Sunday 18 August 2019

Bellerin's return gives Arsenal further reason to be cheerful

Arsenal 3 Stoke 1

Hector Bellerin celebrates after helping to set up Theo Walcott’s goal for Arsenal’s equaliser against Stoke. Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Hector Bellerin celebrates after helping to set up Theo Walcott’s goal for Arsenal’s equaliser against Stoke. Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Jonathan Liew

Another three goals. Another three points. Another surge through the gears.

Yes, for Arsenal this will do very nicely. It is a luxury indeed in this league to win a game this easily and yet still be grateful for the "workout", but it is a luxury with which Arsenal are becoming agreeably familiar.

Charlie Adam's first-half penalty made things interesting for a while, but ultimately it was a little twist of lemon zest in a cocktail entirely of Arsenal's making.

This is an Arsenal side with remarkably few flaws; conjuring goals from all over the pitch and playing with a greater versatility than any of its recent predecessors.

There is a calmness to this place as well now, free of the angst and rancour that has defined much of the last decade.

Some of the football in the last 15 minutes was utterly giddy. Arsene Wenger even allowed himself the luxury of substituting Alexis Sanchez, which for the Gunners boss is the equivalent of allowing yourself a second glass of sherry before noon.

Arsenal's Alex Iwobi celebrates scoring their third goal with Mesut Ozil. Photo: Tony O'Brien/Reuters
Arsenal's Alex Iwobi celebrates scoring their third goal with Mesut Ozil. Photo: Tony O'Brien/Reuters

Complain

Of course, you could always pick little things to complain about - and doubtless some Arsenal fans will.

A hamstring injury to centre-half Shkodran Mustafi will put him out for three weeks. However, that carried its own tinselly silver lining as it allowed Hector Bellerin to make his return to the Arsenal defence after his own month-long injury lay-off.

If Sanchez and Mesut Ozil are the brains of this side, here again we were reminded that Bellerin is its pounding heart.

Arsenal's Theo Walcott (left) and Stoke City's Giannelli Imbula battle for the ball. Photo: John Walton/PA Wire
Arsenal's Theo Walcott (left) and Stoke City's Giannelli Imbula battle for the ball. Photo: John Walton/PA Wire

Stoke, for their part, came to play. That much was apparent from the fourth minute, when Marc Muniesa's left-footed volley forced a brilliant save from Petr Cech. And with Joe Allen, a great galloping gazelle of a player, pulling the strings in midfield, Stoke gave Arsenal a few early problems.

Mame Biram Diouf missed two good chances in the second-half. Giannelli Imbula had a fine game in midfield. Alongside him, Adam's long passes were a constant source of danger, even if his other job of marking Ozil was a bit like asking a severe hay-fever sufferer to water your plants for you.

Still, it was against the run of play that Stoke took the lead, Adam scoring from the penalty spot after Allen was brought down by Granit Xhaka.

For a while, Arsenal looked uncertain. Xhaka put a cross straight out of play, Bellerin strayed lazily offside. Cech came out of his area - never a judicious policy at the best of times - and somehow managed to head the ball behind him, but safe. Ozil, of all people, ran the ball straight out of play.

Fleetingly, this was the Arsenal of old: tetchy, fearful and guilty of trying to kick the door down.

Sanchez remembered they had a key. Shortly before the break, he played a sweet ball through to Bellerin and Theo Walcott bashed in his cross at the near post. It was the decisive moment in the game.

Bouquet

Three minutes into the second-half, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played the ball over the top and Ozil timed his run perfectly to loop a header exquisitely over the advancing goalkeeper, like a bouquet of flowers expertly lobbed into the upstairs window of an illicit lover.

Arsenal were now thoroughly in the mood, and spent the rest of the game doing pretty much what they wanted.

With 16 minutes remaining, Sanchez ripped another hole in the Stoke defence, substitute Alex Iwobi received his return ball, and the match was safe.

Of course, there are bigger tests to come. Of course, you wonder how Arsenal might cope with an injury to Sanchez. Of course, you wonder whether they can handle the emotional white heat of a genuine title race.

This is the state of being an Arsenal fan these days: bullish and yet strangely fatalistic, always sniffing out the next crushing disappointment.

However, full-time arrived with the announcement that Arsenal were top of the Premier League - if only until after Chelsea beat West Brom yesterday.

Christmas music rang around the ground. Even the rain had abated.

They could get used to this, Arsenal, they really could. (© Daily Telegraph, London.)

Telegraph.co.uk

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