The ability of vertically challenged Spaniards and Spanish based players theoretically playing in Staffordshire has been subject of many jokes in the last few years. For Santi Cazorla making his first away start in the Premiership, it will certainly be an experience at the Britannia, if nothing else. The contrast in styles between the two clubs is highlighted by the passing completion percentages of last season, Arsenal were the highest in the division with 60%, whilst Stoke City were the lowest with 40%. It's important for the Gunners to play their own game, whilst equally tailoring their approach to meet Stoke's strengths and weaknesses.
How they lined up ?
Both teams made two changes, to their opening day stalemates. Stoke had Dean Whitehead missing through suspension and Mathew Etherington through a shoulder injury, their replacements were new signing Geoff Cameron and former Real Zaragoza winger Jermaine Pennant.
For Arsenal, Wojciech Szczesny had a minor rib problem, so was replaced by Vitor Mannone in goal. Whilst Theo Walcott made way for Olivier Giroud, moving Lukas Podolski out into a wide position. Mikel Arteta was part of the midfield double pivot and Santi Cazorla was looking to pull the strings in behind the loan striker.
Playing as a 2nd striker/3rd Central Midfielder meant that it would most likely vary who was picking up the little Spaniard dependent on positioning, as he would roam in between the square in front of the two centre-backs.
The opening few minutes saw Cazorla pressed very quickly, every time the ball came to him he had an opponent close him down. This led to him uncharacteristically playing the ball out of play when looking for Podolski. Andy Wilkinson also left a little marker on him after two minutes when he swept his feet away. After that though Stoke sat off him, which allowed him to dictate the game. He played more of a 3rd midfielder than in the hole, as he dropped deep to evade the marking of his opposing central midfielders.
His lateral runs and passes made it difficult for any one player to pick him up and if a pass wasn't on, he just simply weaved his way through until the angle was more suitable. An incisive ball into the path of Diaby, opened Stoke up in the 20th minute. In fact, his range of passing increased as the half wore on, a 50 yard diagonal pass out to Gibbs the pick of the bunch. Whilst he didn't get too close to Giroud, at times he still offered a goal threat, producing a good save out of Begovic in the 34th minute.
His understanding with Podolski was good as he made eleven passes to the German during the half. Podolski almost an inside left, joined Giroud and took up a number of central positions. Perhaps the defining moment of Cazorla's half was when a 20 second passage of head tennis was disrupted by the little maestro. He controlled the ball on his chest, then used his foot to take the sting out of it bringing it down, reminiscent of young kid taking his new ball home, whilst simultaneously embarrassing the larger, more physical school ground bully's.
In the second period Cazorla continued to float around the pitch in a fairly free role, though he was distinctly less involved due to a combination of Stoke coming into the match and tiredness slowing the former Villarreal playmaker. A five-minute spell defined this, in the 52nd three players crowded him out, then a cross went astray in the 56th, strangely unmeasured. He was replaced by Aaron Ramsey in the 81st minute.
Conclusion - Stoke 0 Arsenal 0
Another solid performance from Santi Cazorla in an Arsenal shirt. The difference in his first to second half performances are clear to see by the statistics. He completed 50 passes in the first whilst receiving 56, as opposed to 26 made and just 20 received in the second period. Having had such an impact on the game early on, it made sense for Arsene Wenger to withdraw him late on as clearly fatigue took hold. He registered Arsenal's only two shots on target, as they struggled with the final ball. His 93% successful pass completion was a long way above the teams 81%.
With Mikel Arteta operating as a mobile deep-lying playmaker, Arsenal had Diaby playing box-to-box, with Cazorla a little more forward. Work will be required on when Diaby should advance into the opposing penalty area, vacating the space left unoccupied by Cazorla. Further forward Podolski seems to compliment Cazorla well, offering a directness that creates space. The lack of fluidity amongst the other front players can be attributed to their unfamiliarity, out of Arsenal's front four players, three were acquired this summer. Whether or not Giroud fits the system, is too early to assess.