De Ja Vu does not often come as clear as Arsenal being in a perceived crisis having just sold their best players in the days building up to the new season, the accusations of a lack of ambition sounding like a broken record to Arsene Wenger now who has battled on for too long under the roof of strained resources and a sensible wage structure that, in the face of more affluent competition, renders trophies out of reach.
Yet, Wenger battles on again with a new look team post 37 goal Robin Van Persie and Alex Song, just like he did following the departures of Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas as they ventured off to seek more silverware, the Frenchman seemingly undeterred by his rebel player’s lack of faith in his vision that he believes will return the Gunners back to their non-too-distant good old days in a footballing world dominated by financial obscenity.
Signings of Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud suggests Wenger is unwilling to compromise on his preaching of highly technical European talent just yet, preferring not to follow the path of the ideology that has been the downfall of Arsenal in recent years; Chelsea’s possession of the fierce brute Didier Drogba for example, or Manchester City’s mix of Eden Dzeko’s height and Yaya Toure’s steam-train drive with the exotic fluency of Nasri and David Silva. Wenger prefers the Cazorla type, the 5ft 6 inch attacking schemer who proceeds to appear so quaint in the face of the stereotypical Premier League defender, the impressively built rock who sits at centre-half in the majority of Premier League teams.
It is at the home of Wenger’s next opponent, Stoke City, where the anti-Arsenal blueprint has been put together with fine detail; the basic game plan of “rough ‘em up lads, get amongst them and give them a good kicking, their little players won’t like it up ‘em!” Of course, it is harsh to brand Stoke as this type of team, Tony Pulis has utilised their strengths which just happen to be a physical team that centres around an aerial threat, but the ignorant amongst us may forget they also play a bit of football too, the width of Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington and a summer of activity that has seen Pulis land Michael Kightly and Tom Huddlestone, two creative forces who enjoy a comfort with the ball, should be enough to put pay to labels of the one-dimensional.
But, despite Stoke’s evolution from their rigid style that Pulis advocated to consolidate their position in the top league, a trip to the Britannia would be the last thing on Wenger’s list of wishes this weekend as he looks to get Arsenal going, after a rather disappointing opening day stalemate with Sunderland at the Emirates, in yet another season of transition.
Since Stoke’s return to the top flight in 2008, Arsenal’s record in the Potteries reads played 5, lost 3, drawn 1 and won 1, with the sole victory being marred by Ryan Shawcross’ unfortunate leg-breaking tackle on Aaron Ramsey. Pulis duly adopted the style Sam Allardyce patented when playing Arsenal with Bolton, to intimidate them with quick pressing and direct football and earned two Premier League wins, 3-1 and 2-1, as well as a 3-1 victory in the FA Cup of 2010, a back-log that has been coloured by Wenger’s declaration that Pulis’ men are more adept to the sport of rugby than it is football.
Perhaps, instead of launching stinging barbs at Stoke’s on the pitch methods, Wenger could glance over at Pulis’ conduct off it, where he has created a settled unit able to compete well beyond its means, dates with Valencia in European competition were Potter’s mere dreams when languishing in tier 3 just a decade ago, now they are reality on the basis of Pulis’ shrewd management and intelligence. Stoke face little disruption in the off-season, steadily adding to the squad and improving on the quiet, while Arsenal are thrown open to the wolves and plunged into crisis via the Emirates’ over-active exit door.
When it is also factored in that Stoke lost just four games in the comfort of their own home last season, a record only bettered by those in the top 5, and you tend to believe things may get very tricky for Wenger’s disrupted squad who have once again been torn at the seams by player departure. Stoke press the ball brilliantly in midfield and Pulis will not ease on his instructions for the midfield not to allow Arsenal’s technical genius too much time in possession, and with players still alien to the pace and fitness demand of the Premier League, the Gunners may never have been so vulnerable to the direct nature of Stoke’s approach.
Cazorla, every inch Arsenal’s bright new hope in the Sunderland draw despite failing to find the cutting edge to break the Black Cat’s resolve, will not have faced anything like the turbulence he will experience in the setting of a highly-charged Britannia Stadium this Sunday, but Wenger will not shy away from playing him. And right there, could be the most obvious downfall of Wenger’s current Arsenal that struggles to find any identity and definition, apart from possibly, a “lack of ambition”.