Saturday 24 August 2019

Clinical Gunners refuse to panic

Arsenal 3 Stoke City 1

Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka in action with Stoke City’s Mame Biram Diouf at the Emirates yesterday. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka in action with Stoke City’s Mame Biram Diouf at the Emirates yesterday. Photo: Reuters

Miguel Delaney

For a while, it looked like it could be the same old story for Arsenal, but they instead continue to look like there might be something different about this season. The goals here, that saw them come back from 1-0 down to an initially impressive Stoke City to win 3-1, were certainly different class.

There was some luck, as Granit Xhaka probably should have been sent off for the elbow on Joe Allen that gave Stoke the Charlie Adam penalty that put them into a first-half lead, but Arsene Wenger's side still displayed an ­impressive resolve to recover from that - as well as an even more impressive sense of expression.

Arsenal's Theo Walcott shrugs off Stoke City's Giannelli Imbula. Photo: PA
Arsenal's Theo Walcott shrugs off Stoke City's Giannelli Imbula. Photo: PA

Arsenal did not panic on going a goal down to such a side as they might have done in the past. Instead, they kept their nerve and kept going at Stoke until Mark Hughes' men were eventually unravelled.

The eternal issue with reading too much into any Arsenal result, of course, is that they are the Premier League club that seem to endure Groundhog Day - almost having the exact same type of season over and over again - more than anyone else except maybe Sunderland. Even when they have these occasional breaks from the usual, there is a tendency to eventually revert.

Wenger did not, however, revert to the usual sense of self-parody when it came to the game's most controversial incident. This time, he did see the clash that led to Stoke's penalty, and insisted it wasn't a foul, and wasn't a penalty.

He may redress that if he takes a second look, as Xhaka seemed to catch Allen with his elbow. Adam rolled it past Petr Cech, and it looked like Stoke could catch Arsenal on a bad day. Hughes' side were on top for a lot of the first half.

Mesut Ozil celebrates scoring Arsenal's second goal in their 3-1 win over Stoke City. Photo: PA
Mesut Ozil celebrates scoring Arsenal's second goal in their 3-1 win over Stoke City. Photo: PA

It was a moment that could be a concern for Arsenal in the next few weeks, however, that actually proved a positive in this game. On 25 minutes, centre-half Shkodran Mustafi had to come off with what Wenger later confirmed was a hamstring injury likely to keep him out for at least three weeks.

That saw the return of Hector Bellerin from his own injury, though, and he reasserted his importance to this side. He is probably one of their four most important players, along with Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla. Bellerin's searing pace just gives Arsenal an entirely different dimension, making them so much more dynamic, and allowing them to stretch sides.

That was exactly how they turned this around, as Sanchez picked out Bellerin on the wing with a glorious reverse ball on 42 minutes, and the flying full-back crossed for Theo Walcott to deftly guide the ball in. From there, the game was only going in one direction.

Ozil gloriously changed the direction of an Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain cross on 50 minutes, brilliantly heading over Grant with a finish reminiscent of Robin van Persie's strike against Spain in the 2014 World Cup.

Stoke City's Glen Johnson battles Arsenal's Olivier Giroud for the ball. Photo: PA
Stoke City's Glen Johnson battles Arsenal's Olivier Giroud for the ball. Photo: PA

Alex Iwobi then arguably surpassed even that, bursting onto a Sanchez break just outside the box, and sweeping the ball in to clinch the victory.

They go top of the table for a night at least, although that could change if Chelsea beat West Brom this afternoon. Wenger, however, feels there is a change in his team.

"When you analyse last year's season, at home, we did very well against the top five and we dropped points between five and 12 at home, teams in mid-table. That's our challenge this year, to continue to do well against the big teams but also games like today."

They will have to meet that challenge without Mustafi for the next few weeks, and that is a blow since he has formed a fine partnership with Laurent Koscielny.

"He has a good hamstring strain," Wenger said with surprising jocularity, "and I mean good in the bad sense.

"The minimum is 21 days. That means … he will have a nice Christmas."

Arsenal themselves have had nice Christmases before, and been top in December before.

They need to work out how to stay there, but responses like this are a start.

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