Rivalries come in different shapes
Rivalry in sport can appear from the most unlikely of opponents. Location, competitiveness and history are the usual reasons for particular hatred between two clubs. Sometimes, however, a modern rivalry can be formed on the back of far more recent history.
Such a rivalry is no different to Everton and Liverpool, Barcelona and Real Madrid or Chelsea and Manchester United. It might not have the same impact on a city or league table, but it can still bring out a particular bitterness between the followers of the two clubs with ease.
One of the Premier League’s less discussed, perhaps less prevalent, rivalries will produce its latest instalment this weekend. Arsenal visit Stoke City’s blustery Bet365 Stadium with Champions League qualification on the line. The Gunners have accumulated only three points from their last six league trips to the Potteries, as the Potters have become their latest Premier League bogey team.
A rivalry between two teams with vastly different aims, located over 150 miles apart and who spent decades in different divisions, does not meet the locality, competitiveness or historical tick-box requirements.
Where did this unique rivalry surface?
This recent rivalry has grown out of a contrast in philosophy from the days of Tony Pulis’ physical, robust Potters against the flimsier, bully-able Arsenal sides of the early years of this decade. Arsenal’s flimsiness may remain in part, but the Potters underwent significant stylistic surgery under Mark Hughes. Those changes have now been reverted, however, leaving the Potters in mid-table limbo and regressing.
It was not just a mere ideological disagreement between Pulis and Wenger, mind.
From their first Premier League meeting in 2008, both sides perfectly slotted into their alleged stereotypes. Stoke battered Arsenal with long throws and hard tackles (which led to Arsenal having three players taken off through injury). Pulis oversaw a victory for his side and Arsene Wenger was – not for the first time in the Potteries – unhappy.
Less than 18 months later the heat was turned up a notch. That infamous Ryan Shawcross tackle that broke both bones in Aaron Ramsey’s leg led to Wenger’s calls for the FA to act and Pulis slipping into the tiresome ‘not that type of player’ rhetoric. That match was the Gunners’ only victory to date away at Stoke.
Arsenal’s manager has since labelled Stoke a ‘rugby team’, Hughes (who has his own experience of managerial confrontation) has been typically unsympathetic to the abuse the Gunners have suffered and Ramsey has scored at the ground that could have ended his career.
Fans play an ugly part
Ramsey has continuously, bizarrely been booed whenever he returns to the scene of one of the Premier League’s ugliest incidents. In 2013, Ramsey responded to the Neanderthal rumbles whenever he touched the ball by shushing the fans after he scored. Unsurprisingly, this added gallons of petrol to an already wild fire. The abuse when they face each other this weekend – and Ramsey will be playing a crucial midfield role – will be as vicious as ever.
Arsenal’s fans’ frustrations have grown with each encounter, which was not helped when Mathieu Debuchy was ruled out for several months after an unnecessary push from Marko Arnautovic. Parked behind the goal alongside the tunnel, the Gunners’ fan base will be united against a mutual enemy this weekend. Ramsey’s abuse from the moment the whistle goes will be strongly rivalled by the torments angled at Shawcross.
Bigger than the rivalry
Although this season was supposed to be the final straw for Arsenal when in the midst of their mid-season collapse, victories over Manchester United and Southampton have kept their top four chances very much alive. Win their remaining matches and all it will take is Liverpool to fail to win on of their matches and the Gunners will retain Champions League football yet again.
Had they been able to select their fixture for such a pivotal Saturday evening kick-off, an away day at a hostile Bet365 Stadium will have been bottom of their list. The Potters have only taken six points in their last nine matches, but – as we saw with West Ham and Tottenham last Friday – rivalry often overrides form.
Protests have seemingly calmed as results have improved for the Gunners and a shared enemy on Friday might be enough to bond a split support. These type of fixtures have, however, been the matches that Arsenal traditionally fail to perform in and – having only played Southampton on Wednesday night – fatigue could be an issue as we edge towards the closing of a long campaign for the Gunners.
Stoke are closer to the side Pulis built now than they have been for the past 24 months, which will only serve as a haunting reminder for Arsenal.
Similar to their rivals, the Potters are a club barely treading water and with a set of fans bickering with one another over the best way to progress. Where Arsenal’s inability to progress towards competing at the top of the table or in Europe serves as frustration, Stoke’s return to the ways of Pulis and decline into the bottom half has left the club at an important crossroads.
While Stoke should benefit from their regression on this occasion, the rivalry generates a shift of pressure and expectation. Neither manager can afford defeat and, though it may not be pretty, it should make for a fiery clash.