Arsenal ramp up pressure on the top four after routing Stoke City 4-1
STOKE-ON-TRENT, England -- Three quick thoughts from Arsenal's 4-1 Premier League win over Stoke City on Saturday at the bet365 Stadium.
1. Arsenal ramp up pressure in top-four chase
Arsenal might just be coming good at exactly the right time. The most convincing of victories at Stoke piles pressure on Liverpool to win at West Ham on Sunday, and should they fail, the Gunners will suddenly be in the driving seat for a top-four finish. Two goals from Olivier Giroud along with fine efforts from Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez saw them through at a traditionally unhappy hunting ground and rendered Peter Crouch's consolation a footnote. It confirmed their third consecutive win and brought them closer to pulling a Champions League place out of the fire yet again.
Arsene Wenger's side have traditionally found it hard to assert themselves at this venue but began with long spells of patient, confident possession. That translated itself into a ninth-minute chance when Shkodran Mustafi, looping a header towards the far corner from Ozil's flag pick, drew a smart tip-over from Jack Butland. Nacho Monreal, found expertly by an Ozil ball around the back, miscontrolled when well placed shortly afterwards but would come much closer 17 minutes in, heading Hector Bellerin's cross against an upright.
Yet the visitors' momentum dropped, and by the time Sanchez shot wide just after the half hour, Stoke had begun to come into the game. The first half appeared to be petering ou, but then Giroud produced an intervention that may prove crucial to their season.
The finish itself was simple but the move that produced it was slick: Francis Coquelin wrong-footing Erik Pieters with a slide-rule pass and sending Bellerin scampering into the area. Giroud could not miss, and Arsenal, to Wenger's evident delight, had the goal they needed.
Ten minutes after the break they had another. Again it was superbly constructed, with Ozil laying the ball off to Sanchez by the left touchline, running on into the box and taking a perfectly weighted return pass before finishing confidently.
There seemed no way back for Stoke, although Mame Biram Diouf and Bruno Martins Indi came close as they finally threatened. Substitute Crouch gave the hosts a barely deserved lifeline with 23 minutes to play, although he appeared to handle Marko Arnautovic's drilled delivery past Petr Cech. The temperature was raised but then Sanchez, unleashing a shot that took a nick of Ryan Shawcross, restored Arsenal's cushion in style. Giroud then thumped in an Aaron Ramsey cross to complete the rout.
2. Sanchez shows guts to see Arsenal through
In the minutes after Crouch's goal, the thought was that Arsenal have been here before and buckled. The bet365 Stadium was, finally, at its intimidating loudest, and it did not take an active imagination to flash back to the numerous times that the visitors had fallen short since their previous victory here in February 2010.
They needed a show of guts as the pressure ramped up, and Sanchez provided it brilliantly. The Chilean had just motioned to the bench that he was injured and needed to come off when, taking a pass from Bellerin, he ran in from the right and cracked in the goal that killed off Stoke's revival. Lesser characters might have been clocking off mentally, with one eye on their substitution, but Sanchez is the most full-blooded of footballers and the idea of passing up on an opportunity is alien to him. When the space opened up he took his chance to attack it, and having done so, left the pitch to be replaced by Ramsey.
The job was done and Arsenal's resolve was impressive in all departments here. It was a good day for Wenger, who had selected Giroud in place of Danny Welbeck after the striker had come off the bench to score at Southampton; he was rewarded by a decisive contribution from the striker and another reminder that Giroud is often the man for a tough away assignment like this. Giroud can sometimes slow up Arsenal's approach play, but he rarely hides in front of the posts, and these goals, his 97th and 98th for the club, may be among the most important he has scored.
Another Wenger decision, to restore the oft-maligned Coquelin to his lineup, also paid off. Alongside Granit Xhaka, the midfielder never allowed Stoke any space in the middle of the park, winning what could have been a tough physical battle against Glenn Whelan and Geoff Cameron. They provided a strong platform for the impressive attacking performance that ensued.
Sanchez duly put the icing on the cake, showing the kind of commitment that might just make Arsenal's season seem more of a success than anyone thought likely.
3. Lukewarm Stoke go down with a whimper
This was nothing like the kind of performance Stoke usually produce in a fixture that they usually relish. They offered nothing like enough to continue their fine record against Arsenal here, and their home campaign drew to a close in desperately lukewarm fashion.
It has, by their more recent standards, been a frustrating season for Stoke. There is a sense that, in finishing ninth three years in a row, the club reached its natural ceiling; a bottom-half finish this time around would feel like a regression, but they are hardly alone in being a mid-table side with few defining characteristics. This Premier League campaign has been full of them.
In his programme notes, Mark Hughes promised that there was "no danger of us kicking back and easing into the break," but Stoke lacked intensity from the beginning. There was little obvious appetite to prevent Arsenal settling into a passing rhythm early on, and Xherdan Shaqiri, in particular, was culpable for failing to track Monreal's threatening incursions. They became more assertive in the period before Giroud's goal but it still took 29 minutes for Arnautovic, curling a free kick over, to have their first shot on goal, and they failed to ask serious questions of a side that could not afford to slip up.
Stoke only came to life at 2-0 down, some of the old fire returning as Crouch's effort inspired something of the intensity that has seen them conjure so many upsets in the past nine years. That was quickly dampened and the question was why they could not have approached the game in that manner from the outset. A smattering of boos greeted the final whistle; Stoke and Hughes have a lot to think about in preseason, in common with so many mid-ranking clubs that -- rightly or wrongly -- have come to expect rather more than they are getting.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.