What Can Arsenal Do To Lessen Arteta’s Loss

Mikel Arteta’s injury could not have come at a worse time for Arsenal. The race for third spot just got tighter because of Arsenal’s loss to Wigan and to make matters even worse, they have to face an in form Chelsea buoyed by their victory against Barcelona in the Champion’s League.
It’s unfortunate for Arsenal that Arteta didn’t arrive a season before, to play alongside Cesc Fabregas. The two of them, along with Alex Song could have formed the most fluid midfield partnerships in the Premier League.
One of the key traits of Arteta’s game this season is that he has been played almost for the entirety of the season as a deep lying midfielder, a position unfamiliar to him during his Everton days, where he was deployed as the more attack minded of the two midfielders. The fact that he has altered his game to suit Arsenal’s formation is a testament to his technical abilities.
Mikel Arteta has mostly operated as a ball playing central midfielder helping them maintain possession without doing anything too spectacular(leave aside the goals against Manchester City and the absolutely sensational free kick against Aston Villa). But what Arteta does for Arsenal is make them tick. He has the ability to keep the ball rolling in midfield and an unerring ability to play a correct long ball. This simple passing method has been the key to Arsenal dominating possession in most of their games.
But now with Arteta injured, Arsene Wenger’s forehead must have grown a few more brows. The only option he has at his disposal for a central midfield position is the woefully out of form Aaron Ramsey. Wenger also has the option to play Oxlade-Chamberlain in the position, considering his quite brilliant showing against AC Milan in the Champion’s League. But going against the popular opinion of not playing Aaron Ramsey, I would suggest that this is exactly what Wenger should do. Tomas Rosicky is enjoying a rejuvenated season and it wouldn’t be wise to switch him to a deeper position.
Ramsey although operating as a “playmaker” this season has only 6 assists to his name after making 40 appearances. Ramsey’s overall game play is similar to Mikel Arteta’s. Even when he plays in a forward position he has a tendency to play short sideways passes as opposed to incisive forward ones, similar to Arteta. Also, he doesn’t have urgency in his game which in my opinion is essential for a CAM, just to panic the opposition defences. This makes him more suitable to a deeper position where he is just able to receive the ball and use it more intelligently with a little more time and space. In fact, I think Arsene Wenger has been wrong in using him as CAM for so long this season.
The other option Wenger can use is to deploy Oxlade-Chamberlain in Arteta’s position. The youngster has shown maturity and fearlessness that belies his age and there is not challenge that he is afraid of. However, the only thing that goes against Oxlade-Chamberlain is his inexperience in playing in that position in the Premier League. He will be up against the wily old veterans such as Lampard and Meireles (yes he is a veteran when compared to AOC) and has to be disciplined in holding his position. Even in the match against AC Milan where he was extremely influential, there were times when he would wander off to some other areas of the pitch leaving the central area exposed.
A less likely approach would be to shift to a 4-4-2, because Chelsea will be playing with Bosignwa, who isn’t exactly the best Right Back in the world (Gervinho and Santos had a field day against him in the reverse fixture). The team shape could be somewhat like this:
———————–Szczesny————————
Sagna—–Koscielny—–Vermaelen—–Santos
AOC———-Song——–Rosicky——–Gervinho
——————RvP——–Walcott——————
But who am I kidding; Wenger will never change his formation.
So, all in all, the first option is the most likely and will hopefully bring some confidence back into Ramsey. This match will prove to be a touchstone for him as he is most likely to be played there for the rest of the season.

Sunderland 1 – 0 Liverpool: Time To Forget The 4th Spot

As Liverpool succumbed to their third straight loss in the Premier League, it can be now safely assumed that their quest to get into the 4th and final Champions League spot is officially over. Kenny Dalglish’s summer rebuilding job is not going to be able to achieve what it had promised at the start of the season. There are problems that are present throughout the pitch, let’s have a look at them on priority.

No. 1 – Midfield

As abject as Liverpool’s performances have been lately this one has been the worst of the lot. The midfield has not been doing enough for Liverpool throughout the season and this game was no different. Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson and Jay Spearing failed to provide any sort of incision in the final third, although due credit should be given to the Sunderland midfield, especially Jack Colback, for their high energy pressing game. Gerrard’s steady decline since his return from injury indicates that a goal scoring central attacking midfielder is what Liverpool need to find on priority in this transfer window.

No. 2 – Forwards

Luis Suarez is a great player at finding spaces in tight areas and drawing fouls out of opposition defenders but his chance conversion rate is absolutely abysmal. If Andy Carroll doesn’t play, a major problem that Liverpool face is that they do not have any tall players when crosses are played into the box. Liverpool need to shift to a 4-2-1-3 formation with either Gerrard or Bellamy playing in the hole and Kuyt, Carroll and Suarez in attack. That way if a cross is played into the box, Suarez and Kuyt can be ready to attack any knock downs that Carroll can produce.

No. 3 – Defence

Another thing that should concern the Liverpool fans is the lack of depth in central defensive positions. Last week Jamie Carragher played in central defence and at fault for both Arsenal goals. This week Sebastian Coates stepped in and looked like a bundle of nerves throughout the match, unable to cope with the strength of Nicklas Bendtner and the movement of Frazier Campbell.

The season cannot be written off as a failure for Liverpool because they’ve won the Carling Cup now and are still in the running for the FA Cup. However with the amount of investment that was made in bringing players, Champions League qualification at the expense of Arsenal was the least that was expected of them.

This failure to qualify for Champions League can prove to be detrimental to their plans for next season as well. Rumours suggest that they want to bring in Eden Hazard, Seydou Keita and Javi Martinez. Whether any of the aforementioned players would want to give up on a chance to play in the Champions League can be anybody’s guess.

Is It Right To Sack Villas-Boas

When Chelsea stumbled to another astounding defeat against West Brom on Saturday, the axe which has been hanging over Villas-Boas’ head for quite some time, must have come perilously close. There are two ways to look at the situation. Let’s have a look at both of them…

POV 1: Villas-Boas should be given more time to build his own team and it would be unjust to sack him now, with his team still having a chance to reach the Champions League positions.

POV2: Villas-Boas has had enough time and his methods are just not working out. His differences with the senior members of the team don’t look to be settling anytime soon and is creating a negative atmosphere in the team. He needs to go.

Although both the arguments seem fundamentally correct, there are other deeper issues that need to be considered before any decision is taken on Villas-Boas’ future. In Andre Villas-Boas, Chelsea have a manager who is capable of producing results, but needs a setup where he is able to flourish with his ideology of a high energy pressing game. This setup includes buying new players as well as grooming the existing ones too. His accomplishments at Porto suggest that he surely can do so and if only Abramovich could show a little patience this time around, Chelsea might reap the benefits for years to come.

Short term solutions are only going to hinder the progress of Chelsea as a club and it is the duty of the fans to make the owner realise this fact. Ever since Roman Abramovich took over at Chelsea, the focus almost entirely has been on buying proven world-class talents in a bid to win the League title and the elusive Champions League trophy. Almost no attention has been paid to develop and bring up the younger players from the academy. Only recently has Josh McEachran been allowed to get somewhere near the first team squad. In a similar time frame, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United have produced outstanding young talent of the likes of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Wojcieh Szczesny, Tom Cleverly, Paul Pogba, Martin Kelly and Danny Welbeck. With the Financial Fair Play rules set to kick in from 2014, it has to be understood that just buying players will not be the solution.

This coming season’s transfer window is going to be a decisive one for Chelsea in more ways than one. The Chelsea camp needs to decide whether to keep the trio of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba or not. The three of them were responsible for the sacking of Luis Felipe Scolari and Avram Grant and are more than likely to end Villas-Boas tenure as well. The three of them have just too much power at the club and any manager who comes in has to modify his plans to accommodate them. This wasn’t such a big problem a couple of seasons back because back then all three of them were at the peak of their powers and were almost as good as anyone else in their position in the league. However in the current season, all three of them have gone down the slope (…yes I know, Lampard fans won’t agree) and need to be shipped out before they become a liability.

Villas-Boas will most probably be sacked at the end of the season, if not after the coming few games, and whoever replaces him should be prepared to face the axe as well. Rafael Benitez is most likely to succeed Villas-Boas at the moment and has a proven track record of winning titles. If not the titles, at least the Chelsea fans can hope that he will reinvigorate Fernando Torres into showing glimpses of form that influenced Abramovich to bring the Spaniard to Stamford Bridge for 50m dollars.

Positives & Negatives : Arsenal 5 – 2 Tottenham

First Up – What a cracker of a comeback. Victory is sweetest when you are deemed the underdog. I’ve said this in my earlier posts that Arsenal are at their best when nothing else except failure is expected of them. Even in this encounter, only about 40% of the football following crowd would have given them a chance against a Tottenham team in the best of form for quite some time. And even those 40% would give them the chance because the match was at the Emirates.

Enough talking. Let’s get to the point.

2 Negatives For Tottenham

1.) The loss can only be considered as a blip in an otherwise outstanding season. Even Tottenham fans will acknowledge the fact that even though they were expected to compete for the Champions League places this season, they have been punching above their weight in third position for much of it. The only thing that should worry Tottenham now is that this shouldn’t serve as a demoralising onset for the rest of the season. If Tottenham would have won this match, they would have been 13 points ahead of their closest rivals. Instead, they are just 7 points ahead now with 12 games to play. Added pressure, to say the least, especially with Manchester United being the next team that they are scheduled to play.

2.) Scott Parker won’t be able to appear in the match against Manchester United. Much of Spurs’ success this season has to be attributed to the brilliance of the Modric-Parker partnership in midfield. Parker’s boundless energy and ability to break up play are an asset to this Tottenham side and his absence will be sorely felt. Sandro is most likely to step into Parker’s position for the upcoming tie, but he is far more attack minded than the Englishman and really has to put in a disciplined performance, to stop the midfield maestro, Paul Scholes.

5 Positives For Arsenal

1.) The comeback was a testament to the character and resilience that is so often boasted of by Wenger. Wenger has said that this victory is one to savour and not only because it was a thumping given to your arch rivals, but also because it went to show that nobody other than Wenger himself, knows more about his team.

2.)  Tomas Rosicky is back (and out again because of a back problem). Rosicky was proving to be more involved and influential than Aaron Ramsey in the past few weeks and against Tottenham he played like a man possessed. Who would have anticipated Rosicky of all people to come charging into the box and slice the ball past Brad Friedel’s waiting arms. The goal is bound to fill him with a lot more confidence and we might just see a completely different Tomas Rosicky in the coming weeks.

3.) Gary Neville pointed out that Theo Walcott is at his most influential when he is playing in the inside channel, between the central defender and the full-back. If Theo and Wenger are keen on taking notes, they will realise that Neville is absolutely right. The two goals that Walcott scored in the derby were from similar positions. If they do acknowledge this fact, then we might just see Walcott not being a headless chicken from here on.

4.) The very fact that they scored 5 goals against a top quality Premier League team should give Arsenal some sort of confidence when they meet AC Milan in the Champions League for the second leg, where they need to score 5 goals (and concede none) to proceed to the next round. Surely AC Milan is a completely different proposition than Tottenham, but if the players want it as much as they did against Spurs, who knows, they might just make a match out of it.

5.) The team’s celebration at the end of the match gave a glimpse of the unity that exists in the squad and this should give a little reprieve to the concerned fans that even in the times of adversity, the spirit isn’t falling apart.

Van Persie Is Leaving And Others Are Going To Follow Soon

After the humiliation at the hands of AC Milan in the Champions League, if there were any doubts in Robin Van Persie’s mind about staying at Arsenal, those should have been put to bed. And the defeat at Sunderland must have strengthened those thoughts of leaving the club, of which he has been a part for the last 7 years.

Nobody should and can blame Van Persie if he decides to ply his trade someplace else. Van Persie is at the peak of his powers at the moment and at the age of 28 this must surely be the last long term contract that he is going to sign. There can’t be any way to convince him to stay at a club that has clearly lost the plot and is destined for struggles at least in the coming 2-3 seasons.

Van Persie’s case is clearly an open and shut case, and most are the Arsenal fans are more or less convinced that this is the last of what they are going to see of the Dutch magician. But what should worry Arsenal more is that Van Persie’s departure can trigger a mass exodus at the club. Most probably Thomas Vermaelen and Bacary Sagna, two of the most consistent performers for the club, can become disillusioned because of the lack of investment in proven performers.

Thomas Vermaelen recently voiced his anger over being played at left back position, saying that he is not able to enjoy his game and is discontent even if the team wins. Although Pro-Wenger fans can argue that he has to do it for the team, it has to be said that Wenger had enough time to buy a proper full back in the January transfer window, and he chose not to. Vermaelen’s body language in the recent matches where Arsenal has lost hasn’t been too convincing and even a cursory look at him would convey you the point that he is dissatisfied with the current state of the team.

Bacary Sagna has also been one of the most consistent performers for Arsenal over the recent years and although he hasn’t voiced any concerns recently, it can be easily deduced that frustration is bound to seep into his mind at one point or the other.

These 7 years of trophy less disappointment have created an unforeseen amount of pressure on the players. So much so that every match is a “perform or perish” situation for all the players and for Wenger himself. Ryo Miyaichi, currently on loan at Bolton, recently said that there’s just too much pressure at Arsenal and he is enjoying his spell at Bolton because the atmosphere at the Reebok stadium is much lighter and friendlier. It is difficult to predict when such an atmosphere will be coming to Emirates, and if the aforementioned trio decides to part ways, it is safe to say that it won’t be there any time soon.

Positives & Negatives : Chelsea 3 – 3 Manchester United

First and foremost, any team leading 3-Nil, after 55 minutes, at home, should bag all the three points. The very fact that Chelsea failed to do so, puts them in the category of the losers this week. Manchester United were brave and hungrier than Chelsea and at later stages looked like the side which deserved to win. It is a case of two points dropped for both the teams as those two points could have kept the competition away from Chelsea and would have helped Manchester United to pile up the pressure over Manchester City.

Moving on…

3 Positives For Manchester United

1.) Javier Hernandez again proved his worth in his substitute appearance. He is a better player, as compared to Danny Welbeck, to play alongside Wayne Rooney. Welbeck for all his running and harrying capabilities does not have the movement to create space or ghost inside the penalty box. Chicharito does. But, Sir Alex knows better, and if it ain’t broke why fix it.

2.) Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, with a combined age of 75 years, proved to be the difference makers in the end. Giggs provided a peach of a cross for Hernandez to score and was involved in almost every forward move that United made in the second half comeback. Paul Scholes, bossed the midfield after his introduction and put up a delightful array of long passes that included everything from over the top through balls, cross field passes and simple clearances. As long as United are able to reap the benefits from these two legends, they should do so.

3.) Wayne Rooney’s passion to play for United seemed to come back in this match. He was visibly upset when United did not get the penalty appeal, and seemed the most pumped up player when United started sensing a comeback. He is an altogether different player when he is at the right place mentally, and going by Sunday’s performance, he seems to have put behind his issues with Sir Alex (at least for now) and concentrate on the bigger challenge.

3 Negatives For Chelsea

1.) AVB’s poor decision making when it comes to substitutions, continues. An absolutely baffling decision to replace Daniel Sturridge with Oriol Romeu. Agreed that the substitution in itself was correct, as Romeu helped stem some of the attacks from Manchester United. But the choice of player for substitution was wrong. If there was any player who deserved to leave the field at that point of time, it had to be Florent Malouda. The Frenchman was absolutely anonymous and ineffective in the second half, and should have been the person to make way.

2.) Gary Cahill’s stuttering start to his Chelsea career. Throughout the match Cahill, looked threatened by the power and pace of Welbeck and was lucky not to get sent off within the first 15 minutes. There is a theory that says he will improve if he is put alongside John Terry instead of the eccentric David Luiz, as Terry is a more vocal defender and organises the defence better, but shouldn’t Cahill be better.

3.) Fernando Torres has had enough chances now and is still not gaining confidence, even after the pressure on him has relieved a little, following Drogba’s departure to the African Cup Of Nations. His ability to play on the shoulder of the last defender is lost. His shot taking ability is lost. His decision making ability inside the box is lost. If at all anything has improved, it is his overall work rate and assists. But he was brought in to score goals, and he is not doing it at the moment. Quite frankly, if he hasn’t been able to do it so far, it would be foolish to pin your hopes on him for the rest of the season.

It’s That Time Of The Season Again For Arsenal

There is always a season defining moment for every team in the league. For some, it is a hard fought win that shows maturity and fighting spirit. For others, it is a demoralising loss that saps away all their hopes of achieving anything. Unfortunately for Arsenal, in the recent past, it has always been the latter. None more so, than the last minute loss against Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final last season. At exactly the same stage in the season. Arsenal were fighting on four fronts before that loss. Within a span of 20 days, they were out of three.

Last week’s loss against Swansea City can prove to be that season defining moment for Arsenal this time around. Not because they lost to a promoted side who happened to play better football than them and beat them at their own game. Not because they lost the match before that as well. But, because these are exactly the sort of matches which have drained the confidence out of the side in the recent past. Arsenal were in a winning position in both of the matches. However due to profligacy in front of goal and a bewildering choice to sit on their lead for the remaining 70 minutes, they ended up on the losing side on both the occasions.

It can be a matter of great interest for psychology students to understand and compare the mindset of Arsenal and other champion teams. No matter the personnel, somehow Arsenal always manage to come under pressure, always manage to get bullied, always manage to break down. However when you compare this to Manchester United (or Barcelona or Manchester City for starters), their philosophy has always been about, not giving up and fighting till the last breath. It was argued that Arsenal lacked enough experienced players in the seasons before. However they haven’t been able to turn things around this time either, even with the signings of Arteta, Benayoun and Mertesacker. All experienced players and of enough quality.

So, the problem should lie somewhere else, right? And it does. The finger has to be painfully pointed towards Arsene Wenger for this. Wenger’s refusal to look at his squad’s shortcomings is not protecting them from media abuse, as he might think. It is his blatant refusal to accept his own mistakes. A refusal to accept his stubbornness, transfer tactics and tactical naivety. Arsenal desperately need to get out of the Financial Fair Play dreamland and realise that the big clubs will not budge to UEFA rulings and that there is always a loophole. Manchester City’s sponsorship deal with Etihad and Liverpool’s shirt sponsorship deal can point to this. Also, somehow, the feeling of settling for mediocrity has been unfortunately accepted by the board, the coach and the fans themselves. Peter Hill-Wood’s recent comment that failure to qualify for Champions league would not be a disaster, points to this fact. The feeling was bound to seep into the players at some point of time.

Considering these points, the next home match against Manchester United could not have come at a worse time for Arsenal. Though United haven’t exactly been spectacular this season, they are still there at the top, fighting for the league title. A loss against United at this juncture will all but end Arsenal’s hope for qualifying for the Champions League positions. A draw would still be a favourable result, but more so for United. A win will probably delay the inevitable, but the duration surely can only be a matter of debate.

Get Over Henry and Score Goals Arsenal

Ever since the news broke out regarding Thierry Henry’s return to Arsenal, all headlines related to Arsenal have been about Henry only. So much so, that all the previous attention being paid to Robin Van Persie has evaporated in an instant. It is understandable to an extent as well considering the legend of Henry at the club. And the headlines don’t look like stopping any time soon as Henry completed his fairy tale return with a match winning goal against Leeds in the F.A. Cup.

In all this hoop-la, a very serious issue has been sidelined as well, the lack of goals being scored by Arsenal. In their previous 11 matches, Arsenal have been able to score more than one goal in only two of them. Somehow this point has gone rather unnoticed because of the fact that Arsenal have been winning or drawing most of the matches and their defence has been doing the job more often than not. The old ‘One-Nil to the Arsenal’ seems to be telling less and hiding more in this context.

Here’s Arsenal’s performance in their last 11 matches:-

Premier League

Home Team

Score

Away team

Arsenal

1-1

Fulham

Wigan Athletic

0-4

Arsenal

Arsenal

1-0

Everton

Manchester City

1-0

Arsenal

Aston Villa

1-2

Arsenal

Arsenal

1-1

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Arsenal

1-0

Queens Park Rangers

Fulham

2-1

Arsenal

Champions League

Olympiakos

3-1

Arsenal

F.A. Cup

Arsenal

1-0

Leeds United

Carling Cup

Arsenal

1-0

Manchester City

 

Arsenal have been heavily reliant on Robin Van Persie for goals this season, but it is so, only because the other players in the team are not clinical enough. Most notably, Gervinho and Andrei Arshavin have managed to miss more chances than any other player in the team. Other culprits include Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott. Had these players managed to take their chances in any of the above matches, the results would have had a far more resounding appeal to them as compared to their current state.

Arsenal’s tendency to walk the ball into the net has also been a reason for these scorelines. Against Everton, Arsenal had the chances to kill off the game in the first half itself, where they managed to create 4 clear cut opportunities only for them to be squandered by playing that one extra pass. Similarly against Wolves and Fulham, Arsenal had chances to increase their leads but managed to squander the chances due to over elaborating.

Henry has said that he would love to pass on his experience to these young Arsenal players and quite simply the best advice that he can give to these players is to improve their shooting skills from range. Henry was (is?) a master at long range strikes and if he could pass on the technique to some of the Arsenal players, that would be the greatest piece of knowledge that Arsenal fans could hope for.

Arsenal’s current crop of youngsters and fringe players has a great chance to learn from the legend himself and would be doing so as well. Especially Theo Walcott has a chance to learn from the man who has done it himself in the past. A winger turned striker who went on to become one of the best the game has ever seen.

 

Time To Right The Wrongs For Sir Alex

When Manchester United lost to Newcastle at the weekend, Sir Alex refuted the suggestions of a panic situation in the Manchester United camp. And on the face of it, the denial seems to be justified. After all, they are just 3 points off the pace in the league, still in the thick of the two-horse race for the Premier League title. But deep down Sir Alex knows that the situation is not what it should have been.

Last season, when Manchester United won the record 19th title, everyone agreed to an extent that this title was not won because of Manchester United being stronger or better, but because of the challenging teams not being up to the mark. Back then, Manchester City were not as experienced, Chelsea were going through an extremely bad patch and Arsenal were in shambles as usual. The shortcomings of their squad were rather cruelly highlighted in the Champions League final at Wembley where they succumbed to a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Barcelona. It was clearly evident that midfield reinforcements were required post Paul Scholes’ retirement. Somehow, Sir Alex chose not to invest in the midfield position and decided to go the Wenger way of promoting youth. A choice not turning out to be a wise one at the moment.

After Paul Scholes’ retirement and Darren Fletcher’s forced exile from football, Sir Alex opted for the central midfield pairing of Tom Cleverly and Anderson. Although the pair worked well in the opening matches, injuries have caused a rather precarious midfielder shortage at the club, a situation which ideally should have been handled in the summer transfer window itself. Had United completed the signings of a proper central midfielder and a defensive midfielder instead of signing a winger and a defender, their position might have been much stronger.

The winter transfer window presents the perfect opportunity for Sir Alex, to correct these mistakes. First and foremost United need to buy a proper defensive midfielder. Carrick’s failed auditions in this position should signal a move for Danielle De Rossi. Although people may argue that Phil Jones seems more than capable of playing as a central midfielder, he is first and foremost a central defender and should be seen as a long term replacement for Rio Ferdinand rather than Roy Keane’s reincarnation. Central Attacking midfield is a position where United can afford to risk not buying a player. With Tom Cleverly returning from injury, this position can be taken care of. Also Wayne Rooney may also enjoy playing in this position as it will allow him a greater chance to roam across the pitch and pick holes in opposition defence. Next up, a left back. Patrice Evra has been distinctly average for a couple of seasons now and his deputies, Da Silva twins are more often than not in the treatment room. United needs to buy a good solid left back and ask Patrice Evra to move on. Leighton Baines, anyone.

Recent return of Paul Scholes to the squad can at best be described as a move to paper over the cracks. He still has the awareness and vision, if not the legs to compete at the highest level. He managed to complete 71 passes while playing just 35 minutes during his return to the pitch against Manchester City, i.e. more passes than any other player on the pitch during the entire game. But if he found it hard to complete 90 minutes during the last season, it is debatable how he could cope with it this time around.

At the time of writing this article Sir Alex has rejected the idea of signing any player during the winter transfer window, a decision which might backfire in case of any further injuries to Phil Jones or Carrick. The squad is threadbare at the moment and Paul Scholes will certainly not solve the problem. Maybe Sneijder or De Rossi will.

 

The Convenience Of Neglecting Stoke

Every year the most interesting discussions about the Premier League revolve around the Champions League Places, the relegation battle and Liverpool’s continued failures to reaffirm their status as one of Premier League favourites. Amongst all these discussions, it is sometimes safely assumed that the mid table will most surely be filled by the Aston Villas, Fulhams and Evertons of the league. And more often than not, this used to be a correct prediction as well. But this year, a cursory look at the mid table will suggest a significant change in the proceedings. Stoke City are sitting 8th in the table, just a point behind 7th placed Newcastle and 4 points above 9th placed Norwich City.

When Stoke got promoted to the Premier League in 2008-09 season, every football pundit tipped them to be relegated in their first season back in top flight. Three years past, Stoke are sitting comfortably in mid table and are in the last 32 of the Europa League. Over these three years Stoke’s style of play has evolved from being brutally physical to being reliant on wing play and using set pieces wisely. Agreed that their style of play is still overly physical, especially while at set pieces, no one can argue that the other facets of their game have improved considerably. But while opposition managers can continue to harp on them for  using rugby tactics, it can be simply nullified by countering that it is a style of play nonetheless. It is clear that Tony Pulis and his squad realises that they cannot play the game with as much technical astuteness as say Arsenal or Tottenham, so,  they have mastered their very own style, of dominating aerial battles and sharp counter attacks.

It is hard to argue that Stoke’s current position in the Premier League is a misleading statistic. Under Tony Pulis, the club has gone from strength to strength each season, reaching the FA cup final in 2010-11 season and qualifying for the Europa League in the same year. This season, the squad is even stronger with shrewd signings of Peter Crouch, Wilson Palacios and Jonathan Woodgate, while retaining the usual suspects Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth, Matthew Etherington and Rory Delap.

This season, Stoke have held Chelsea and Manchester United to draws at home, while defeating Liverpool and Tottenham at home as well. Their away form has not been as good as their home form, but that can be attributed to the fatigue caused by midweek Europa games as well. Still with the position that they are in the Premier League and Europa League, they would be more than satisfied with what they have achieved so far.

When Andy Gray said last year that Barcelona would suffer on a cold night at the Britannia, he was laughed and ridiculed. A year later, Stoke are getting ready to invite Barcelona’s challengers Valencia to the Britannia stadium. Is it the same as facing Barcelona? No. But is it a step in the right direction? Probably yes.