We return to Premier League action against Stoke City on Saturday, and ahead of the game tactical expert Michael Cox examines our opponents.
Mark Hughes was appointed three years ago to improve Stoke in terms of both style and substance. He’s delivered: as well as helping them evolve into a more technical, attractive passing side and attracting creative players like Bojan Krkic and Xherdan Shaqiri, he’s also steered the club to three consecutive ninth-place finishes. Hughes, however, often sends out his teams to frustrate Arsenal at the Emirates, and this might be a cautious away performance from the Potters.
Stoke will probably line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and the central midfield zone is of particular interest. Joe Allen was one of the few bright sparks in the opening weeks, and is somewhat surprisingly the club’s top league goalscorer on four. But he was suspended for the 1-0 victory over Watford, when Hughes used a different format in midfield - and only made the bench for last weekend’s 2-0 win over Burnley.
In Allen’s absence, Hughes has played Charlie Adam alongside Giannelli Imbula. This is a tidy, balanced partnership that works neatly: Adam sits deep and sprays ambitious passes into wide areas, while Imbula is more mobile, breaking up play and shuttling into attack, and usually keeps his distribution simple.
Stoke have a variety of attacking threats. On the left, Marko Arnautovic is a speedy, exciting individualist who might expose Arsenal’s lack of a natural right-back, while from the opposite flank Mame Biram Diouf moves inside quickly to become a second striker, attempting to get on the end of Jon Walters’ knockdowns.
Walters might represent the old Stoke - straightforward and direct - but he makes excellent runs and is tactically very intelligent, in addition to being a useful penalty-box presence. With Bojan, Wilfried Bony and classic Plan B Peter Crouch all in reserve, Hughes has several options.
Swiss midfielder Shaqiri has been used in the No 10 position recently, having generally played from the right throughout his debut campaign. The diminutive playmaker is a wonderful technical talent and has enjoyed greater freedom from that role, though it remains to be seen whether he has a significant impact in matches when Stoke are under sustained spells of pressure.
AREAS TO TARGET
Stoke haven’t protected their backline particularly well this season, with Adam not particularly good at covering ground to stop counter-attacks. Clever movement combined with quick passing could see them opened up regularly.
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