Pre-Match Report

Arsenal v Stoke City - Preview

Emirates Stadium
Emirates Stadium

Arsène Wenger was struck by a statistic on Friday.

He was given the information in his interview with Arsenal Player and it resonated to such an extent that he recited it at the end of his media work 30 minutes later.

It came courtesy of Opta and here it is:

“If only the second half of games counted this season Arsenal would be second on 46 points, two points behind Manchester City.”

Of course it merely backs up the pattern of play that was clear to see in pretty much all eight games in January – Wenger’s men are stronger after the interval. But it certainly stuck with the manager.

“Maybe the psychological factor, the fear not to do well, lies in our first halves,” he pondered. “But when we are in a position where we really have to go for it we show extreme quality.

“I think we did that again against Liverpool on Wednesday [when Arsenal drew after trailing 2-0 early in the second half].

“We can be very proud of our performance in that game because the players had huge mental strength and great quality in our game. We completely dominated if you look at the numbers - the possession, the shots on goal, the final-third entries and the penalty-area entries.

“It was a complete procession on our part but unfortunately we didn’t win the game with all that domination.

“That’s down to our first half and it’s not a problem of quality, it’s more a psychological problem.”

And, given that the team are demonstrating the ability to recover from difficult positions, Wenger does not see a need for major change. For him, it is more about tweaks to prevent that early damage. And, of course, a big shift of footballing philosophy could counter his side’s recuperative powers.

“[At this stage] it can be a danger,” he said.

“There is a possibility that you still will not get rid of your weak points but lose those strong points.

“So our philosophy has to be permanent but we know that if it does not completely work we will be criticised for it.

“However I don't believe a team can achieve long-term results without a style and a philosophy of play. In the short term you can sometimes become a bit more secure.

“But I'm not sure this issue is down to our philosophy, it is more a psychological problem.

“Let's not forget when it was 2-2 against Liverpool there were 25 minutes to go with plenty of room to score a third goal and we had the opportunities.

“So for me there is a lot of quality in our team but we have to find the right balance between going forward and being tight at the back.”

Wenger’s late business in the transfer window was designed to help the search. The acquisition of left back Nacho Monreal was accelerated by the injury to Kieran Gibbs against Liverpool. The Spanish international fits the mould of Arsenal’s portside defenders in the past decade – tenacious, athletic yet offensive.

The manager said he would ponder of Monreal’s first training session before throwing him into Saturday’s game with Stoke at Emirates Stadium. With Thomas Vermaelen suffering a recurrence of his ankle problem the option of moving the captain to left-back has disappeared. The choice seems straightforward – the new man or Andre Santos, with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny in central defence.

Elsewhere Mikel Arteta is back after his calf problem and will add stability. Francis Coquelin is still out.

Stoke are having another solid Premier League season. They are tenth, pretty much equidistant from a Europa League spot and the relegation places.

Tony Pulis’ side have been notorious difficult opponents for Arsenal at the Britannia Stadium but the story has been very different at Emirates. They have been beaten on every visit in the Premier League era and, in fact, have not registered a win in N5 since August 1981.

An away record of W1 D6 L5 and just eight goals scored suggest they have struggled generally on the road this season. According to Wenger, there has been a gradual shift in style but toughness is still tattooed into their DNA.

“Stoke are a team that are usually well-organised and difficult to beat,” said the 63-year-old. “We have managed to do it at home in the past and want to do that again of course. But you expect always a fierce resistance from Stoke and most of the time you are never disappointed.

“They have gone for more technical quality these days, they have brought Charlie Adam and Steven Nzonzi who are technically good players in midfield.

“That means they have more variety in their game and they have shown that many times this season. And, of course, you know they can compete with anybody.”

Arsenal can do the same themselves. They also have the technical quality to take apart most Premier League teams.

Wednesday’s draw did not cost them ground on fourth-place Tottenham as the White Hart Lane side drew at Norwich. The gap is still four points and eminently bridgeable with 14 games left to play.

At the moment that is the primary statistic in Wenger’s mind.

But the manager was still struck by that other set of figures on Friday.

Team news:

Arsenal: Vermaelen (ankle), Coquelin (hamstring), Fabianski (ankle), Gibbs (thigh), Gervinho (international duty)

Stoke: Shea (foot), Wilson (match fitness)

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