Exciting, free flowing Stoke City travel south to London today, whetting the appetite of sports fans across the nation. Mark Hughes brings an expensively assembled team of international all star talent to a clash already being labelled as beauty meets the beast. The home team, dogged, predictable Arsenal, have already earned a reputation for grinding out the kind of dour performances which garner points but not many friends.
As a player the Stoke manager was known for his quick thinking, fleet footed, grace and elegance and was loved and respected by team mates and opposition players alike. It is little surprise therefore that his management style has become synonymous with the very best that the beautiful game has to offer. What of his opposite number this afternoon? The home dugout will be marked by the fierce frowns of Arsène Wenger and Steve Bould, two men for whom the word pragmatism has taken on an almost religious significance.
Once upon a time, younger readers will be surprised to learn, Monsieur Wenger had hoped to carve out a reputation for entertaining, attacking football but was chastened after dragging his once great club through the longest barren trophyless period ever experienced by any football club in any era, ever. No team had so singularly failed to land silverware for so long. Year after year the huge number of trophies available were equally shared among the ninety plus professional English and Welsh teams – all with the notable exception of Arsenal.
Obviously in crisis and lacking the panache displayed by the likes of Mark Hughes in the transfer market, Wenger turned to the fans, recognising their superior wisdom, he begged their advice. Once the previously stubborn manager had made the changes the supporters quite rightly demanded of him (buying expensive players and winning trophies) things began to change for the sleeping London giant. This season they have reached the pinnacle of the supporters hopes, the apotheosis of their dreams. This season Arsenal have at last discovered the art of winning ugly.
The visitors on the other hand are awash with ebullient, effervescent crowd pleasing players deftly snatched from all around the globe by a forward thinking manager keen to match his interpretation of the game, the Ballet of The Potteries, against the rugged, uncompromising, no frills approach championed by Bould and his boss.
Actually, now I come to read that back I wonder if I might not have spent a little too much of the interminable international break reading the sports pages of our national press. Holy moley – that was an horrendous thing to inflict on a football loving public wasn’t it? We wait all summer for the bloody football to start and just as the wheels start to turn the entire train is pitched off the tracks and replaced with that most insipid pointless clapped out old charabanc that is international football.
I tried to follow Wales in some misplaced solidarity with Aaron but that all fizzled out and in any case the sight that greeted me when I tuned in was enough to discolour the bath enamel. The vision of Gareth Bale looking as if he’d been badly drawn by a Japanese children’s cartoonist soon had me reaching first for the off switch and then for the Alka-Seltzer. Add to that the hype surrounding the media’s darling, that rotund, out of form, anti-legend and his England goal scoring record, and my tin hat stayed firmly in place. I only left the Anderson shelter this morning when it seemed safe so to do.
The depressing news from Arsène is that Tomáš Rosický’s knee surgery will be keeping him out for a while yet. The fact that he was put onto the surgeon’s table as a result of playing in a stupid international is enough to make me want to chew razor blades. I’ve lost count of how many players we’ve lost to this nonsense but with Tomáš in the twilight of his career every game he misses takes on a greater significance. How we could have done with his input when things went a little awry in our early matches this season. How I mourn his continued absence.
Likewise Danny Welbeck is languishing on the orlop deck with the sawn off limbs, the extracted musket balls and the bloodied wooden splinters. A shame for the player who many of us suspected might make a real impact this season. He strikes me as the kind of footballer Arsène likes to work with. Young, a point to prove, lean and fast. Still, he might yet raise a few eyebrows during the closing overs of this campaign, the timing may yet prove fortuitous.
Today’s selection question must centre around our genteel giant German centre half. Will he stroll nonchalantly and with perfect timing back into the first eleven or has Gabriel had long enough, or done enough, to deserve an extended run? I have to say I’m happy whatever the outcome. Per is right up there among my favourite players but I really think our Brazilian with the idiosyncratic good looks is a heck of a player. His calmness when those around and behind him have looked, on occasions, less sanguine than we might hope, was eye catching. As I say, either or Arsène – I’ll leave that selection to you, the über bloggers can then decide on the rest of the team.
Can anyone remember what the hell was happening before our enforced hibernation? If memory serves, and I must warn you the old grey matter is showing distinct signs of decay these days, I believe we’ve played four. Two home, two away and while we are flawless on the road we’ve tripped over the kids toys a couple of times while running around in our own back garden. We create more, have more of the ball than anyone else and pass as accurately as the best of the rest but we don’t score enough goals. I think that sums up the early season form. Which leads me to the conclusion that we need to score more goals, especially at home. By God, this football analysis is a pretty easy beast to ride. No wonder journalists feel the need to make so much stuff up.
While my opening paragraphs were, of course, whimsical, specious and written merely to amuse, there was an underlying truth. Stoke City has been trying to change its image, keep the ball on the grass and trouble the local ambulance service a little less. To a certain extent it has been successful. Pulis was rightly famous for keeping Stoke out of the relegation area. During his reign of terror the club vacillated between 11th and 14th position in the league and earned a hard won reputation for thuggery and anti football. Under Mark Hughes they have improved their playing style and their league standing but I maintain that any club boasting Ryan Shawcross and Charles Adam among its playing staff has an awfully long way to go down the road to Damascus. Under Mark Hughes the full on leg breaking assaults may have diminished but more often than not they have been replaced with a more cunning system of rotational fouling, targeting certain opposition players and going in late in the hope that the ball and the referee will have moved on. A comment on Fans Network summed it up for me
They are not a split second late when fouling, they are a full second or two, by which time the ref has followed play on, as has the Lino. Calculated sneaky tactics by Hughes.
We don’t want to focus too much on the opposition though do we? Today is about how we cope with both them and the pressure from the home fans, and how the referee conducts himself. If we see a similarly robust performance from the man with the whistle as that to which we were treated at St James’ Park (and yes I know Andre Marriner got an awful lot horribly wrong as well) then Stoke will be forced to try to beat us or earn a point through legitimate means alone.
I am ever hopeful that the many chances we create will result in goals and today is as good a day as any for that to start. Arsène once said of Aaron, once he starts scoring he won’t be able to stop and I have a similar feeling about this team. The transfer junkies may be convinced that the only way to improve our ‘goals for’ column was by spending vast sums of money but I look at Walcott, Giroud, Sanchez and Welbeck and I see goal scorers. Our midfield is none too shabby in that respect either and even Nacho and Hector popped up with a couple of beauties last season. When you consider that both centre backs have a habit of sticking it in the net at important moments too you can see why I’m not worried about our potential to score.
Three points, a resounding return to goal scoring form and Hughes’ niggly, nasty team sent packing with its tail firmly between its legs and I will be a happy blogger come five o’clock this afternoon.