Arsenal 3 Stoke City 1: Arsene Wenger knows as well as anyone how easy it is for a team to fall out of contention after showing signs of being champions.
Too often Wenger has been forced to accept his team didn’t have what it takes, fending off repeated criticism his players lack the necessary strength and resilience to see off the challenge of rivals and end the season top of the pile.
This time, though, the manager is convinced he has the evidence to prove his side has developed more backbone.
The way Wenger’s side recovered from Charlie Adam’s 23rd minute penalty after Granit Xhaka’s leading elbow caught Joe Allen — a decision that was fiercely contested by the manager — held their patience, and then went on to claim the two-goal margin of victory that ensured they went briefly top was certainly impressive.
Target achieved, they shifted the pressure onto Antonio Conte’s side and in a season in which the leadership of the league could well change hands frequently, the display suggested Arsenal are developing good habits.
Wenger certainly thinks so. He pointed out after the game, the sight of his side shaking off the disappointment of falling behind is not uncommon this season.
“It’s the sixth time that we have gone down in the game and come back or won since the start of the season. That’s not a coincidence. There is something in the team that is quite strong, but after that we have to keep the spirit. The spirit as well is quite fragile you know, we have to keep the energy in the side, the team energy in the side, and everybody has to take care of that.”
Of those six comebacks, three have been wins, matching the total for last season as a whole. Statistics only tell part of the story but Arsenal’s display on Saturday, when goals from Theo Walcott, Mesut Ozil and Alex Iwobi completing the turnaround, suggested he has a point.
The only downer was a first-half hamstring injury to centre-back Shkodran Mustafi but Walcott believes the side’s reaction after falling behind articulated the shift in attitude.
“The players that have come in have really stepped up the work ethic at the club, the intensity and the commitment and the hard work is showing not just from 11 players in the starting line-up but it’s the whole squad,” said the winger, who can expect a new coffee machine from his wife after she challenged her husband to reach double figures before Christmas.
“The manager always digs into us how important the whole squad is. When called upon everyone has done a fantastic job and that is the difference this year to previous years where maybe we weren’t quite ready as a whole squad.
“You could see there was disappointment after the penalty but I don’t think we dwelt on it too long. We have felt sorry for ourselves in the past and say it is not a penalty. You are going to be annoyed at the time, that’s fine but you have just got to deal with it and we reacted in a positive way. We got the rewards we deserved and came out for the second half and started the game well. We don’t normally do that. But there was something about us. Before going out everyone was ready.”
Defeat brought an end to Stoke’s improved run of form but with trips to Chelsea and Liverpool looming, manager Mark Hughes was keen to use the loss as a learning experience. He also signalled his intention to convert Bruno Martins Indi’s loan stay into a permanent move next month.
“We’re really pleased with what he is producing,” he said. “Every time he has had a challenge, or come up against quality, he has acquitted himself really well. He wants to progress and wants to do well in the Premier League and we want that to be with us if we can.”
Cech 7; Gabriel 6, Mustafi 6 (Bellerin 23, 8), Koscielny 6, Monreal 7; Coquelin 7, Xhaka 6; Walcott 7, Ozil 9, Oxlade-Chamberlain 8 (Iwobi 70,7); Sanchez 7 (Giroud 87, 6).
Subs not used:
Ospina, Gibbs, Perez, Elneny.
STOKE CITY (4-2-3-1):
Grant 6; Johnson 6, Martins Indi 7, Muniesa 6, Pieters 5; Imbula 5, Adam 6 (Sobhi 82); Diouf 5 (Crouch 72), Shaqiri 6 (Ngoy 86), Allen 7; Arnautovic 6.
Subs not used:
Given, Whelan, Bony, Bojan.
Lee Mason 6
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