In week 1 of the new Premier League season, Arsenal left it late to overcome a Leicester side that looked to have regained their Championship form of 2 seasons ago. Meanwhile, Stoke slumped to an uninspiring defeat against a capable but not fear-inspiring Everton squad in their first match. In the aftermath, it appears that these two clubs are on decidedly different trajectories.

Arsenal have been inspired to victory in their last two outings by late goals from the nearly-departed, Olivier Giroud, who could, if he continues to come off the bench and score critical goals, become one of the biggest sentimental stories of this season for the Gunners. Surely, fans are already thanking their lucky stars that he wasn’t allowed to leave, in the end, barring a shock development at the end of the transfer window. This was clearly in evidence by the full-throated singing for the long-serving, talismanic French striker from the entire audience at the Emirates at the weekend. The afterglow for Giroud may be short-lived as it is so very early in the season but if he rides this patch of form there’s no reason for it not to continue. It may even raise the question of the last time a “super sub” contended for Premier League Player of the Year honors?

Around the rest of the Arsenal team, there is still some concern over the three-man defense leaking goals. So far, they’ve been able to do just enough to win but those victories were against two quality sides. The task on hand for them on Saturday will be to show that they can lock things down against a team they should handle easily enough. If that doesn’t happen and they need another inspired fight back, the murmurs around the ground will get just that little bit louder.

Additionally, Alexandre Lacazette appears to be the real deal but will need to step up his ability to handle the physicality of the English top-flight as there have been some occasions where he appeared to be bumped off the ball a little too easily. Stoke will happily oblige the Frenchman with just how physical this league can be on Saturday. That said, he has both created and been on the end of some excellent chances in his early days with the club. The story of the strikers for Arsenal looks to be compelling as long as they stay healthy through this campaign.

That said, we haven’t even touched on Alexis Sanchez, who looks to be ruled out once more for the trip to Stoke. Until he is back in the side or there is a definitive end to the protracted transfer saga involving the Chilean it is probably best to look at the squad who are on the field. Certainly, the pressure for some final decision to be made about his future is in order for his place in the team to be saved. That tension will only increase if the French duo continue their torrid start to the year and one of Danny Welbeck or Theo Walcott start putting away chances with consistency.

One piece that often gets overlooked these days when it comes to Arsene Wenger’s skill with building a team is how he manages to get young players to contribute. There are a raft of them who have been trying to break through for a long time and we’re now seeing them having chipped in here and there to make for a successful start to the campaign. Sead Kolasinac, Alex Iwobi, Welbeck, and Aaron Ramsey have all impressed in their time on the field and with Ramsey having been at the club for nearly a decade it’s sometimes hard to remember that he is still just 26 years of age, as is Welbeck, with both only now rounding into the prime of their careers. The young German has already proven his worth with the goal that saw the Gunners through to penalties in the Charity Shield while the debutante Nigerian showed flashes of promise that could prove vital in the long campaign as a useful substitute and occasional starter.

It’s not all wine and roses, though, for the London side. They will need to be better in defense and with some of the injured coming back, as well as Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka getting themselves sorted in midfield. If this happens it should make it tougher for opposing teams to break going forward. I have more belief in the midfield duo than Robbie Savage does but hey, pundits have to say things to draw attention as well. A couple of elements will greatly effect if this tandem stays together in the future and that is whether Aaron Ramsey replaces the Egyptian while the team waits for Mesut Ozil to round into form. As ever, though, Wenger has a deep squad to choose from and may decide to put some new faces in the lineup at the Britannia.

At the back Per Mertesacker and Petr Cech will need better communication and command over their linemates. Rob Holding will need to be better, overall, to maintain his place in the 1st team particularly with Shkodran Mustafi coming back from injury. Meanwhile, Nacho Monreal appears to need just a bit more concentration at the back. Hector Bellerin could also be lumped into this group that needs to show some improvement while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain needs to capitalize on the promise he has shown in the past. This all adds up to Saturday being a crucial test for this team, early in the season, to put together a complete 90 minutes.

They will have to do so in a historically tough environment for away clubs. Mark Hughes and Stoke always manage to be a side that may flirt with relegation but mostly are a safe bet for finishing somewhere between 8th and 15th. The danger in playing them lies in the chances they seem to create out of thin air a few times per match. If Arsenal can avoid being caught out on those and limiting forays into their defensive third everything should go according to plan allowing players like Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Lacazette an opportunity to get lots of work trying to break down a tough defense. One area of concern will be if the team can score from free kick opportunities. Traditionally, this is where Stoke really shine, in denying good opportunities from set plays. If Arsenal can get one from these situations they will be well on their way.

The danger men for Stoke will likely be Mame Diouf, Xherdan Shaqiri, and Bojan Krkic but the team will need to be alert if Hughes decides to go with Peter Crouch or Choupo-Moting who could easily throw a spanner in the works off of set plays or any lackadaisical defending. They also have an additional wildcard that could come into play if Jese Rodriguez debuts for the Potters in this match. Regardless, Stoke always seem to pop up in dangerous spots in matches like these, so it promises to be a tense affair until the Gunners have a goal or two in the bag and can avoid any major letdowns when the opposition do get those opportunities. The defense will surely be tested on occasion but this match will be a check on their concentration levels to avoid such lapses that have burned Arsenal before.

All in all, this points to being a competitive match that should boil down to how many opportunities the Gunners bury. I like the away side to win 3-1 (Lacazette, Ozil, Giroud for us and Diouf for the opponents), getting burnt late on, once the match is mostly no longer in doubt.

Projected Lineups:

Arsenal: Cech, Mustafi, Mertesacker, Monreal, Xhaka, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kolasinac, Ozil, Welbeck, Lacazette

Stoke City: Butland, Cameron, Shawcross, Zouma, Pieters, Allen, Fletcher, Diouf, Shaqiri, Bojan, Berahino