£40m messiah Ozil restores Gunners' faith
ARSENAL 3 STOKE city 1
AN impressively weird match, a Hollywood body-swap comedy on grass, during which Stoke City and Arsenal offered up more than passable impersonations of each other.
Stoke passed Arsenal off the park at times, but were overcome by three goals from set-pieces. If that was counter-intuitive, then the assassin's identity was more predictable. Mesut Özil's hat-trick of assists, in front of German national coach and fellow umlaut owner Joachim Löw, was further evidence of his talismanic effect.
The Özil bandwagon shows no sign of slowing down. On his home debut, Arsenal's fans greeted him with a strangely reverential devotion.
Before the game the club had organised a promotional photo-shoot outside the stadium, featuring dozens of fans in "ÖZIL 11" replica shirts. This was not a welcome ever afforded to, say, Yossi Benayoun.
The arrival of the £40m man has been met in these parts with a certain joy and a certain relief, but most of all an overwhelming, almost theological gratitude. Everything he did was oohed and aahed, even the rare misplaced passes. He was wildly applauded when he wandered over to take a corner, as if he were a UN aid worker on his way to deliver food, blankets and pinpoint through-balls to some disaster-stricken part of the world.
His name was sung throughout, praising him to the heavens simply for being here, alive and Mesut Özil all at the same time.
"He gave a lift to everyone at the club," Arsene Wenger said. "When you look at his numbers, his assists are not a coincidence.
"When you have the ball, you make a good pass or a bad pass. Good players make a good pass, bad players make a bad pass."
And so it came to pass that in the fifth minute, Özil created a goal. A low free-kick was parried by Asmir Begovic but only to Aaron Ramsey, who like the Woody Allen character Zelig is developing the propitious knack of being present at all the defining moments of history.
The man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square? Aaron Ramsey. The man whispering in Yitzhak Rabin's ear as he signs the historic Oslo Peace Accords? Aaron Ramsey. The discoverer of penicillin? Not Alexander Fleming at all, but in fact Aaron Ramsey.
Ramsey converted the rebound. Of course he did. It was his eighth goal in nine games. Özil looked upon the assist, and he saw that it was good.
Everyone was having so much fun that the absence of Theo Walcott due to a last-minute abdominal injury passed virtually unnoticed.
Then, against the run of play, Stoke equalised. Steven Nzonzi played a beautiful diagonal ball, new signing Marko Arnautovic peeled away from Per Mertesacker, and with impeccable technique fired a low left-footed volley against the post, leaving Wojciech Szczesny sprawling. The ball came out to Geoff Cameron, who placed the ball into the empty net.
The old Stoke under Tony Pulis would never have scored a goal that fluid. Then again, the old Stoke would never have conceded a goal so elementary just 10 minutes later. Özil's corner, Mertesacker's glancing header, and Arsenal were ahead again.
Stoke threatened sporadically in the second half. Marc Wilson ratted Szczesny's fingers with a low humdinger, while the outstanding Cameron delivered some searching crosses.
As a measure of how well they competed, after going 2-1 down Stoke completed 327 passes to Arsenal's 234 and enjoyed more of the ball.
"We talked about playing more in the opposition's half," Mark Hughes said. "In the second half, I think that's what we did. We showed a lot of control, which is what we're trying to do this year. At 2-1, I felt the team most likely to score was probably us."
Something has definitely happened to them at set-pieces, though. With virtually the same personnel as last season – Cameron, Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth, Jonathan Walters – Stoke looked vulnerable virtually every time the ball was delivered into their area.
Eighteen minutes from time, another Özil free-kick was won by Bacary Sagna, whose header had sufficient loop to evade Begovic and nestle in the far corner.
You could, if you really wanted, pick holes in Arsenal's defence. The back four were not always in alignment and occasionally lacked sufficient protection from midfield.
But after years of playing well without winning, Wenger was determined to enjoy winning without playing well.
"I said many times, when everyone else was unhappy, that my job is to make everyone happy," he said. "When they are, I feel well."
It is an achievement that should not be understated. The deep early-season gloom shrouding the Emirates has been shredded in the space of just five games.
The club that lacked the 'ambition' and 'firepower' to challenge for the title now leads the Premier League on the strength of their £40m midfielder. Work that one out. (© Daily Telegraph, London)