In recent seasons Arsenal have had their encouraging moments, but sustaining them into the sharp end of the season has been the tougher trick to pull off. The challenge to maintain this rich form is on.
Arsenal went a goal behind but surged up a gear to see off Stoke with goals from Theo Walcott, Mesut Özil and Alex Iwobi. While conscious that Chelsea can leapfrog them before the weekend is out, it is worth noting that Arsenal have made a habit of playing with inhibitions when the chance to enjoy the summit has presented itself. This time, they relished it. “We are in the fight,” Wenger said.
He was pleased to point out that a game like this epitomised one of the areas of improvement he wanted from his team. “I felt last year at home we did very well against the top five and dropped points against the teams in mid-table, between positions 5-12. That’s our challenge, to continue to do well in this type of game.”
Stoke played their part in this competitive tussle. An ambitious start culminated in two chances in the first five minutes, with Marc Muniesa walloping a dangerous long-range volley and a swift break requiring some clever defending to send Xherdan Shaqiri away from a clear sight of goal.
Erik Pieters and Joe Allen shanked shooting opportunities and it was clear the home defence was on the back foot.
Arsenal’s afternoon took a turn for the worse with two blows in quick succession: first an injury to Shkodran Mustafi, who will be out for three weeks with a hamstring problem. Then Stoke were awarded a penalty. It was debatable enough to leave Wenger seething at the fourth official. Granit Xhaka tangled with Allen as the pair contested a 50-50 ball and Xhaka caught Allen with a brush of the elbow.
“No foul,” said Wenger. “Joe spilled blood as a consequence of the coming together,” responded Mark Hughes.
Charlie Adam merely got on with the task and, on his 31st birthday, steered calmly and accurately past Petr Cech.
Arsenal were not playing with the kind verve they had been enjoying recently and needed to dig some inspiration from somewhere. It came from a move built on speed – the determination of Alexis Sánchez to instigate a move quick thought to pick a brilliant pass, the enterprise of Héctor Bellerín to zip in a cross and the sharpness of Walcott to nip ahead of his marker to turn in the ball at Lee Grant’s near post.
It was Walcott’s 100th goal in his club career and a 10th this season, which triggers a gift from Mrs Walcott of a new coffee machine. Proof that even though Premier League footballers would appear to want for nothing there is still, reassuringly, something on their Christmas lists.
It did not take long for the Gunners to edge in front after the restart. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s beautifully crafted pass found Özil, who had drifted past Stoke’s rearguard. The German arced a deft header over Grant.
Hughes was disappointed to see a blip in his team’s defensive organisation as they were readjusting, with Pieters back on the pitch after receiving treatment just as Özil made his decisive run.
Stoke did summon a second wind. They had opportunities to test Cech but Marko Arnautovic and Mame Biram Diouf were imprecise with their finishing. As time ticked down Hughes decided to bring on Peter Crouch to ask different questions of Arsenal’s defence. He almost scored with his first touch – a downward header that required an important reflex save from Cech.
As it turned out, it was an Arsenal substitute who made a key impact. With the game still in the balance, Iwobi cantered into the box after Sánchez had been cluttered on the edge and carefully picked his spot.
Hughes tried to be realistic. “I’ve brought teams here in the past and struggled to get out of our own half. There are few times we have created as many chances as we did today,” he said. “We have big away games coming up against Chelsea and Liverpool, so we take away the positives.”
Wenger reflected on a perfect week, and the challenge to carry on their good work. Arsenal now turn their attention to away games at Goodison Park and the Etihad in positive spirits. “I believe we have improved,” Wenger said. “Let’s keep it in the longer term. We have created confidence, we are ambitious, we have to keep the urgency level very high.”