17:30 KO (BST); Saturday 19th August; bet365 Stadium (Stoke, England)
BT Sport 1
After a disjointed season, Mark Hughes was left with many questions hanging over his future at the club. The narrow defeat against Everton provided signs of improvement for the Potters but in a world where results are the all-important factor, he will be acutely aware that the next improvements need to be reflected in their points total.
Having lost four of their previous five games against Arsenal and drawing the fifth, Stoke have also lost their status as being the Gunners bogey-team. With Hughes looking to re-establish his side as a Premiership force to be reckoned with, a good start would be to improve their home record whilst providing the Gunners with another hex.
Arsene Wenger is also a manager who is in need of a marked improvement this season. After victory in the FA Cup proved insufficient to silence the doubters at the Emirates Stadium, his sights will be firmly set on the Premiership title, especially as they will be without any European distractions this season.
While the Gunners are still suffering from a distinct lack of solidity at the back, they at least seem to have restored their attacking verve, possibly an element which could win back supporters in this age of entertainment. If the results too can follow, Wenger’s decision to stay on will be truly vindicated.
LAST TIME OUT
Everton 1 – 0 STOKE CITY (Premier League)
The Potters began their season in uninspiring style as Rooney marked his homecoming with the games solitary goal on Merseyside. Stoke had kept the Toffees at arm’s-length for large periods of the match, however, their only real meaningful sight on goal didn’t arrive until stoppage time at the end of the second-half when Xherdan Shaqiri’s effort produced a fine finger-tip save from Jordan Pickford.
After joining Stoke on a free transfer this summer, Darren Fletcher was arguably the Potters best player over the course of the game. His team-high of 44 passes at a success rate of 68% accuracy simultaneously underlines his desire to be involved with play and his teams lack control over the game.
The biggest positive for Mark Hughes to take back after the match was the solidity of his side’s defence, with fellow debutante Kurt Zouma being particularly impressive at the back. Maxim Choupo-Moting also made his club debut during the final 18 minutes, replacing the ineffective Bojan Krkic. While he looked lively cutting in from the left flank, more remains to be seen if he can help answer Stoke’s need for a quality forward.
ARSENAL 4 – 3 Leicester City (Premier League)
The Premiership’s opening game was the spectacle that many had hoped for but few predicted. While it was a frantic match that placed much greater emphasis on attack than defence, Arsenal were the more dominant side despite twice falling behind. Registering 27 attempts on goal compared to Leicester’s 6, Wenger will be more than happy with the majority of what he saw, especially considering his back-three were comprised of arguably his fourth-choice centre-back marshalling two left-backs.
This will not totally excuse his players of conceding to half of Leicester’s forays, however, there were strong signs of a steely resolve beneath Arsenal’s skin. Alexandre Lacazette’s early headed goal on his debut, Granit Xhaka seemingly continuing where he left off at the end of last season whilst contributing two assists, and Olivier Giroud’s inspirational turn from the bench were all among the key highlights for the Gunners but another star performance came from an unlikely place.
Amid much-reported transfer speculation, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain gave a good account of himself with an energetic and committed performance. Whether this was to establish his position in the team or the shop window remains to be seen.
Stoke City Lineup
Mark Hughes is without worry as he chooses from his starting line-up without any injury concerns. New signings Bruno Martins Indi and Jesé Rodríguez
could potentially start the for the Potters while Choupo-Moting pushed himself a little closer to the starting eleven with a lively substitute appearance last weekend.
Laurent Koscielny is still while Gabriel Paulista (knee) Alexis Sánchez (abdominal) Santiago Cazorla (ankle) and Jack Wilshere (leg) and Kieran Gibbs are unavailable for the Gunners.
Key Battle: Ryan Shawcross vs Alexandre Lacazette
Arguably the biggest priority for Hughes this summer has been the restructuring of his defence. Having forged a team famed for their no-nonsense approach to defending and keeping clean-sheets, last season would have been a shock for their fans to see so many soft goals being leaked. Shawcross was especially culpable of a serious of defensive errors which accounted for his team’s downfall but the new three-man back line seems to be designed to extract his best qualities.
Facing him this week is a striker who already appears as though he will be one of the better additions to the Premier League. Lacazette has hit the ground running with a goal on his Premiership debut that will serve to give him space to breathe as Mourinho recently described. His movement and timing is perhaps his greatest strength which will require close attention from Stoke if they’re to prevent him from taking in any more oxygen.
Style over substance
Stoke are continuing in their quest to form a team full of star names but at what cost? With the midweek arrival of Jesé Rodríguez on loan from PSG, Stoke now have five Champions League winners sitting in their dressing room.
In a game where you don’t win bonus points for style, reputations which can take years to build can be easily destroyed and this could prove to be an added pressure on his players who have already failed to establish themselves in the teams which attained European glory.
It’s an interesting side-note that many Stoke fans believe the outgoing Spanish striker Joselu was not afforded enough chances in the first team and that he’s left the club for a bargain price. Having already watched a collection of assembled stars under-performing last season, there will be some genuine fears that their manager is again choosing reputations and ego ahead of everything else.
The capture of Darren Fletcher from West Brom this summer tends to dispute this fact but the only person who can truly answer the recent round of critics is a player with the name Jesé emblazoned upon his back.
One of the best pieces of news for Arsenal in recent years is quite possibly the decision made by Olivier Giroud to stay on at the Gunners. Wenger revealed that he had offered Giroud the chance to leave London for a new opportunity if he wished after Lacazette’s signing signalled his French compatriot would receive less playing time as a result.
Not only did Giroud decline this offer, he’s also made some critical appearances from the bench for the Gunners already since then. The added depth that having a back-up striker of Giroud’s calibre is huge, especially when you consider that he offers a different style of play to the other forwards in the squad, meaning he offers variation in a gameplan
as well as fresh legs from the bench.
The term “super-sub” has rarely been applied at Arsenal but they may have just found the perfect candidate for that title.
Trimming the fat
Wenger has recently admitted that his main aim in the transfer window is to reduce the number of players currently on the Arsenal books. Alexis Sánchez not being one of them though. This has lead to much speculation and many stories connecting possible destinations for a host of players viewed as being on the periphery of the squad.
One player who has recently caught the headlines is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with Chelsea among a list of potential suitors for the young Englishman. His inclusion in the side against Leicester last Friday suggests he’s still in Wenger’s plans while his performance suggests that it could be somewhere near the forefront.
With Gabriel appearing to be clearing his locker and picking up his coat, it could very well be that the flash sale has begun, with interesting times ahead for the Gunners rehabilitation.
PREDICTION: Stoke City 1 – 3 Arsenal
The arrival of Jesé is yet another sign of strengthening at the Potteries and furthermore, it’s in an area that they’re desperately in need of improving. Hughes has found a new system which he believes will get the best from his side, however, Wenger has already had his new system and players integrated into his line of thinking for several weeks and this should be more than enough to see his team pick up all three points to keep the critics from his door for at least another week.
Want to share your opinion? Why not Write For Us?