With Christmas fast approaching, there was a bit of a festive feel about the Emirates Stadium, with banners such as ‘Santa is a Gooner’ prominently displayed. Arsenal, however, weren’t really getting into the charity of the season, clinically dispatching with Stoke and replacing Chelsea at the top of the Premier League, at least for the time being.
Arsenal started on top in the possession count, but before the half-hour was out they had fallen behind thanks to an errant elbow from Granit Xhaka which brought down Joe Allen in the box. The resultant spot-kick, which could only be taken after Allen was removed from the area, was converted by Charlie Adam, and as half-time approached it looked as if the Potters would maintain their lead.
They didn’t. Instead, two goals either side of the break gave Arsenal the lead and Stoke little chance to catch up. Theo Walcott netted first, after some brilliant play from Hector Bellerin. Bellerin, a right back in one of his first games back from an injury, had been named on the bench but was brought on early for an injured Shkodran Mustafi. After the goal, he flipped the game on its head, pushing forward and ruthlessly exploiting the defensive weaknesses of forwards who he, by rights, should have been marking.
Bellerin added another player to the attack on the right wing, and with Walcott cutting inside he received the ball. His cross was perfect, and Walcott placed it into the bottom corner with ease, leaving Lee Grant with no chance. It was a poacher’s goal, expertly taken with pace, power and precision. The second was even easier for Arsenal.
It was Mesut Ozil who scored it, lobbing Grant after getting in behind a failed offside trap. Giannelli Imbula, serving as left back for a couple of minutes while Erik Pieters received treatment, made the mistake, undoing the good work of centre backs Marc Muniesa and Bruno Martins Indi. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played the ball over, and Ozil, onside due to Imbula’s poor positioning, headed it home. He had been quiet, but he was never going to miss such a simple chance.
Arsenal continued to push, not allowing Stoke any sustained time in their own half. When Alex Iwobi scored the third, receiving the ball after Alexis Sanchez was fouled outside the box and driving it past Grant without breaking stride, it merely served to confirm a result which had seemed inevitable for some time.
Of course, Stoke were not without opportunities. Joe Allen and Marko Arnautovic combined twice to create chances. The second opportunity came just before Walcott’s goal, with the power of Allen (despite his diminutive stature) allowing the skill of Arnautovic to shine through. He moved his feet as if he was walking on hot coals, weaving through both centre backs and only missing out after a desperate block from Nacho Monreal. Mame Biram Diouf somehow missed an excellent chance in the air as Stoke looked to level, and Peter Crouch forced a top-class save from Petr Cech seconds after entering the game.
In the end, however, the better side came out on top, with Arsene Wenger’s men showing class and composure in spades to deliver an excellent performance. Whether this is their year, however, remains to be seen, and only time will tell whether they are still delivering in a few months’ time.
London – Emirates Stadium
Arsenal 3 (Walcott 42, Ozil 49, Iwobi 75)
Stoke City 1 (Adam 29 pen)
Referee: Lee Mason
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Cech – Gabriel, Mustafi (Bellerin 25), Koscielny, Monreal; Coquelin, Xhaka; Walcott, Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Iwobi 69); Sanchez (Giroud 78).
Stoke City (4-2-3-1): Grant – Johnson, Martins Indi, Muniesa, Pieters; Imbula, Adam (Sobhi 81); Shaqiri (Ngoy 86), Allen, Diouf (Crouch 72); Arnautovic.
1. Hector Bellerin (Arsenal)
Bellerin transformed Arsenal’s attack when he came on at right back, adding an extra player to the attack and creating more space for Walcott to move into. As ever, he was defensively solid, and his cross to provide the first goal was perfectly placed.
2. Theo Walcott (Arsenal)
Walcott was a dangerous presence throughout, and his combination with Bellerin provided a significant challenge for Stoke to deal with. He scored the first goal, and, with his pace and goal sense, he was a force to be reckoned with.
3. Marko Arnautovic (Stoke City)
Arnautovic provided a challenge for Arsenal for the whole game, using his pace, skill, height and power to work his way into dangerous positions and create excellent chances. He combined very well with Allen to create a couple of opportunities, and was always a threatening presence.
4. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal)
Oxlade-Chamberlain provided the assist for Ozil’s goal with a beautifully weighted pass, and he had a massive impact on the game with his pace and skill. He was unlucky not to score on a couple of occasions, and while he was taken off in the second half he left his mark on the match.
5. Bruno Martins Indi (Stoke City)
Martins Indi was defensively solid throughout, positioning himself well and averting a number of dangerous situations with his strength and pace. He kept Sanchez mostly out of the game, and while he was not able to stop Arsenal from scoring he put in a solid performance.