Arsenal Weekend Preview: A Complete Guide to the Stoke City Match
Gervinho wants to invoke the bygone exploits of Robert Pires, Arsene Wenger is pleased with the new youth set up in the Premier League and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is fit again.
Oxlade-Chamberlain's return from an ankle knock, which had seen him pull out of the England camp ahead of a friendly against Italy last week, is perhaps the biggest boost for the Gunners who will have to do without Laurent Koscielny, who will be out another week with a calf injury.
Gervinho's pronouncement is one of the more interesting wrinkles heading into the trip northwest.
"I want to emulate Robert Pires," went the headline on Arsenal's official site.
"I hope to push on personally, also to progress with the team and to showcase my qualities," Gervinho said, before noting that the Premier League has forced him to diversify his game, which was steeped in dribbling forays while the Ivorian played for Lille (2009-11).
"I've learnt lots of things, coming to a new club, being new to the Premier League. I've learnt to adapt on the pitch and, when I think back, also in front of goal.
"I really feel that I've come on a lot, I feel really good in training and I'm ready for my second season."
Arsenal fans will be expecting more from the left winger, who showed glimpses of his potential against Sunderland last Saturday, perhaps seen best in a phenomenal slaloming run in the first half.
Santi Cazorla Factor
An argument could be made that just as Robin van Persie made the Gunners tick a season ago, so to will Cazorla in 2012-13.
The Spaniard was sensational in his full league debut last Saturday, completing 72-of-77 passes (93.5 percent pass accuracy) while uncorking three shots.
One forced a good save from Simon Mignolet, another skipped just wide of the keeper's right-hand post.
Cazorla tired somewhat in the second half after his energetic display in the first period, which saw him filter throughout the attacking half of the field—and even sometimes behind it—but he still had the presence of mind to play a neat little ball through for Olivier Giroud, who could not convert his effort.
Wenger theorized as to why strikers seem to take longer to "bed in" for new clubs in new leagues than, say a midfielder like Cazorla.
"It is bit easier in midfield because you touch the ball more and maybe coordination with the other players is less important than when you play up front, because the players in midfield need to know your runs," Wenger said.
Speaking of Giroud
The French striker has asked for patience from Arsenal fans after that miss, but will not have lost too much sleep over it this past week.
At 25, Giroud has rocketed to the forefront of French football in the past year, thanks in large part to a scintillating 2011-12 campaign with Montpellier in which the Grenoble-born forward notched 25 goals in all competitions.
Giroud said that Wenger told him "not to worry" about the miss, obviously realizing that it will take his new signing time to settle in a new league.
It should make for an interesting plot point ahead of the Stoke match, however, debating whether Wenger will hand Giroud his first Premier League start against the Potters.
The Frenchman's size (6'3") and aerial ability could be vital assets against Stoke's physical play, as could Lukas Podolski on the wing.
The German international flattered to deceive last Saturday, but he is still working back to fitness after the European Championships—not to mention, like Giroud, acclimating to a new league, a new team and a new style of play predicated upon passing movements to unlock opposing defenses.
"We were a bit below on all the speed work, on our change of pace work," Wenger told the official site. "That's normal with the European Championship [during the summer], it takes you just a fraction longer than a normal six weeks of preparation.
"We were serious, we defended well and we gave the impression that we are a team. We lacked a little bit of sharpness that could have allowed us to make the difference."
Podolski's no-frills approach could work against Stoke, who famously held Arsenal to a 1-1 draw at home last May.
He has the backing of Arsenal teammate and compatriot Per Mertesacker, who says that fans will soon see the new No. 9 at his considerable best.
"You have seen that he has a good technique and he is good in possession," Mertesacker told the official site. "We have the players who can pass him the ball. He is a good finisher too and we will see that in a couple of weeks."
Gervinho started in that match, and seems likely to play some role in Sunday's fixture, although Wenger might just opt to start Podolski at left wing, where he often starts while on duty with the national team.
Given Giroud's proclivity for combining with teammates—he is brilliant at producing neat flicks and deadened touches to free up scoring chances—a combination between the new signings might just work.
Michael Cox notes that the away trip to Stoke has served as a veritable thorn in the Gunners' sides since the Potters were promoted to the Premiership in the 2008-09 season. Arsenal have won just once in that span—a 3-1 victory in February 2010, better known as the ignominious encounter in which Aaron Ramsey suffered a double leg fracture.
They lost during the 2008-09 and 2010-11 trips, and tied 1-1 last May.
So What Will the Starting Lineup Look Like?
Wojciech Szczesny will start in goal, and given Koscielny's absence, the back line should consist of Kieran Gibbs at left-back, Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker manning the center and Carl Jenkinson at right-back.
Assistant manager Steve Bould, who has worked with the defense during his brief time at the post, will almost certainly instruct Mertesacker to shadow Crouch on set pieces.
The lanky striker scored against Arsenal last season at the Emirates, and provides a constant aerial threat—something which has given the Gunners no end of trouble at the Britannia in recent seasons, whether on long throws or crosses.
Some have clamored for youngster Nico Yennaris to get an opportunity on the right side of defense, but Francis Coquelin could also feature there.
In midfield, Wenger will likely opt for the central triangle of Abou Diaby, Mikel Arteta and Cazorla, which started against Sunderland.
The front three is where it could get interesting. Gervinho's pace could be a game-breaker, but you wonder whether he might make a bigger impact as a late substitute, where his speed could wreck havoc upon tired legs in defense.
It might be interesting to see a combination of Podolski at left wing, Giroud at the center striker position and Theo Walcott on the right.
Given that Oxlade-Chamberlain is just coming back from an ankle knock and hasn't featured in first-team training this week, Wenger might deem it prudent to bring him on later.
There is a worry that Arsenal could be meeting Stoke at an inopportune moment: Koscielny is injured, and the peripatetic nature of the past couple weeks (concerning players going out and coming in) could have an unsettling effect.
So, to wrap, a team sheet of:
Szczesny, Gibbs, Vermaelen, Mertesacker, Jenkinson/Yennaris/Coquelin, Diaby, Arteta, Cazorla, Podolski/Gervinho, Giroud/Podolski, Walcott.
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