Resilient Arsenal to stoke title fire in cauldron of frustration
Arsene Wenger did not hesitate. Was there more antipathy towards him on a personal level at Stoke City than at any other stadium? "Yes," the Arsenal manager replied. What? Even more than at Tottenham Hotspur? This time, Wenger paused, as he chewed over the headline implications. But he would stick to his line. "It is maybe more aggressive, yes," he said.
Stoke away has become a thing for Wenger - and a pretty grisly thing at that. One of his first matches for Arsenal, in October 1996, was a League Cup visit to the old Victoria Ground, where Ian Wright scored a late equaliser. Wenger's team would win the replay.
But since then - and Stoke's relocation to the Britannia Stadium - it has been a stream of misery. There have been eight trips, five defeats and a lone victory, and even that, in February 2010, is remembered for the wrong reasons. It was the game in which Aaron Ramsey's leg was broken by the tackle from Ryan Shawcross.
As he prepared to return there today, Wenger mentioned the bitter wind that can sweep through the stadium and how "for years, they had that narrow pitch, where every throw-in beyond halfway was a corner when Rory Delap played".
Wenger also addressed the rivalry, which was fired, seemingly, by a clash of cultures. In August 2010, he described Stoke's tactics as being similar to those of a rugby team, which has led to choruses of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot from the Britannia home support.
"I think the major incident was not that comment [about the rugby tactics]," Wenger said. "The major incident was Ramsey. That's where it started. Why do they boo me? I don't know. You should ask them. I don't bully them."
The nadir for Wenger came last season, on December 6, when his team lost 3-2 and it was not just the Stoke crowd who were on his back. There was the perfect 21st century storm at Stoke-on-Trent train station afterwards, from where Wenger and the players travelled home, which involved angry Arsenal fans, camera phones and the magic of social media.
Wenger has difficulty in seeing Stoke as his Waterloo, and not just because they are on different rail networks. "It was four people shouting," Wenger said, of the supporters at the station. "It happens to me at the [Emirates] stadium, as well. More was made of it than it really was. It didn't stop me from sleeping. What stops me from sleeping is losing games. I can live with the fact that people are not happy. I can understand it."
The incident, however, seemed to chime with the general frustration at the time, which was one reason why it developed such momentum. In Arsenal's previous away game, fans had unveiled a banner telling Wenger: "Thanks for the memories but it's time to say goodbye."
The transformation since has been stirring. The cold, hard statistics show that Arsenal have won 29 of 44 Premier League fixtures, drawing eight and losing seven.
When this form is transposed over 38 games, it adds up to an 82-point finish and, if that might not generally be enough to win the title, it could well be this season.
Moreover, the mood ahead of the visit to Stoke feels more balanced, both in the team and among the fan base. When they crashed 4-0 at Southampton on St Stephen's Day, for example, there did not seem to be that sense of crisis and frenzy, to which regular Arsenal watchers have grown accustomed. The balance within the league has helped them, which has been fuelled, ironically, by one of Wenger's bugbears: extravagant spending. He noted how, thanks to the Premier League's financial power, Stoke had been able to sign such creative talents as Marko Arnautovic, Bojan Krkic, Xherdan Shaqiri and Ibrahim Afellay over the past three summers from big European clubs. And they have not been alone in eye-catching recruitment.
Plenty of other middle and smaller-sized clubs in England have enjoyed significant boosts from the transfer market which has had a levelling effect; a more competitive top-flight, in which anybody can beat anybody. Arsenal lost four league games over the first half of last season and were in turmoil. They lost the same number over the first half of this season and have just seven points more than they did after 21 games last time out, and yet the difference feels radical.
Wenger's burden is that he must win the title to silence his critics; nothing else will do. But the cautious optimism around the club takes in many factors, the common denominator of which is progress.
The defence remains prone to blips, such as at Southampton or in last Wednesday's 3-3 thriller at Liverpool, but it has come to look more secure, possibly because of Wenger's insistence on protecting it with a specialised defensive midfielder or, to put it another way: the Coquelin Revolution.
Petr Cech, who joined from Chelsea, has been a boon in goal and continued the painstaking improvement of the starting XI over the past three summer transfer windows. First came Mesut Ozil, then Alexis Sanchez and, most recently, Cech, who has brought personality, both on and off the pitch. Wenger mentioned him prominently when he talked about how he would travel to Stoke with greater toughness and experience in his ranks.
Ozil's increased productivity has been well documented and, up front, Olivier Giroud has developed apace. There has also been the evidence of greater strength in depth, as illustrated by Joel Campbell, who has stepped in to show the kind of form with which he lit up the 2014 World Cup for Costa Rica.
At the beginning of December, as an injury crisis hit, the talk at the club was of digging in and striving to stay in touch going into the new year. They managed more than that and the cavalry is now arriving. Sanchez, who has been out since late November with a hamstring tear, could be a substitute at Stoke.
Arsenal have been here before. In 2008, 2010 and 2014, they worked themselves into title-winning positions only to fade away. No team has won the Premier League having lost their fixture at Stoke and Arsenal's latest mission there bristles with significance. "It's a mental test to show we have moved forward," Wenger said. The cauldron awaits.
Stoke City v Arsenal,
Sky Sports 1, 4.15
Sunday Indo Sport