It is a different kind of Stoke City that will line up to face Arsenal tomorrow in what will be a fierce test of the London club’s Premier League title aspirations. But it is when you compare the Arsenal side of today with the one my Stoke team had such a strong record against between 2008 and 2013 that you see why they are genuine title contenders now.
People often ask me what it was that made our Stoke side such a bogey team for Arsène Wenger across the course of those years under Tony Pulis’ management, when we won three and drew two and lost one of our six games against them in all competitions at the Britannia Stadium. I have to say, without a shadow of doubt, Arsenal just didn’t fancy the challenge back then. They just didn’t want to be there. I always remember their quietness in the tunnel – the place where you can look an opponent in the whites of their eyes. It was never like that when Chelsea or Manchester United came to town, back in those days.
You could tell they had an aversion to playing us from start to finish. And they knew, too. That was why there was one time when a handshake was not offered at the end of it all. Alex Song, Abou Diaby and Mikaël Silvestre would put a tackle in but not many more. And we would find those newspaper headlines with the references to us as a “rugby team”. That helped us, of course. “Why are they talking about us?” our manager would ask, with a smile on his face. You never want that background noise as a team. I always remember the year Rafa Benitez came out with his famous “facts” line about Sir Alex Ferguson. The next day Liverpool came to our place at the centre of a lot of noise and they couldn’t beat us either.
We also knew that if we played Arsenal’s extremely talented players at their own game, then we would lose 5-, 6- or 7-0. So we focused very intensely on what we were good at. The aerial threat, of course. Both goals in our 2-1 win in November 2008 were from long throws. Making the pitch small when we were out of possession and big when we had the ball.
But it is a different Arsenal now. The vital point is that so many of those players will put a tackle in, be up for the physical fight – even though that is far less of the challenge they will face against Mark Hughes’ team. Look at some of the defenders in the Arsenal side now – Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, with Petr Cech in goal. Their greater determination means that all the others want to play the same way. It no longer seems possible to characterise Arsenal as the stereotypical southern team, unhappy about travelling into the deep north. This weekend could be the one when they make a statement about the changing face of their club.