Several years ago, at the height of Arsenal's aesthetically beautiful, shoestring-budget, win-nothing era of fetishised possession football, there developed a geographically unlikely rivalry between them and Stoke. This was down, in part, to the Potters' tendency to beat their illustrious rivals at crucial points in the season, especially in games at what was then known as the Britannia, and in part to an extremely unsavoury incident involving Ryan Shawcross and Aaron Ramsey, in which the former broke the latter's tibia and fibula with a horrific tackle which is regularly replayed to this day. While that was enough to drum up a vicious antipathy between their respective fanbases, there was also a fundamental otherness to the two teams. Arsenal had pretensions to moral and ethical footballing perfection, Stoke were the anti-football sloggers, and so it became a derby of antitheses, as was perhaps best summed up by the oppositional characters of snarling, baseball cap-sporting Newportonian Tony Pulis and Arsene Wenger, a man who has probably never heard of Newport, let alone worn a cap.
It would be no exaggeration to say that, when the philosophical rivalry between Arsenal and Stoke was at its height, games between the two sides were some of the most poisonous in the Premier League. The fans would relentlessly whistle and abuse each other, with Arsenal supporters stereotyping Stoke fans as backwards provincial football ogres and, vice versa, Stoke fans seeing their North London counterparts as sanctimonious metropolitan prats. There was certainly a whiff of north-south regionalism hanging heavy over the feud, and plenty of furious mutual mud-slinging on both sides of the divide. All of that, combined with the aforementioned differences between the teams, created a heady and combustible atmosphere come matchday which often teetered between fiery and openly threatening.
That said, with the departure of Pulis in 2013 and the arrival of an equally bearish if slightly more attack-minded Welshman in the form of Mark Hughes, the antipathy on the sidelines and in the dugout has lessened somewhat. Similarly, as the sickening images of the Shawcross tackle on Ramsey begin to fade in the collective memory, that aspect of the rivalry has become marginally less contentious. Then there is the fact that, these days, the spiritual antithesis between Arsenal and Stoke really isn't all that pronounced. Wenger's team are still a bunch of twinkle-toed sporting aesthetes, mind, but their opponents are no longer as distinctive as they once might have been.
When Stoke visit the Emirates on Saturday, their team will look much like any other inhabiting the upper-mid reaches of the Premier League. Gone is the age of Tony Pulis, gone are the prosaic Anglo-Irish talents of Rory Delap, Dean Whitehead, Matthew Etherington and the like, and in their place stand a group of dainty Barcelona rejects in the form of Bojan, Marc Muniesa and Ibrahim Affelay. Sure, they still have a spine of hardened choppers headed up by Shawcross, Jon Walters and Charlie Adam, but the truth is that Stoke aren't as hard as they used to be. Their identity as anti-footballers has subsided, and been replaced by the ironic 'Stokealona' tagline. That's an identity which, dare we say it, is faintly relatable for Arsenal fans, who have spent more than enough time watching a pale imitation of Barcelona over the past few years.