieters. In fact, Stoke's left flank might just be where we'll see most of our chances. With Pieters alone among the back four in showing a willingness to venture forward (the only Stoke defender to have an average field-position at or higher than midfield), and with the forward-thinking Arnautovic looking to attack up the pitch and cut inside, our right-side midfielders could find plenty of space to run into. Whether this turns out to be Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Serge Gnabry, I hope we see a winger who can offer the kind of pace and width necessary to exploit this potential opening. I mention "potential" opening because we all know full-well, I'm sure, how stubborn Stoke's defense can be. For all I know, Hughes has told his back to never venture more than 10-15 yards above their own penalty-area.

However, should there be a more-adventurous game-plan, we could send plenty of traffic down that flank. With Özil potentially returning to the CAM role, he might actually find someone willing to make runs into that Arnautovic and Pieters offer, and all of the height in the world—did I mention that Arnautovic is 1.92m?—can't cover the ground that Ox or Gnabry can cover even with the ball at their feet. Their pace, width, and verve could lead to some exciting chances for them. Should they get in behind Pieters, this should force Wilson out to the flank, creating yet more space in the middle of the area for a runner like Giroud or Özil or Rosický to run into to finish a cross—just keep the passes on the ground, though, gentlemen.

Stoke have a reputation for being well-nigh impregnable at home, and it's true that they have the 9th fewest goals-conceded while sitting 15th on the table. Then again, we've scored the second-most away-goals (26, behind only Liverpool's 28), so what's it going to be? The towering Stoke defense, or the flitting, darting Arsenal offense? I may be just a bit biased, but I do see us slicing that defense open, taking advantage of passing and pace to unsettle and then pick Stoke apart.