Why Arsenal now have nothing to fear from Stoke in the Potteries
In May 2017, Arsenal scratched a seven-year itch. A 4-1 victory at Stoke City was their first in the Potteries since February 2010, a torrid Saturday evening that fired a deep-seated rivalry between the two clubs.
That was the night a 3-1 Arsenal win was marred by the broken leg suffered by Aaron Ramsey after a loose, dangerous tackle by Ryan Shawcross. That those two players are likely to play a part this Saturday should certainly add spice to the atmosphere but Arsenal fans already do not like travelling to the bet365 Stadium and their Stoke counterparts definitely don't welcome them there either.
Arsene Wenger has further unhappy memories; it was at Stoke-on-Trent railway station in December 2014 that he was barracked by Gunners fans after a 3-2 defeat. Even last season, as his team cruised, he was forced to try to ignore the latest flyby from a "Wenger Out" plane.
But while a trip to Stoke might still have its concerns, Arsenal should have little to fear for their latest visit.
If there is ever a good time to play Stoke in a Premier League season then it is at the beginning. Last season, they took until Oct. 15 to register a first win, their eighth match of the campaign. The previous season, Stoke's first victory came on Sept. 26, six games in. Though they beat Manchester City in the third match of 2014-15, it was their only victory of their opening six.
A change of style
Stoke City under Tony Pulis were vastly different. Mark Hughes has been trying to alter the team's robust style since his 2013 arrival -- not that Stoke are a soft touch these days -- and signings such as Bojan Krkic, Ibrahim Afellay and Xherdan Shaqiri have seen them christened "Stokealona."
Alongside Shawcross, the loan of Kurt Zouma from Chelsea and the return of Bruno Martins Indy from Porto lends Hughes' three-man defence a touch of continental class, and is the foundation of their stability.
Over the summer, Jonny Walters and Phil Bardsley departed to Burnley, two tough customers who embodied the old ways, and Glenn Whelan, another mainstay, joined Aston Villa. Their replacements have been Hull teenager Josh Tymon, and Schalke's Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, with Jese Rodriguez's loan from Paris Saint-Germain presumably the replacement for Walters. Darren Fletcher, allowed to leave West Brom by Pulis, is the same age as Whelan at 33.
"Running, chasing down balls, getting in their faces," said United States defender Geoff Cameron this week, pinpointing his chosen strategy to get at Arsenal. But do Stoke actually have the players to carry out that approach?
Hughes under pressure?
When Wenger was being barracked at the bet365 last season, his Stoke counterpart was not much more popular. Last season, City dropped to 13th place from the ninth position they maintained for the previous three years. Pulis departed the scene in May 2013 for finishing in that position, and debate has raged over Hughes' future in local media and among fans.
That bad start last season was mirrored by a poor run at the close. Stoke might have signed off with a 1-0 final-day victory over Southampton but that was one of just two wins in their last 11 matches.
This week's sale of striker Joselu to Newcastle met with an element of dissent from fans who felt the Spaniard was never given a fair crack of the whip. The pressure is on Saido Berahino, yet to score a goal for Stoke since joining in January. With Mame Biram Diouf these days a wing-back by trade, the fall-back option is 36-year-old Peter Crouch.
Champions League trivia
After Jese's addition this week, much was made of the phalanx of Champions League winners that Stoke now boast. Jese, a winner with Real Madrid in 2014 and 2016, made it five to Arsenal's one, Petr Cech with Chelsea in 2012. The Spaniard joined compatriot Bojan, a winner with Barcelona in 2009 and 2011, his former colleague Afellay from that 2011 team, and Shaqiri, a winner with Bayern Munich in 2013. Fletcher won it with Manchester United in 2008.
An impressive haul of talent, but only Afellay, as injury-time sub in 2011, has actually played in any of those finals. The rest were unused substitutes.
They are heralded as the climatic conditions that not even Lionel Messi can deal with, but Arsenal will not have to suffer a "wet, windy night in Stoke." Instead, on a summer's evening, they can expect only light showers, and temperatures of around 17 degrees Celsius. That's tropical for Stoke.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.