LONDON — Three points on Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Stoke as a forced substitution saw Hector Bellerin arrive and change the game against Stoke.
1. Arsenal winning when subpar
For all Arsenal’s problems away at Stoke, they’ve now won all nine matches against the Potters at the Emirates. Although they went behind to Charlie Adam’s penalty, the Gunners took control in the second half and go top by virtue of goals scored.
The penalty incident itself was peculiar. Granit Xhaka stormed into a clumsy tackle, not getting the ball and flattening Joe Allen with a stray elbow. Lee Mason pointed to the spot, much to the surprise of the home crowd and prompting Arsene Wenger to put his hands on fourth official Paul Tierney. But it was surely a foul, and Allen needed extensive treatment on the pitch before Charlie Adam coolly converted the penalty on his 31st birthday.
But this is a different Arsenal, and Theo Walcott equalised shortly before half-time. Then they went ahead in the second half with a delightful Mesut Ozil header: the game’s outstanding moment.
Running in behind the defence in the inside-right channel, and taking advantage of a somewhat poor Stoke offside line, the German raced onto a floated Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain delivery, spotted goalkeeper Lee Grant off his line and instinctively nodded the ball over him and into the net. It was a wonderful header, a very Ozil header — delicate, intelligent, measured.
After some nervous moments at the back, substitute Alex Iwobi put the game to bed with a fine finish after a passing exchange with Alexis Sanchez, who was again wonderful in his roaming centre-forward role.
It wasn’t a vintage Arsenal display, and it was slightly underwhelming considering the impressive thrashings of both West Ham and Basel, 5-1 and 4-1 respectively. Arsene Wenger has spoken of his slight concern Arsenal haven’t been able to replicate their opponents at home, probably because the opposition play more defensively and Arsenal have less space to break into.
However, they were allowed space both in front of and behind the Stoke defence, and exploited it efficiently.
2. Bellerin return makes a difference
Arsenal’s first-half performance was rather flat. They occasionally opened up Stoke but their passing tempo was surprisingly slow, and there was a sense of frustration around the Emirates shortly before Walcott’s equaliser.
The goal was assisted by Hector Bellerin, and his early introduction midway through the first half was a crucial moment. The Spaniard has missed four weeks through injury, and Wenger presumably didn’t want to use him for an extended period here, but after Shkodran Mustafi limped off, Bellerin was summoned with makeshift right-back Gabriel returning to his usual centre-back role.
This lifted the crowd — it was their first opportunity to cheer Bellerin’s recent decision to sign a six-and-a-half-year contract — and the Spaniard changed Arsenal’s attacking play entirely as he found plenty of space with Stoke’s unfamiliar left-winger Joe Allen generally drifting inside.
First, Bellerin’s drive allowed Ozil a near tap-in which was foiled by Mame Biram Diouf’s last-ditch challenge. Then came the assist, a low cross to the near post which Walcott cleverly deflected in for his 100th Arsenal goal — he instantly raced to Bellerin to show his appreciation for the pass.
Walcott has been the biggest beneficiary of Bellerin’s presence — with the full-back providing the right-sided width, the England winger can move into goal scoring positions.
Before the first half was over, Bellerin also played an excellent low cut-back which Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain tentatively prodded over the bar — he was the main source of creativity.
Indeed, while many focus on Bellerin’s incredible speed, he’s also excellent with the ball, a good crosser and unusually inventive for a full-back. His return is a significant boost to Arsenal ahead of next week’s trip to Manchester City.
3. Stoke showed some verve but reverted to type
Stoke City have typically arrived at the Emirates with a cautious, defensive-minded approach and essentially played for a 0-0, so it was refreshing to see a more ambitious approach from Mark Hughes here, even if the timewasting of goalkeeper Lee Grant was somewhat blatant.
Still, Stoke played some good football here. The nature of their attack was peculiar – Allen drifted inside from an unfamiliar left-midfield role, Diouf worked hard up and down the right flank, while Xherdan Shaqiri played in behind Marko Arnautovic up front.
It’s arguable all four would be more comfortable in another of those positions, but the balance worked nicely. Diouf’s work rate was exceptional, making a fantastic last-ditch challenge to deny Ozil, while Allen buzzed around, played ambitious passes and won the penalty for Stoke’s opener.
Hughes changed things in the second half when attempting to get back into the game. Diouf was moved upfront to use his pace against Arsenal’s high offside line, and he was unfortunate to be wrongly flagged for offside when making a good run into the right-hand channel. He also wasted Stoke’s best chance in the second half, tamely heading an Erik Pieters cross wide under no pressure whatsoever.
Hughes, almost inevitably, quickly replaced him with Peter Crouch — who nearly headed in immediately, rising to meet a deep corner and forcing Petr Cech into a fine low save. Stoke’s next two crosses were also hung up to the far post for Crouch, who is a rather handy Plan B. It went back to old-school Stoke, and their technical attackers struggled to get them back into the game.