Arsenal vs. Stoke a feisty rivalry built on frustration and deep defensive lines
Arsenal versus Stoke City isn't among English football's most historically famous rivalries, but since the Potters' promotion to the Premier League eight years ago, it has become one of the feistiest. The hatred, however, goes back to before the Premier League era.
The rivalry essentially dates back to the early 1970s, when Arsenal and Stoke met in consecutive FA Cup semifinals. Arsenal triumphed in both, and it's become accepted to refer to the two matches as "controversial" wins -- although the truth is slightly more complex.
In 1971, their FA Cup semifinal took place at Hillsborough, with the Potters storming into a two-goal lead within half an hour. In his match report for The Observer, legendary football writer Arthur Hopcraft described Stoke's play as "uncommonly attractive." It was clear Stoke were not, in general, considered a good footballing side -- sound familiar?
But Arsenal got back into the game and eventually equalised with a stoppage-time penalty, although the award wasn't remotely controversial. Arsenal captain Frank McLintock had headed powerfully towards goal, and Stoke's Welsh international midfielder John Mahoney palmed the ball, Luis Suarez-style, from the goal line and into safety. It was a clear penalty, and from the reaction of Mahoney's himself, it was obvious he had cheated. Peter Storey converted the penalty, Arsenal won the replay four days later and eventually defeated Liverpool at Wembley to clinch the double.
The following season's FA Cup semifinal also went to a replay. After a 1-1 draw at Villa Park, Arsenal won 2-1 at Goodison Park. This result was genuinely controversial, with Stoke aggrieved at three incidents. First, they thought they'd scored when Denis Smith's header was cleared from seemingly just behind the line by Arsenal defender Bob McNab.
After Jimmy Greenhoff had put Stoke ahead from the spot, Arsenal were awarded a penalty of their own when Peter Dobing was penalised for a slight push on George Armstrong. Charlie George scored the goal.
Then came the winner, the goal that really made Stoke hate Arsenal. George received the ball down the right, but was clearly offside by a good five yards. Astonishingly, linesman Bob Matthewson didn't flag, and George crossed for John Radford to smash in the decider. Stoke's players were furious in the aftermath, their supporters for considerably longer.
The reason Matthewson didn't flag was supposedly because he'd mistaken a programme seller in a white coat for a white Stoke City shirt. You would, of course, never get that kind of thing these days.
The rivalry, then, was essentially started by a programme seller wearing the wrong-coloured jacket, and it rumbled on over the next decade or so. Another significant game came in Sept. 1980, when Stoke manager Alan Durban fielded a 4-5-1 system -- then almost unheard of -- in a ludicrously defensive performance away at Highbury. Stoke lost 2-0, and when a journalist criticised the lack of entertainment value from the Potters afterwards, Durban was furious. "If you want entertainment, go and watch a bunch of clowns," he said.
Stoke were a no-nonsense side, not remotely interested in the business of crowd-pleasing. The Observer's match report from that game ended a passage about Durban's remarks by suggesting only a "masochist" would want to watch their football.
Fast forward nearly 30 years, and the constant clashes between Tony Pulis -- like Durban, a no-nonsense, straight-talking Welshman -- and Arsene Wenger were fundamentally about playing style: "route one" versus possession football. When Arsenal first visited the Britannia Stadium early in 2008-09, they were completely undone by Rory Delap's famous long throws; he launched the ball into the box for goals from both Ricardo Fuller and Seyi Olofinjana in a shock 2-1 victory. Stoke were doing nothing more than getting it in the mixer, whereas Arsenal were attempting to pass their opponents off the park.
Arsenal haven't enjoyed a single happy experience at Stoke. In nine visits since Stoke's promotion to the Premier League, they've won just once: the 3-1 victory that was completely overshadowed by the Ryan Shawcross tackle that left Aaron Ramsey with a broken leg.
That has somewhat dominated discussion about this fixture, and slightly misrepresents Stoke's strategy against Arsenal down the years. There are unquestionably teams who have deliberately taken an overly physical approach against Arsenal, but Stoke's game has been about standing off the Gunners and refusing to engage in a midfield scrap. Stoke stood off, waited for Arsenal to play a through-ball on the edge of the box, and then played "route one" in the other direction.
Aside from the Ramsey incident, there have been plenty of genuinely amusing moments. When Wenger accused Stoke of being more a rugby team than football," Stoke supporters reacted by signing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
Stoke fans used to mock Wenger's touchline protestations by singing "Let's all do the Wenger," before throwing their arms around in mock disgust at refereeing decisions. A couple of years ago Wenger didn't leave his dugout for the entire first half of Arsenal's 3-2 defeat at Stoke. When asked why, he joked, "They love me so much here that I didn't want to give them an opportunity to show me their love." The meetings between the two have been, first and foremost, about winding up the opposition -- which is basically what footballing rivalry should be about.
But for all Arsenal's struggles away at Stoke, it's notable that in their eight trips to the Emirates, Stoke haven't collected a single point. They have their ninth opportunity to take something this Saturday. Although Mark Hughes has used an attack-minded side in in his last two matches, he's likely to be more cautious at the Emirates -- as he usually is in this fixture -- with a deep defensive line and a midfield based around ball-winning rather than passing. It's designed, primarily, to frustrate the opposition, and that's what this rivalry is all about.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.