By Chris Harris
Hull City aren't the only newly-promoted club making their mark in the Premier League.
Stoke may have struggled on the road but they are turning the Britannia Stadium into something of a fortress. Aston Villa, Tottenham and Sunderland have already bitten the dust there; now Arsenal are in the firing line.
Much has been made of Rory Delap's corner-like long throws and Ricardo Fuller's prowess up front but, above all, Stoke represent probably the toughest physical challenge in the top flight. What they lack in guile they make up for in guts so Arsenal will need graft as well as craft on Saturday.
We asked Martin Spinks of the Stoke Sentinel for a Potteries perspective ahead of Arsenal's visit. Read on for his take on the season so far, the stand-out performers, Tony Pulis' tactics and more.
THE STORY SO FAR
"There are a few good results in there. They beat Villa and Spurs at home and won a great point at Liverpool when they just defended for their lives. I have never seen such a one-sided 0-0 draw but it was a fantastic result. They have lost a lot of games there is no disputing that, particularly away from home. But we’re just hoping, with it being a home game, that we can give Arsenal a real game.
"The important thing, even if we drop into the relegation zone, is to stay in touch with the other teams in the bottom half of the table. That was our first aim from the start of the season. Fourth from bottom is the ultimate aim but just staying in contention is vital. 'Doing a Derby' was everyone’s underlying fear but it looks like they will avoid that. Nobody has really turned them over although Manchester City came closest to doing that last Sunday. Ultimately they had a £30 million striker upfront who scored a hat-trick. For teams like Stoke there is not a lot you can do about that. We need to stay in touch right until the very end and hopefully travel to Arsenal on the final day of the season with something to play for, hopefully already safe."
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
"Of course physically they’re strong, disciplined and organised. Obviously at this level, as Robinho showed, that sometimes isn’t enough. They have got a bit of flair as well, everybody’s pointed to Rory Delap’s throws and there is no denying that that is a big weapon in their armoury, but they have got players like Ricardo Fuller who is fantastic on the ball and can beat the best of defenders on his day."
MAN OF THE MOMENT
"Fuller brings skill more than anything. He has got good confidence on the ball and he is one player who doesn’t lose the ball easily. He is deceptively strong and it may sound like an exaggeration but on his day he is almost balletic on the ball. He can wrong-foot the best of defenders, he has proved that already. He can finish too. If you are looking for a criticism of him, it is maybe his finishing. He had one or two chances at Man City that, if he had taken them it would have been a different game. It is difficult to criticise your leading scorer and of course it is important that he has scored those goals because the record signing Dave Kitson hasn’t quite clicked as yet."
"I think the stand-out new signing has been the centre half Abdoulaye Faye from Newcastle. As it happens he played for Newcastle against Stoke in the FA Cup last January and he was the stand-out player that day as well. He made mincemeat of Ricardo Fuller as well as it happens and I think the two joked about that since then. He has been the solid bullwark in the defence. One or two centre halves have played alongside him already – there were five different combinations in the first nine games – so that shows there has been a bit of disruption at the back which has cost them.
"Many of the new signings have Premier League experience and the manager, Tony Pulis, made no secret of the need to get that type of player in. He has always pledged his faith in experience during his managerial career and he came into the Premier League saying we need hardened players. Danny Higginbotham he knew because he had been his captain for a year before he left for Sunderland 14 months ago. He needed a goalkeeper desperately, he flirted with one or two others, but Thomas Sorensen suddenly appeared on the scene. It seemed a gamble because he had hardly played for a year after being bombed out at Villa but you have to say that he has got stronger and stronger in every game. He got a bad injury at Tottenham, a bit of blood on his face as the TV cameras showed, but played against Man City in the next game and was arguably the man of the match with some more great saves.
"Some of the others haven’t quite had a run in the side yet. Ibrahimo Sonko has had injury problems and he hasn’t quite got into his rhythm yet. And then £5.5 million Dave Kitson has attracted all the attention but he is still waiting for his first goal."
"There could be a few changes because of the three-game week. Players like Salif Diao, the former Liverpool midfielder, has played recently but I wouldn’t expect him to play all three games in the space of a week. There are a few players who are beginning to surface. Tom Soares is one who the fans down in the capital might have heard of, coming from Palace. He got a lot of attention early on in his career but he has had to bide his time at Stoke. He came in for the last couple of games and introduced a bit of pace and skill down the right-hand side in the absence of last season’s player of the year Liam Lawrence. Soares is certainly one that Arsenal might have to look out for on Saturday.
"As for the tactics, Pulis is essentially a 4-4-2 man but in reality it is more a 4-4-1-1, with the second striker tending to sit deep. That could be Mamady Sidibe or he could play Dave Kitson in there. Pulis will play with two banks of four, particularly against Arsenal, I don’t expect them to come out gung-ho. They will be organised and hope to keep tight to the Arsenal players and try and stifle their brilliant football."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"There are still question marks when they go and lose at places at Fulham. That gives us encouragement because Fulham are a side who are down there with Stoke. Clearly on their day they are a delight to watch and for a neutral the result is almost immaterial, it is just watching great football. You do feel that they deserve to win games more often than they do because of that great football. I’m just hoping that they don’t bring too much of it to the Britannia on Saturday."