How Arsene Wenger Should Set Arsenal Up vs. Stoke
On paper, Stoke will present Arsenal with a wildly different challenge to Marseille.
The French side play a high-octane possession-based game, pivoting around the diminutive playmaker Mathieu Valbuena. Stoke, despite a change in manager, still play a direct game typified by long balls and a different kind of wild challenge.
However, by necessity, Arsenal's XI for this game will be almost identical to the one that faced the French runners-up. The absence of the likes of Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Tomas Rosicky robs Arsene Wenger of the opportunity to rotate his attacking players.
At the back, he has the option of bringing in one of Carl Jenkinson, Nacho Monreal or Thomas Vermaelen. However, received wisdom indicates that rotating a back four is never a good idea. If your defence is stable and functional, leave it as it is.
If it isn't broke, don't tinker.
That means Arsenal will almost certainly line up with the same XI for the second game in succession.
Heading in to the season, as the only top-four side to retain their manager, Arsenal hoped consistency and continuity would be their major strength this season. However, they can’t possibly have envisaged that consistency manifesting in their team selection so soon in the season. As Jose Mourinho fiddles with the multitude of options he has at Stamford Bridge, Arsene Wenger continues to rely on the same small batch of senior professionals.
On the downside, Wenger runs the risk of over-playing his stars. The greatest danger to Arsenal against Stoke, set pieces aside, is a spot of early-season fatigue.
The positive, however, is that this XI is developing a real mutual understanding. The interchanging of position between midfield and attack was particularly encouraging at Sunderland and Marseille, and the same intelligence of movement will be required to bamboozle a static Stoke defence.
Arsenal ostensibly line up in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, with Mesut Ozil stationed in the No. 10 position and Jack Wilshere fielded in an unfamiliar left-wing role:
However, against Marseille, it became increasingly clear that Wilshere has permission to drift inside at every opportunity. With Ozil also given license to roam, Arsenal’s formation shifts away from 4-3-3 and draws comparison with the “magic square” 4-4-2 system that is prominent in South American football.
In this formation, the midfield four of Wilshere, Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini form an ever-rotating quadrangle, constantly opening up new angles for the Gunners’ triangulated passing.
Theo Walcott is free to play as an inside forward, almost as advanced as Olivier Giroud. The narrowness of the midfield allows full-backs Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna to bomb on and provide width for the attack. Gibbs reaped the benefit of this with two assists against Marseille.
Arsenal will hope their magic square is too great for Stoke to dispel.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout the 2013/14 season. Follow him on Twitter here.
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