“It’s always a very heated and committed game. We want to prepare for that but at the end of the day it’s the quality of the football that has to make the difference.”
Three wins and three clean sheets has done much for Arsenal’s state of mind before the perennially tough trip to Stoke.
The perception may be that the industry and inspiration of Alexis is carrying Arsène Wenger’s men right now but, in fact, the key change has been the solidity of the backline. Laurent Koscielny’s return has been a major factor. But the Frenchman is doubtful for Saturday’s game following 180 intense minutes this week - his first games for almost two months.
Nacho Monreal, the quiet yeoman who covered much of Koscielny’s absence, is also out so Kieran Gibbs will return at left back. Emi Martinez has proved an excellent deputy for Wojciech Szczesny but he is still young. So Arsenal’s key area of improvement has had more changes going into a game that, in the past, has had the potential to derail them.
Change is good sometimes. Like when you are trying to break down a tough and talented Southampton side at Emirates Stadium. Alexis got the goal with minutes left but Arsenal had been flagging somewhat before the introduction of Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski from the bench.
Returning players have given the manager options once again and that is crucial when so many games are decided upon the impetus of those introduced late on.
|Arsenal: Koscielny (Achilles), Ospina (thigh), Ozil (knee), Debuchy (ankle), Gibbs Welbeck (doubt - hamstring), Walcott (doubt - groin), Gnabry (match fitness)
Stoke City: Ireland (illness - fitness test), Walters (knee - fitness test), Sidwell (knee), Whelan (calf), Moses (thigh), Teixiera (ankle), Huth (calf), Odemwingie (knee)
“Offensively, we have many options and of course that helps in games that are very tight,” said Wenger. “Most of the time, [substitutions] are about how far you can unbalance the team. That means you take a gamble but without really committing suicide.
“There's a fine line. Sometimes you have to completely go for it because you are in a desperate situation. When the game is very tight, it's important to keep the balance and add something offensively. When the players that come on are very strong like Podolski and Giroud, of course, they have a huge impact. And that helps.”
Koscielny may be missing this time but his return has been massive. Gibbs comes back this weekend. With Szczesny and Mathieu Debuchy close as well, more difference-makers will be in the squad soon.
Stoke finished in a solid, safe ninth place last season under Mark Hughes and have started this term in a similar style. Arsenal’s record at the Britannia is W1 D3 L4 in all competitions. Outside the traditional top six sides, it is one of their toughest trips of the year.
"Offensively, we have many options and of course that helps in games that are very tight"
“Mark Hughes has done very well because Tony Pulis had done an exceptional job,” said Wenger. “They are stable now in the Premier League. They are always in between sixth and 12th and that’s a big task.
“It’s always a very heated and committed game when we go there. We want to prepare for that but at the end of the day it’s the quality of the football that has to make the difference. We have to prepare to be committed 100 per cent without forgetting the way we want to play football.”
Hughes sprang a surprise in the summer by signing Bojan Krkic from Barcelona. It was rumoured the Spaniard scored 900 goals for various youth sides after joining La Masia at eight. He played 100 times for the Catalan giants as well as compiling a CV that includes Roma, Milan and Ajax.
“He was a massive talent, one of the promising players at Barcelona they signed at a very young age. He’s a creative player who can deliver a final ball and make a difference individually. He adds creativity to their team.”
Arsenal have been warned.
A win at Stoke could well leave Wenger’s men back in the Champions League places by the end of the weekend. Meanwhile four straight wins would constitute the 'run' they have been searching for throughout the campaign.
Over the years, the game at the Britannia Stadium has become a measuring stick for certain factors Wenger’s men require for success - bottle, battle and stoicism.
This time it means all that and just a little bit more.