Arsenal gained a manner of revenge for their chastening defeat at the Britannia Stadium last month by cruising to an impressive 3-0 victory over Stoke City at the Emirates Stadium. While Arsene Wenger’s men continued their struggles away at Stoke this season in a 3-2 defeat, they have now won all seven of their matches with the Potters at the Emirates since their return to the Premier League. Overwhelmed in the opening stages at the Britannia, the situation was reversed in Arsenal’s favor on Sunday.
Laurent Koscielny opened the scoring just six minutes in with the type of free header that Arsenal were all too gracious in affording Stoke just a few weeks ago. And the contest remained an overwhelmingly one-sided affair. Alexis Sánchez again starred for the Gunners and doubled his side’s advantage before the interval, with a clever, precise finish, before putting the result beyond doubt just after it when his low free-kick deflected off the wall and, after hitting the post, was helped over the line by Asmir Begovic.
It was an unfortunate moment for the Stoke keeper, who had for much of the first half been the only Stoke player preventing a much more resounding score line. Arsenal played with joyous fluidity, helped, as against Hull City in the FA Cup, by the rare presence this season of Tomas Rosicky. He and Santi Cazorla helped create a quick tempo of one-touch passing that by-passed Stoke’s midfield. And further forward, Sánchez had the incisiveness brilliance to take advantage of an uncharacteristically timid and toothless display from a visiting side missing top scorer Mame Biram Diouf and handing a debut to new defensive signing Philipp Wollschield.
After disappointment against Southampton on New Year’s Day, Arsenal, who also celebrated the return off the bench of record signing Mesut Özil, are back to winning ways in the Premier League and back above local foes Tottenham into fifth place. Just goal difference separates them from the Saints in that crucial final Champions League berth, although with Southampton playing their game in hand against Manchester United later on Sunday.
It has been far from a smooth season for Arsenal thus far, particularly, once again, thanks to a continued stream of injuries. It will be a real blow then that Mathieu Debuchy, having only recently returned to action after missing three months with an ankle injury, was taken to hospital with a suspected dislocated shoulder after tumbling from a shove by Marko Arnautovic.
News of the French right-back will be anxiously awaited, but otherwise this was one of the most stress-free 90 minutes of the season for Wenger. His side could have been two goals to the good inside five minutes, with Begovic excelling to turn behind dangerous efforts from both Sánchez and Rosicky. The Bosnian could do nothing, though, to prevent being beaten six minutes in. Koscielny helped a half-cleared corner back out wide to Sánchez, and then made his way back into the center of the box completely unchecked before meeting the Chilean’s precision cross with a strong downward header into the net.
Olivier Giroud was one of the few Arsenal players to endure a frustrating afternoon. On his return from a three-match suspension accrued for a headbutt against Queens Park Rangers, the striker failed to make the most of a couple of good sights at goal and was denied an appeal for a penalty. He was also involved in a running battle with Stoke defender Ryan Shawcross, during which the Arsenal man was lucky to avoid sanction for thrusting his hand into the face of his opponent.
Arsenal’s occasional profligacy in front of goal was not going to prove costly. There was never a sense that Stoke believed in or committed toward a plan to emerge with a positive result. The visitors’ only real sight of goal, skied form the edge of the box by Glenn Whelan, summed up their tame efforts. A second goal for Arsenal was only a matter of time away. It arrived in the 33rd minute when a lovely interchange between Rosicky and Sánchez down the left was followed by the former Barcelona man cutting inside and catching out Begovic by shooting to the near post rather than the far to find the net.
And four minutes into the second half, Sánchez had his 17th goal of a sensational first season at Arsenal. This one came with a large element of fortune, as his free-kick struck the wall and was then turned onto the post by Begovic, before the Stoke keeper helped it over the line as it rolled back in his direction. With the ball seemingly set to roll over the line anyway, the goal should remain Sánchez’s.
Cazorla hit the top of the crossbar with a delightful chip from an ambitious angle, while Theo Walcott missed a further clear chance on his continued return to fitness, but Arsenal were home and dry. As for so long with Arsenal, the question remains whether they can display the necessary reliance to allow the kind of superb attacking play they displayed on this day to come to the fore in more high-pressure encounters. A trip to champions Manchester City in a week’s time will provide the latest stern examination.