1 – 0 Koscielny (6)
2 – 0 Sanchez (33)
3 – 0 Sanchez (48)
The history books suggested that this was the ideal fixture for Arsenal to recover some poise and confidence. They weren’t wrong as a dash of swagger was added to prolong Stoke City’s abysmal record under the red sky of north London. A three-goal margin tells you that this was comfortable but the victory was a tonking by any other name.
Asmir Begovic might hang his head over Sanchez’s third, a free kick which went through the legs of the wall and into the net via post and goalkeeper’s hand, but he was, as is frequently the case, the visitors Man of the Match. Before Laurent Koscielny headed Arsenal into the lead, Begovic had twice denied them with good saves from Rosicky and Alexis as the hosts made a blistering start.
If Steve Bruce was embarrassed to concede from the set-piece which started Hull’s tumble out of the FA Cup, it’s hard to know what his former Manchester United team-mate felt. Sanchez’s initial corner was, typically for Arsenal, abysmal. That Koscielny returned the ball to the Chilean to try again and then gamboled into the centre to head home, unmarked, is the stuff of the defensive nightmares we normally suffer.
The tenor of the match was set; Arsenal enjoyed the possession and Stoke chased shadows. Their moments of attack were fleeting, rightly denied a goal for offside and by Ospina for a clean sheet. The Colombian had little to do and a clean sheet will have done him well. How long Szczesny’s punishment lasts is another matter but it seems little to do with smoking but more on bringing the Pole down a peg or two.
Maybe this season he will merit his cup winner’s medal?
But it was another match in which Alexis’ star shone. Under the admiring gaze of two former kings of Arsenal, the new monarch waspishly harassed the visitors defence, dropping back to support the ever-dependable Monreal on the left. If Sanchez has a rival for Player of the Season at the club or in the country, I am struggling to think of one. Perhaps Villa for the latter but the former? No-one has not emerged.
Sanchez confirmed the victory, ceding possession and with Tomas Rosicky, retrieving it and playing an impudent one-two before cutting inside and delivering the requisite finish. Both have been instrumental in the comfort of the back-to-back home wins since the debacle on the south coast a fortnight ago.
Rosicky has been fairly unsung but was, with Cazorla, the driving force in the centre, freeing Alexis and Oxlade-Chamberlain on the flanks to weave their torment on Stoke. The England international was one of many denied by Begovic and it was his marauding run that Sidwell ended without claiming any part-ownership of the ball. Alexis applied the finish via a more contrived route than he intended but it matters not; the ball was in the net.
The victory was straightforward, made so by the dynamism of Arsenal’s performance. In a season where brickbats have been merited, it is churlish not to allow the players to bask in the glow of an outstanding afternoon’s work before they return to training and focus on next weekend’s visit to Manchester.
Encouragement can also be drawn from the players on the bench; Ramsey, Walcott and Özil coming back from injury to lend their efforts to the remainder of the campaign. The latter pair made their cameos, Walcott again missed a chance you would expect more from but rustiness and that particular millstone will eventually be lifted.
Özil? It’s a reminder of last season’s corresponding fixture, his Emirates début, where the Stoke defence was held in his sway. He too missed the opportunity to add the icing to his own cake but whilst the options in attack are becoming available, defensively Wenger has problems.
Highlighting the fragility of player fitness, Mathieu Debuchy seems likely to miss the next six weeks or so with a dislocated shoulder. Arnautovic’s push was an act of frustration and intimidation, driven by spite. I am sure the outcome was not as he intended but that does not undo the action. Whether the FA can do anything depends on the referee’s report, and their own will to act. Neither fills me with hope that the appropriate punishment will be forthcoming.
So to Crouch, flailing limbs making innocuous contact with Mertesacker prior to a snide late challenge which brought an over-reaction from the Stoke centre-forward. An afternoon where their physical approach to the game manifested in the niggling fouls which pockmark this encounter in The Potteries. Away from home, it is a policy which has induced continued failure, even leading to their demise on occasion.
Arsène was understandably more cheery than after the last Premier League fixture,
When you play at home – our pitch is perfect even in winter – you can move the ball well when you have so many technical players on the pitch. It is an advantage for us. What was important for me is that we kept a good concentration to play the game how we want to play and also that we kept a clean sheet at the back. Overall, I must say that everybody played very well.
There is little to disagree with his view. Suppine opposition need to be put to the sword, his players did that and for David Ospina in particular, such matches are a gentle introduction to the English game. It allows him chance to work with the defence on understandings and accustom himself to the pace of matches. He will, if he retains his place, be considerably busier next Sunday.
However, for Wenger the problems will not go away. Kieran Gibbs retains doubts about his fitness and now the manager has a problem with the right side of defence,
The only negative today is that we lost another experienced defender with a dislocated shoulder. That gives us a problem because we are already short of experienced players at the back.
Bellerin played well when he came on although it is difficult to decide if there is an element of smokescreen over Calum Chambers absence. Hanging the youngster out to dry by dropping him would be harsh on Arsène’s part, even if the inconsistency of youth has caught up with the player. A rest is possibly the answer and Bellerin’s confidence grows with each appearance.
Debuchy’s absence though, is a big problem for next weekend and some tough upcoming matches. City have pace in abundance in the wide positions with a flexibility to exploit any technical weaknesses in the Arsenal defence. For Arsène the question is which of his youths is the most reliable?
It’s something to work on this week and ponder. For now, enjoying the three points is all that matters.
From The Vaults
Arsenal travelled to St Andrews atop the Premier League, two points clear of Manchester United but looking to extend that lead to five. They duly did so with ease in a match notable for Thierry Henry scoring his 100th goal in all competitions for the club, in what was his 130th appearance for the club. It was also the third consecutive match in which Arsenal benefitted from an own goal.