Saturday, January 16, 2016

Match Preview, Stoke City v Arsenal: The Alexis Conundrum

Arsenal’s tests shift to England’s Northeast from its Northwest with Sunday’s visit to Stoke City. It’s a challenging fixture under any circumstances—Arsenal have just one win in seven Premier League matches there—and so soon after Wednesday’s grueling, frustrating draw at Liverpool, Stoke is a truly trying trip.

The good news is that the Gunners move on from disappointments much more quickly than their supporters do. We’ve seen recent evidence of this, when the 4-0 pasting at Southampton led not to a collapse as 2015 turned to 2016 but instead to three victories in short order.

And even if the legs remain weary, the prospect of Alexis Sanchez’s return is energizing. Although results have been solid in his absence (W7, D1, L1), Arsenal could certainly benefit from the Chilean’s infectious verve. A midwinter match at Stoke City seems like the perfect occasion.

In this occasion, as in all, perfection may elude us. Manager Arsène Wenger would be taking a major risk by immediately calling on Alexis. A re-aggravation of his hamstring injury, a problem related to compensating for his original injury, or consequences of Stoke’s infamously physical play could restrict last season’s star man from contributing substantially to Arsenal’s Premier League title challenge.

Wenger is well aware of the difficulty of this decision. He told his pre-match press conference:
Alexis, I would say has a 60:40 chance to be available and be back in the squad. He has two decisive days - Friday and Saturday. He is fit, he has worked very hard, and the decision we have to take is whether to take a gamble or not on his injury.

One of the manager’s clear considerations is the threat Alexis adds to Arsenal’s attack. Without him, opponents can focus on playmaker Mesut Özil, even man-marking the league’s top provider out of the game, as Southampton did. Alexis’s unpredictability, quickness, and determination will punish a team structured to stop anyone else.

Equally important is Alexis’s contribution to the Gunners’ efforts without the ball. He’s the key to Arsenal’s press in forward areas and forms an effective partnership with left back Nacho Monreal when opponents advance. Alexis can also help defend the middle of the pitch, where the midfielders Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini have shown they’d benefit from additional cover.

Despite the myriad ways in which Alexis strengthens this Arsenal team, the feeling here is that the manager will deploy him as a substitute. Wenger fancies a gamble, but perhaps not now with a prize asset he needs for as many of the remaining 16 league matches as possible.

Key Matchup

Joel Campbell against Erik Pieters. Arsenal’s once forsaken Costa Rican has risen to impressive form of late, creating danger with timely runs and clever passes from the right of Arsenal’s attack. He’ll need all his decisiveness and skill to outmaneuver Stoke’s well-drilled defensive unit and experienced and physical left back.

Where to Worry

Stoke have bombed Arsenal with crosses in the past, and the Gunners will need to limit that supply. But this season, the Potters have added speed and creativity to their weaponry, as their quick strikes against Manchester City showed. Keeping playmaker Bojan Krkic in check and marking the runs of Marko Arnautovic will be extremely important.

Match Verdict

It takes little perspicacity to see this match as a physical and mental gantlet. Even without the tricky Xherdan Shaqiri, Stoke have enough in attack to hurt Arsenal. And the Potters still deploy a solid, physical, potentially frustrating defense. But this Arsenal team has a way of succeeding despite the obvious obstacles, and we think they’ll do so again.

Players to Watch:

Arsenal. Olivier Giroud. The front man took a beating against Liverpool, got patched up, and returned to score two exquisite goals. That increased his total to 18 in all competitions this season. If he can outwit (not difficult) and outmuscle (more difficult) head Orc Ryan Shawcross, Arsenal will succeed.

Stoke City. Ibrahim Affelay. Several Stoke players may grab the camera’s attention more than the Dutch midfielder does, but his deployment will dictate the match’s dynamic. If he works deeper in the midfield, he’ll be assigned to control Özil, meaning manager Mark Hughes is placing the priority on defending. If he takes a more advanced role, that will reveal Hughes’s attacking intent.

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