Arsenal looked to go top with a win over Stoke on Saturday afternoon, if only for a day or so. The game started in a very open fashion with both teams having chances at either end without managing to put the ball into the net. It was the visitors, however, who opened the scoring via the penalty spot, following a very clumsy challenge from Granit Xhaka. Although Arsenal weren’t playing badly, it looked as though it was going to be one of those frustrating games for the Gunners. As the half drew to a close, Sanchez found Bellerin out wide who squared the ball across for Walcott, who finished well, a crucial goal.
The second-half was a completely different game. Arsenal moved the ball around the pitch with confidence and didn’t really allow Stoke back into the game. Mesut Ozil nodded Arsenal’s second before substitute, Alex Iwobi, finished well to score Arsenal’s third and decisive goal. A great second-half performance from Arsenal, so here are the ‘Four Things We Learned’:
1. Xhaka Raises Doubts
Arsène Wenger came under fire this season for refusing to put Granit Xhaka into the starting lineup after signing him in the summer. Wenger insisted that Xhaka was not ready to start, whether mentally or physically, and today it was easy to spot the issues. With another mixed bag performance, the young Swiss international gave away a cringing penalty, yet minutes later began picking out unbelievable passes with ease.
Xhaka is a great passer, especially with his left foot but it’s his defensive awareness and mobility in midfield that has been exposed. The Swiss international gave away a penalty after a very clumsy challenge on Joe Allen, when he should’ve really cleared the ball with relative ease. The focus remains on the former Basel player’s attitude and maturity, as Xhaka can dispossess the opposition with a sublime sliding tackle or put in a hasty challenge, Arsenal need him to be more careful and allow Coquelin to do the dirty work.
2. Bellerin’s Pace Missed
Gabriel continued to fill in at right-back while Bellerin started today but due to an injury to Mustafi, Hector Bellerin was called on. The introduction of Hector Bellerin revitalised the Arsenal side with an injection of pace down the right, something Gabriel doesn’t have. Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez began feeding off the young Spanish international, playing one-twos and looking for the runs in behind.
The Spaniard claimed an assist to get the Gunners back into the game before the break, with a great ball across the box for Walcott and overall, reaffirmed himself as the starting right back. His pace in attack is vital to Arsenal’s attacking play, Wenger will be glad to have him back.
3. Who will step in for Mustafi?
Having been taken off early with an apparent injury, Mustafi’s absence now opens the door for rotation in the centre. Both Holding and Gabriel will be eager to fill the German’s shoes, but the question is which would be better for the Gunners. Holding is young and short on experience but has put in a number of fine performances this season in several competitions.
Gabriel, on the other hand, boasts a wealth of experience, but at times lacks the big game mentality and maturity necessary to replicate Mustafi’s stability (Costa, anyone?). The truth is that Wenger now has a couple of very capable central defenders as cover but he must pick wisely with Everton and Manchester up next.
4. Temporarily Top
Arsenal recovered well after going 1-0 down to an Adam penalty, three goals later and the Gunners came out with the crucial three points to leapfrog for the time being.
The Gunners buckled under the pressure early on but found their rhythm following Walcott’s crucial first-half goal. With the title race now very much on, Arsène Wenger’s men are legitimate contenders and seem to be much more mature this season. Sitting on the summit, Arsenal must now prove that they are able to fend off the big teams and win the games that need to be won. The pressure is now on, and it’s time for the Gunners to show that they can get the result when they need it most, next week will be huge for their title challenge.
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