Stoke v Arsenal: Why the nation loves it and why Arsene Wenger hates it
A clash of footballing philosophies? Either way, all that really matters is winning (and maybe leaving with your bones intact)
Ah, Stoke away. So soon in the season it almost seems too early. Like Christmas come early, but not really a good thing. More like a trip to the dentist’s come early. Much like the dentist, there are two things you know about Stoke away; it’ll cost you, and it’ll probably hurt.
Arsenal have found this to be the case in a total of five visits to the Britannia in recent seasons which have ended in three defeats, one draw and one victory that was just a little bit blighted by Aaron Ramsey’s broken leg.
But let’s get the soft southerner/Arsenal don’t like it up ‘em thing out the way early, shall we? This is a game of football, 11 men against 11 men (at least at the start), and four officials who are presumably going to at least try to do their jobs.
I have spoken to a few former Arsenal players about this kind of game – it used to be Bolton away but Stoke have kind of taken the mantle of late – and they have often come up with the same line: You have got to earn the right to play football.
Ray Parlour has said it, Martin Keown has said it, Nigel Winterburn has said it, Lee Dixon has said it. What Arsenal wouldn’t give for that quartet to be running out at the Britannia on Sunday, because you need a few warriors in your side to win at Stoke, in case anybody hasn’t noticed.
Not that Arsene Wenger would go along with that theory – the Frenchman utterly refuses to change his team’s playing style for this fixture. It would be an affront to his philosophy on the game were he to do so really. The beautiful game will win over the dark forces of anti-football pervading against those who play it in ‘the right way’.
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Wenger should know better. In fact he does know better because he knows sometimes the right way can be roughly translated as (excuse my French, Arsene): any bloody way you can find that wins.
I fully expect that way to elude Arsenal again on Sunday. Just like Sam Allardyce did at Bolton, Tony Pulis has got Arsenal’s number. He winds the press up, he winds the fans up, he winds Wenger up. And Arsenal tend to fall for it every time.
In his ubiquitous baseball cap and shellsuit, Pulis is like the provincial chav to Wenger’s urbane cosmopolitan, chucking a can of lager at him as he parks his expensive car. The trouble is, if those two stereotypes were to get involved in a fist fight, I know who my money would be on.
Remember the first time Wenger went to the Britannia? His side ended with nine men on the pitch after Robin van Persie was sent off, Emmanuel Adebayor and Theo Walcott were carried off, and in the stands and in the press conference afterwards, it went off. “A rugby team,” said Wenger. “Sour grapes”, said the rest of the world given Arsenal had been beaten 2-1, and the seed was sown.
Pulis, and Stoke, and those who like to see Arsenal and Wenger beaten and moaning (pretty much everyone then, apart from Gooners and the odd charitable Barcelona fan) loved every minute of it.
Repeating that kind of spectacle, and that kind of result, is something the Britannia faithful are rather keen on (why wouldn’t they be?) and they will have a part to play on Sunday. Last season (well, five games ago, to be exact) Wenger was subjected to the most merciless baiting, with the whole ground aping his touchline protestations to the usual on-field carnage.
It was so funny Gary Lineker decided to join in later on Match of the Day, which was not funny at all and in fact hideously inappropriate, but there you go. People do like to see Arsenal get beaten up at Stoke, you see. Good British grit against the foreign invaders. Coming over here with their fancy ways….
But therein lies the problem. That was really the way every English player and fan used to think, and play. And it used to work quite well for England, and English teams. And it still does in this fixture.
Whatever XI Wenger sends out on Sunday, Arsenal must be up for the fight. Not so much that it clouds their judgment (a la Van Persie back in 2008) but so they compete, but do not get affected by everything going on off the field, especially the sight of their manager, possibly in an oversized coat, and very probably frothing at the mouth and being mocked by about 20,000 partisan Potterites.
If they can do that, all they have to worry about is defending about 60 long goal-kicks, 45 diagonal lofted balls, two-dozen long-throws, 10 corners and the lumbering but somehow elusive presence of Peter Crouch, who has a rather annoying habit of scoring against Wenger’s side.
In short, as those far more knowledgeable than me said earlier on, they must earn the right to play football. Because if a football match breaks out at any stage in this game, there really would be only one winner.