Arsenal recover from another penalty to beat snide Stoke

Even though Stoke City have signed a few more ‘flair’ players in recent times, there remains a horrible side to them as a team, and because of a section of their fans, as a club. Supporters singing ‘Aaron Ramsey, he walks with a limp’, goes beyond a bit of terrace banter and is just taking joy and mocking a player who had his leg snapped in half. And then there’s Charlie Adam. More on him later.
Despite being considered a bogey side to Arsenal, Stoke have a horrendous record at the Emirates as they haven’t picked up so much as a point in any of their games with the Gunners at the ground. But they remain a nuisance, and it was incredibly unhelpful for them to visit North London with Lee Mason selected as the referee.
Arsenal do have an unfortunate habit of conceding penalties this season, with five going against them. But the decisions seem to be becoming increasingly ridiculous. A few weeks ago, Callum Wilson got a penalty for jumping into the back of Nacho Monreal. On Saturday, Joe Allen bought himself a penalty by being shorter than Granit Xhaka. The Swiss international turned to control the ball in his own box, had Allen run into him and get a penalty for a suposed elbow from the Swiss international. Xhaka did what you’d hope your midfielder would do in that situation by shielding the ball, but Allen’s face only went up to Xhaka’s arm and Lee Mason somehow believed Xhaka had deliberately elbowed the Welshman. It strikes me that if Granit Xhaka did want to elbow someone, he wouldn’t mess about – think Dennis Bergamp on Steve Lomas in 1998. It was an absolutely ludicrous decision.
Having started the game ok, Arsenal suddenly had to chase it from 1-0 in the first half, with Charlie Adam scoring from the spot.
But this Arsenal team are increasingly showing that they don’t panic after going behind in games. Ideally they wouldn’t have to come back as often as they are doing at the moment, but when the situation arises, there’s a confidence that 1-0 down isn’t a big problem for the team. The injustice of the penalty also helped fire the team up, and for the rest of the game, they looked really up for the challenge. There was good pressure from the front and a really good intensity to Arsenal’s play.
They stepped up the pace noticeably before half-time with Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin’s developing partnership working well to control the tempo of the game. The equaliser came when Arsenal showed patience in possession before working it wide to Hector Bellerin in space. His low ball from the right was well turned in at the near-post by Theo Walcott. Bellerin had only come on after Shkodran Mustafi went off with a hamstring problem, and while Gabriel has deputised commendably, it was clear that Bellerin’s introduction gave Arsenal another dimension going forward, and it livened up Theo Walcott as well.
Bellerin was involved again as Oxlade-Chamberlain fired over the bar from the edge of the box just before the break, but it wasn’t long into the second half before Arsenal did grab the lead for the first time in the game.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain continued his good run of form by contributing another assist as he clipped an excellent pass over the top of the Stoke defence, but it still needed a lot of finishing from Mesut Ozil. The German ran onto the ball and could have tried to bring the ball down before finishing, but noticing the goalkeeper slightly too far off his line, Ozil beautifully looped his header over Grant and into the net. It was a goal that typified the change in Ozil’s game this season win his willingness to run in behind the defence and his increased confidence in front of goal.
There were a couple of concerning moments at the back when Mame Biram Diouf headed wide when unmarked and Peter Crouch brought a good save out of Petr Cech with a header, but Arsenal always carried the bigger threat going forward. Oxlade-Chamberlain was unfortunate to get taken off after another positive performance, but his replacement, Alex Iwobi, brought fresh impetus into the team, building on his goal-scoring display in Basel. But in the build-up to Iwobi’s game-clinching goal, there was a nasty moment that should draw punishment from the FA.
Apart from the penalty, Lee Mason had no control on the game as the referee as he allowed Stoke to time-waste from early in the game, and even wasted more time by talking to the goalkeeper about it and not producing a card. This ineptitude just encouraged Stoke to push the boundaries of what nastiness they could get away with. Charlie Adam then stamped over that boundary.
Alexis was on a weaving run before he was brought down by Martins Indi near the edge of the box. The ball ran to Iwobi, who controlled well and clinically swept the ball into the bottom corner. But as he jumped on the chance to power towards goal, Charlie Adam, who still had a chance to tackle Iwobi and prevent his team from conceding a goal, decided the best course of action was to deliberately stamp on Alexis Sanchez when the Chilean was on the ground after being fouled. Why are you even a professional footballer if your first thought is to intentionally injure an opposing player, rather than trying to stop a goal going in against your team? It was a disgrace, but not the first time Adam has done such a thing, having tried to strangle Alexis and stamp on Olivier Giroud previous games. If Stoke want to lose their bad reputation, a starting point is to stop employing players who want to hurt others over stopping goals. 
Overall though, it was another extremely enjoyable afternoon and rounded off an excellent week. Competition for places is bringing out good performances, especially in the attacking positions. It now means Arsenal have goal-threats across the width of the pitch, rather than relying on one or two to score. With Everton and Manchester City to come away from home this week, it’ll be another test for the Gunners to overcome, but they’re in fantastic shape to get two good results from those games. 

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Alexis hammers the Hammers

It took longer than it should have done as Arsenal dominated West Ham for the majority of the game, but when the Gunners did gets the goals that their play deserved at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday, Alexis Sanchez was at the heart of it in a devastating display and a 5-1 win.
West Ham do have serious issues. Off the pitch, fans are hardly warming to their new home, but the main issues are on the field where Slaven Bilic’s team look a shadow of the one that qualified for Europe last season. After they defended well to hold Manchester United at Old Trafford last weekend, Bilic kept with playing three at the back. This was a formation that Tottenham used to good effect to nullify Arsenal at the Emirates recently, but West Ham were regularly pulled apart as Arsenal put in their most fluent performance for a good number of weeks.
With the news this week that Santi Cazorla is out for another two months, the game against West Ham was a great time for Arsenal to look like they have finally got the centre of their midfield sorted. Francis Coquelin and Granit Xhaka gave their most convincing performance as a pair with Xhaka playing some lovely passes from deep, and Coquelin getting through his usual disruptive work in the middle of the pitch, stopping the supply line to Dimitri Payet.
It was a Coquelin interception that led to the opening goal as he stopped Angelo Ogbonna’s pass out of defence, allowing Alexis Sanchez to run in towards goal. He unselfishly squared the ball to Mesut Ozil for the German to apply the easy finish. That goal in the first half was thoroughly merited for how Arsenal started the game, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Nacho Monreal getting a lot of joy on the left-hand side, with the final ball just missing on occasion. Alexis then should have doubled the lead before half-time as he took a slightly heavy touch when trying to go round the goalkeeper, but he more than made amends in an explosive second half. 
There were always a concern that Arsenal might regret not making the most of their first-half chances, and West Ham made more of a game of it in the second half. But as the game ticked into the final 20 minutes, Alexis took control. 
His first goal came after superb control from a fizzed ball from Shkodran Mustafi. He turned away from the defender, held him off sprinting into the box and then fired a powerful low strike into the bottom corner from a tight angle. It should have been almost impossible for someone to score a goal after receiving the ball with his back to goal in the way Alexis did, but he found a way. That made it 2-0 and almost settled Arsenal down. The Gunners hadn’t been nervous as such at 1-0, but needed the boost of the second goal to free their game up again.
Moments after bagging his first, Alexis netted again with another excellent goal. As the ball came to him on the edge of the box, without touching the ball he was able to shimmy away from the defender into a shooting position and fire an accurate strike past Randolph into the bottom corner.
West Ham did get a goal back when Andy Carroll headed in after Payet’s free-kick hit the post, but Arsenal just roared back to turn the game into a comprehensive win. First, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain capped a vey encouraging personal performance with a splendid curling shot from 25 yards out. His increasing contribution to goals was highlighted again as he followed his goal up with an assist for Alexis to bag a hat-trick, but somehow the Ox’s pass through won’t be the most memorable thing about that goal.
Alexis raced away from the defenders, drew the goalkeeper off his line and then executed an outrageous piece of skill to bag the match ball. His fake shot led to a stepover that allowed him to chip the ball over Randolph as the keeper started to fall to the floor. It was a bit humiliating for the goalkeeper, but was ingenius from Alexis. Since his hamstring scare for Chile in the last international break, Alexis has got back to his best. The beautiful third goal just confirmed the confidence that that he’s playing with at the moment, and completed one of the best Arsenal hat-tricks since Dennis Bergkamp at Leicester, with every goal being impressive in its own way.
I wrote last week about how important the Chilean is to Arsenal. It does annoy me slightly when pundits or fans lazily just say things like ‘imagine how bad Arsenal would be without Alexis Sanchez’. For one, they wouldn’t be a bad team, just would lack some cutting edge, but also because unless he gets injured, we don’t have to imagine how bad Arsenal might be without him because Arsene Wenger paid the money for him and identified him as someone that could be perfectly suited to the Premier League. It is the sort of comment you might hear from people that are slightly jealous that Alexis plays for the Arsenal and not their club.
But those sort of comments are more prominent at the moment because of the contract situation. Obviously signing both Mesut Ozil and Alexis to extended deals are slightly complex, but Arsenal have to be prepared to give as much as possibly can to get the deals done. If that means some of the other players dog-sitting for Alexis when he needs it, then stick it in the contract. Contary to what Alan Shearer tries to claim on Match of the Day, Alexis is a world class player and a joy to watch playing football. Keeping him must be one of the club’s highest priorities.
Overall, the 5-1 win was slightly flattering on West Ham. After Chelsea made a statement about their title challenge with the 3-1 win at Manchester City and Tottenham put five past Swansea, Arsenal needed to respond playing in the late kick-off, and they did so superbly. November wasn’t bad for Arsenal, but in the context of how the rest of the season has gone, it was a stutter from the Gunners. Now things are looking much more positive again, not just because of the results against Bournemouth and West Ham, but also because of the quality of the performances. The balance of the team looks good again, and if that can be maintained heading in the busy periods in December and January, Arsenal can make a push for the title this season. With Alexis Sanchez in supreme form, anything is possible. 

Magic Mesut seals comeback and qualification

After winning 6-0 at the Emirates against Ludogorets just two weeks ago, it must have been tempting for Arsene Wenger to rest players ahead of the North London derby on Sunday. Ultimately, while there were changes, it was still a strong line-up selected by the boss, and it needed to be as the Bulgarian team made Arsenal really dig deep to get the win to take them through to the last 16 of the Champions League. The Gunners were pushed all the way and required an outrageous piece of individual brilliance from a player that might have been rested with big games on the horizon.
Ludogorets performed well in the first half at the Emirates despite the eventual scoreline, so Arsenal were right to take them seriously with the team selection. Of the players that Arsene Wenger took with him to Bulgaria, it was virtually the strongest side available, bar Cech and possibly Alex Iwobi. 
The start to the game seemed to have Arsenal in control until some slack defending suddenly put the Gunners in a sticky situation. First of all, they allowed a free-kick cross to go all the way to the back post allowing Cafu to open the scoring, and then Kieran Gibbs was surprisingly beaten on the wing and a low cross led to the second goal inside the first quarter of the game. There was an element of complacency from Arsenal and they were punished by a hungry home team desperate to avenge the thrashing at the Emirates. 
The two goals were also a reminder that the Mustafi / Koscielny partnership is still a developing one. In general, the two have been superb together, but there are still moments that have shown that they aren’t quite the finished article as a partnership.
As with the way Arsenal responded at Sunderland to a setback, they kept calm and got themselves back in the game quickly. Questions can still be asked as to how Arsenal got into a hole in the first place, but there was no doubting the quality of the recovery. It wasn’t 2-0 to Ludogorets for long as Alexis fed Ozil down the left and the German’s cut-back was swept in by Granit Xhaka.
Unsurprisingly, Arsenal dominated the possession for the rest of the half as Ludogorets tried to make the game less open than it was at the Emirates. With a lead to defend, they sat deeper and did away with the high line that saw them get destroyed in London. With Olivier Giroud making his first start of the season, Arsenal could mix up their mode of attack and the Frenchman got on the end of an Aaron Ramsey cross to head Arsenal level just before half-time.
To have Xhaka and Giroud score was another example of the players sharing the goal scoring burden around this season. There are plenty of players in the squad that are feeling good in front of the net. Long may it continue.
Despite scoring two, Arsenal’s attacking lacked the general fluidity of the season so far without the pacier options of Walcott and Iwobi. It was great to see Aaron Ramsey back on the pitch, and the 75 minutes he got under his belt will do him good in the long run, but he did drift quite a bit from the right hand side, making the team look occasionally lop-sided. 
The second half calmed down after the four goals in the opening period. Ludogorets had a front four looking to counter-attack, but the rest of the team was content to sit on the potential draw. Arsenal also dropped off a bit in intensity as the likes of Ramsey and Giroud looked like players still working their way up to full fitness. There were plenty of minor fouls as the referee became incredibly pedantic and the game looked to be winding down towards a draw. That was before Arsenal finally drew the hosts forward and there was a bit of space to run in behind the defence in the last few minutes. 
Giroud tracked back to win a tackle, allowing Mohamed Elneny to clip an excellent pass over the defence for Mesut Ozil to run onto. The goalkeeper rushed out but was left floundering by a deft flick from Ozil over him. Two covering defenders had charged back, but were evaded as Ozil dummied to shoot, left them on the ground and calmly slotted the ball home. A breathtaking moment of brilliance, made all the more impressive because of it being a winning goal. Ozil didn’t just pull out that piece of skill and calm finishing when the pressure was off, he did it in the dying minutes of a match Arsenal had been behind in, and scored a vital goal to keep them top of the group and secures a place in the knockout stages. What a player. What a goal. 
Depending on injuries, I expect Arsenal to return to the Walcott-Ozil-Iwobi-Alexis front four that has served them well this season on Sunday in the North London derby. A poor result in Bulgaria could have given Spurs a lift before the game, but Arsenal now go into it with another win, three more goals and a world class attacking midfielder who made professional defenders and a goalkeeper look like kids in a playground in a high-pressure situation. We’ve got Ozil, Mesut Ozil, and after that goal, everyone really should understand.