Mesut Ozil, anonymous during the trying months of early 2017 that derailed the Gunners’ title bid, and Alexis Sanchez, so surly and belligerent at key moments, were simply unplayable for a Stoke side that has revelled in subduing Wenger sides over the years.
It ended 4-1 and, thanks to Peter Crouch punching the ball into the Arsenal goal, there were an anxious 10 minutes of Stoke bombardment with which to contend midway through the second half.
But, again in contrast to large swathes of this season, it was a challenge to which Arsenal’s defence stood up manfully, throwing bodies on the line and showing discipline and composure when it was needed.
“I would say the players have responded after a difficult period. We could have gone divided but we have chosen to be united and that’s what you see on the pitch,” said Wenger, by way of explanation for the late, dramatic upturn in form.
“The knew the challenge ahead. I believe that I said that in an interview recently, we didn’t play in games as badly as people thought where we lost at Palace and West Brom. We are defensively more stable now. Today we went into a game where you feel the longer it lasts the more capable we are to win games. Maybe the structure of the team is stronger.”
Sanchez and Ozil who, like Wenger, face uncertain futures at the Emirates, embody Arsenal’s late renaissance which, for a few hours at least, lifted the Gunners to within a point of the Champions League places and leaves them on course to move onto 72 points against Sunderland tomorrow — one more than they collected last term.
“They have shown special quality again today,” said Wenger of his two mercurial talents. “But I would say that when the team have had a great performance, these kind of players benefit from it and take advantage of it.
“Look, we have to win, of course, on Tuesday. We have two home games now and after that, yes, it just shows that every season is different and we can make mathematically still 75 points.That will be a decent total.”
So complete was Arsenal’s mastery — and, by the admission of home manager Mark Hughes, so toothless and inept was his side’s attempt to counter it — that the “contest” bore the look of a training ground exercise for long periods.
Slick passing led to goals from Olivier Giroud and Ozil, the least Arsenal deserved for the dominance over the opening 54 minutes, and after Crouch punched the hosts back to within a goal, the visitors were able simply to pick Stoke off on the counter.
Sanchez, deservedly, and Giroud, again, added goals although that second goal — built around a give-and-go between Ozil and Sanchez that left Stoke defenders rooted to the spot — was the one that had Wenger purring.
“I love football but I love football based on intelligence and the technical quality and collective attitude,” said Wenger.
“These kinds of goals make you want to work on that. It’s important that you try to show the positive aspect of a football game. That’s what I try to achieve. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
For Stoke, the end of season cannot come quickly enough with a run of one win in their last 10 games ensuring that the ludicrous lap of ‘honour’ made by their players after their final home game was greeted by only a handful of diehard supporters.
“I can understand it, that’s fine,” said Hughes. “When it was at 2-1 the crowd was magnificent and right behind everything we were trying to do. They were disappointed like the rest of us. The third goal just knocked the stuffing out of us.
“This year has been a disappointment in terms of what we’ve been able to produce but the last three years we’ve surpassed everybody’s expectations.
“It’s not easy, everybody is spending a lot of money in the Premier League and we’ll spend an amount too, I’m sure, which will make us competitive.”
Butland 8; Johnson 5, Shawcross 5, Martins Indi 5, Pieters 4; Whelan 5, Cameron 5; Shaqiri 7, Allen 6 (Crouch 59, 7), Arnautovic 7 (Ramadan 79, 5); Diouf 4 (Berahino 59, 7).
Grant, Muniesa, Adam, Walters.
Cech 7; Koscielny 7, Mustafi 8, Holding 6; Bellerin 8, Coquelin 7, Xhaka 6, Monreal 6; Sanchez 9 (Ramsey 75, 7), Ozil 8 (Welbeck 80, 6); Giroud 8 (Walcott 80, 6).
Ospina, Gabriel, Iwobi, Elneny.
Mike Dean 6