Ozil and Sanchez unpick Stoke to send Arsenal top
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