13 May 2017

Shawcross and Mike Dean and Adam, oh my!

Ah, spring. The run-in. When evey Gooner's thoughts turn to points. Yes, every Gooner, it seems, turns amateur accountant this time of year, frantically assessing how many points are needed to ensure that mythic, enchanted top-four finish: what's our maximum? How likely is it that [detested rival] will drop points against [somewhat less-detested rival] to allow us to sneak in? So it goes. A victory over Man U gives us a chance to finish above them. That's fifth, then. A midweek victory over Southampton puts pressure on Liverpool, but fourth is still just out of reach. Before counting any more eggs (or is it beans?), though, there's the not-so-small matter of Stoke.

"But they're comfortably mid-table", you say. "They're not the same without Pulis", you say, and "they've only won once in their last nine." Enough, I say. Stoke may not be quite the maulers and miscreants they were under Pulis, but Mark Hughes has enjoyed more than his fair share of inflicting misery on Arsène over the years. and their relationship is strained at best. Under Hughes, Stoke do continue to play their trademark physical "football", and they seem to have ended their brief flirtation with more-positive play. Still, they are more likely to get forward, with Arnautovic, Allen, and Shaqiri comprising a more-creative midfield than one might associate with a Stoke squad. As such, we'd do well to not only mind our shins, ankles, and other extremities; we'll also have to keep an eye on this other attacking threat those three represent.

Making matters potentially worse, the game will be "officiated" by Mike Dean, reviled, hated and detested—but far be it from me to dwell on his family's dynamics. Suffice it to say that we could be in for a long outing, what with Stoke's Orc-ishness and Dean's apparently sadistic glee in seeing Arsenal suffer.

At our end, we know that our backs are up against it, and we can't afford to drop points. Fortunately, the move to the 3-4-3 (or 3-4-2-1) have given us something of a stronger platform and an actual structure to our midfield. Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey in particular seem to have thrive, not only in shielding that back-three but also in linking defense to attack. Each has looked livelier yet also more composed. I'd add in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but he picked up a knock against Southampton and may be unavailable. Still, the larger point holds: the transition to this new formation has gone remarkably well thus far, and we may just see Ramsey score his first goal of the campaign against the club whose style of play very nearly ended his career. If nothing else, we've seen goals from most if not all of the usual suspects in recent weeks.

Wherever they come from, we need a few goals. If we're serious about reeling in Liverpool, we need to look past the points. We've each conceded 42, and Liverpool have scored 71 to our 68. Should we each end on 73 points (we draw and win twice, Liverpool win one and lose one), the tie-break is goal-difference. Should we both end on a goal difference of , say, 30, we might face a play-off at a neutral site to settle things. Given that we already have an FA Cup final to tend to, we would do well to win out. Adding just a bit of schadenfreude to the proceedings, we end with a visit from Everton. Would the Toffees roll over for us if it meant sinking their Merseyside rivals out of the top-four? I wouldn't put it past them, but it's still best that we put as many goals past Stoke as possible first.

LAST 3
Arsenal 3-1 Stoke (10.12.2016)
Stoke 0-0 Arsenal (17.01.2016)
Arsenal 2-0 Stoke (12.09.2015)

FACTFILE
Arsenal have failed to score in two of our last three trips to Brittania Stadium.
Stoke have not lost at home to Arsenal in their last six matches.
The two clubs first clashed on 12 November 1904, a 2-1 win to Woolwich Arsenal.

INJURIES
Oxlade-Chamberlain and Koscielny face late fitness-tests; Cazorla remains out.

POSSIBLE STARTING XI
Čech; Holding, Mustafi, Monreal; Iwobi, Ramsey, Xhaka, Bellerín; Alexis, Özil, Giroud.

PREDICTION
Stoke 1-2 Arsenal.