Ozil and Sanchez un­pick Stoke to send Arse­nal top

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - SPORT | PREMIER LEAGUE - By Jonathan Liew at the Emi­rates Sta­dium

An­other three goals. An­other three points. An­other surge through the gears. Yes: for Arse­nal, this will all do very nicely. It is a lux­ury in­deed in this league to win a game this eas­ily and yet still be grate­ful for the ‘work­out’, but it is a lux­ury with which Arse­nal are be­com­ing agree­ably fa­mil­iar.

Char­lie Adam’s first-half penalty made things in­ter­est­ing for a while, but ul­ti­mately it was the lit­tle twist of le­mon zest in a cock­tail en­tirely of Arse­nal’s mak­ing. This is an Arse­nal side with re­mark­ably lit­tle to fault about it: burst­ing with goals from all over the pitch, and with a greater ver­sa­til­ity than any of its re­cent pre­de­ces­sors. There is a calm­ness to this place as well now, free of the angst and ran­cour that has de­fined much of its last decade.

Some of the foot­ball in the last 15 min­utes was ut­terly giddy. Arsène Wenger even al­lowed him­self the lux­ury of sub­sti­tut­ing Alexis Sánchez, which for Wenger is the equiv­a­lent of al­low­ing your­self a sec­ond glass of sherry be­fore noon.

Of course, you could al­ways pick lit­tle things to com­plain about, and doubt­less some Arse­nal fans will. A ham­string in­jury to centre-half Shko­dran Mustafi will put him out for three weeks. But even here, Wenger was in the mood for some fun. “He will have a good Christmas,” the Arse­nal man­ager noted wryly, and with the faintest hint of a smirk.

Even Mustafi’s in­jury car­ried its own tin­selly sil­ver lin­ing. For it al­lowed Héc­tor Bel­lerin to make his re­turn to the Arse­nal de­fence after his own month-long in­jury lay-off. And if Sánchez and Me­sut Özil are the brains of this side, here again we were re­minded that Bel­lerin is its pound­ing heart. He set up Arse­nal’s equal­is­ing goal, gave them spring and bal­ance, stretched Stoke’s de­fence in a way Gabriel Paulista, for all his un­doubted qual­i­ties, never did.

Stoke, for their part, came to play. That much was ap­par­ent from the fourth minute, when Marc Mu­niesa’s left-footed vol­ley forced a bril­liant save from Petr Cech. And with Joe Allen, a great gal­lop­ing gazelle of a player, pulling the strings in mid­field, Stoke gave Arse­nal a few early prob­lems.

Mame Bi­ram Diouf missed two good chances in the sec­ond half. Gian­nelli Im­bula had a fine game in mid­field. And along­side him, Adam’s long passes were a con­stant source of dan­ger, even if his other job of mark­ing Me­sut Özil was a bit like ask­ing a se­vere hay-fever suf­ferer to wa­ter your plants for you.

Still, it was against the run of play that Stoke took the lead, a penalty from Adam after Allen was brought down by Granit Xhaka. There was, per­haps, a ques­tion mark over whether Xhaka could have got out of Allen’s way, even if he had wanted to. But as the pair danced an un­gainly waltz to­wards the ball, Xhaka raised an arm and con­nected with Allen’s face.

It was cu­ri­ous, in the cir­cum­stances, that no card was shown. “It was not a penalty,” Wenger ob­served eco­nom­i­cally. “There was no foul.”

For a while, Arse­nal looked un­cer­tain. Xhaka put a cross straight out of play. Bel­lerin strayed lazily off­side. Cech came out of his area – never a ju­di­cious pol­icy at the best of times – and some­how man­aged to head the ball be­hind him, but safe. Özil, of all peo­ple, ran the ball straight out of play. Fleet­ingly, this was the Arse­nal of old: tetchy, fear­ful and guilty of try­ing to kick the door down.

Sánchez was the only one who re­mem­bered they had a key. Shortly be­fore the break, he played a sweet through ball through to Bel­lerin. Theo Wal­cott darted around the front of Bruno Martins Indi to bash in his cross at the near post. It was the de­ci­sive mo­ment in the game. Three min­utes into the sec­ond half, they led. Alex Oxlade-Cham­ber­lain played the ball over the top; Özil timed his run per­fectly, saw keeper Lee Grant ad­vanc­ing out of the cor­ner of his eye, and looped a header exquisitely over him, like a bou­quet of flow­ers ex­pertly lobbed into the up­stairs win­dow of an il­licit lover.

Arse­nal were now thor­oughly in the mood, and spent the rest of the game do­ing pretty much what they wanted. Oc­ca­sion­ally, Stoke threat­ened an equaliser: Peter Crouch lol­loped on and very nearly scored with his very first touch, a header that Cech scram­bled away at his near post. But that was as close as they would get. With 16 min­utes re­main­ing, Sánchez ripped an­other hole in the Stoke de­fence, sub­sti­tute Alex Iwobi re­ceived his re­turn ball, and the match was safe.

Of course there are big­ger tests to come. Of course you won­der how Arse­nal might cope with an in­jury to Sánchez. Of course you won­der whether they can han­dle the emo­tional white heat of a gen­uine ti­tle race. This is the state of be­ing an Arse­nal fan th­ese days: bullish and yet strangely fa­tal­is­tic, al­ways sniff­ing out the next crush­ing disappointment. But full-time ar­rived with the an­nounce­ment that Arse­nal were top of the Premier League. Christmas mu­sic rang around the ground. Even the rain had abated. They could get used to this, Arse­nal, they re­ally could.

Arse­nal are work­ing with the man cred­ited with turn­ing the All Blacks into dou­ble Rugby World Cup win­ners as they at­tempt to give their play­ers a psy­cho­log­i­cal edge.

Dr Ceri Evans is be­ing used by man­ager Arsène Wenger this sea­son be­cause he has iden­ti­fied men­tal weak­nesses in the past in his play­ers when it comes to per­form­ing well over the course of a cam­paign.

Arse­nal have in the past been ac­cused of fall­ing short – fail­ing to win the Premier League or Cham­pi­ons League and los­ing key matches un­der pres­sure – and there has al­ready been a dis­cernible dif­fer­ence in their men­tal tough­ness: they re­cently went on a 19-match un­beaten run.

An Arse­nal spokesman con­firmed that the club was us­ing Evans: “This in­volves ev­ery as­pect of the way we work with our play­ers and this is part of that con­tin­u­ous im­prove­ment. We will not dis­cuss any de­tail of this work.”

Evans’s big­gest claim to fame is work­ing with the New Zealand rugby union team. After not win­ning the World Cup for 23 years the All Blacks tri­umphed twice – in 2011, the year after he started work­ing with them, and 2015 – with Evans on board.

The 53-year-old is him­self a New Zealan­der and the for­mer cap­tain of his coun­try’s foot­ball team – mak­ing 85 ap­pear­ances dur­ing the 1980s and early Nineties as a cen­tral de­fender – and is now a prac­tis­ing foren­sic psy­chi­a­trist.

He spent five sea­sons play­ing for Ox­ford United, and was a Rhodes Scholar at Ox­ford Univer­sity, where he stud­ied ex­per­i­men­tal psy­chol­ogy, be­fore drop­ping into the lower leagues in this coun­try and then work­ing as a psy­chi­a­trist and con­sul­tant for a range of or­gan­i­sa­tions and sports.

Last year Evans was used by the Mercedes For­mula One team, pro­vid­ing help to their driv­ers, Lewis Hamil­ton and Nico Ros­berg, and he of­fers what is known as an ‘anti-choke mech­a­nism’ – a way of deal­ing with high pres­sure and high stakes.

“The mind of­ten lim­its us,” Evans said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “And ac­tu­ally our body can do more, and gets played out in dif­fer­ent ways, even just in straight en­durance. We think we’ve reached our thresh­old but the mind gives up first.”

In his work with the All Blacks Evans de­scribed two states: ‘Red Head/Blue Head’. Red Head is neg­a­tive, when you are over­whelmed and tense, while Blue Head is cool and con­trolled. He de­vised ‘per­sonal trig­gers’ – for ex­am­ple, a player can stamp his feet on the turf to ‘ground’ him­self, or use men­tal im­agery, such as pic­tur­ing him­self in the sta­dium – to try to get back from be­ing a ‘Red Head’ to a ‘Blue Head’.

Sports psy­chol­o­gists re­fer to this as be­ing like reg­u­lat­ing an emo­tional ther­mo­stat.

Pos­si­bly, Evans’s work can be traced in Arse­nal’s sea­son so far. Tra­di­tion­ally they have suf­fered a dip in form in Novem­ber – when they have taken just 1.59 points per game un­der Wenger – but this sea­son they were un­beaten in the league in their bo­gey month, though they did go out of the EFL Cup against Southamp­ton and drew three of their six games. Even so they achieved an above-av­er­age Novem­ber of 1.7 points per Premier League game.

Magic touch: Me­sut Özil cel­e­brates as his header gives Arse­nal the lead

All in the mind: Ceri Evans helped the All Blacks to two Rugby World Cup tri­umphs

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