Arsenal 3 Stoke City 1
Arsenal: Walcott (42'), Ozil (49'), Iwobi (75')
Stoke: Adam (29' pen)
Only 24 minutes had elapsed when Arsene Wenger’s plans were disrupted.
Shkodran Mustafi, who has still not lost a game since signing for Arsenal in the summer, went down clutching his hamstring midway through the first half, forcing his manager into a reshuffle much earlier than he would have anticipated.
In the end, it proved to be a key moment in the match — and for positive rather than negative reasons.
Mustafi has been terrific since moving to the Emirates Stadium in August, providing Arsenal with the sort of top-class centre-back partner for Laurent Koscielny that they have required for years.
His early withdrawal from Saturday’s clash with Stoke City enabled the return to action of Hector Bellerin, however, with the Spain international making his first appearance since sustaining an ankle problem in the 1-1 draw with Tottenham Hotspur five weeks ago.
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Stoke took the lead just five minutes after the right-back’s introduction, Charlie Adam confidently converting a penalty after Joe Allen was brought down by Granit Xhaka, but the substitution still shifted the balance of the game in Arsenal’s favour.
Gabriel Paulista had started the match on the right-hand side of the hosts’ back four, but he moved infield alongside Koscielny following Bellerin’s entrance. The Brazilian has played at full-back in the past but he is first and foremost a central defender, a fact that was evidenced by his reluctance to break forward when Arsenal had the ball.
Indeed, Gabriel looked a little cumbersome whenever he picked up possession in Stoke’s half, which robbed Arsenal of an important attacking outlet from deeper in the pitch.
Things changed once Wenger had reconfigured his backline, though. The pacey and dynamic Bellerin, 21, is always keen to push on and provide support in the final third, which helped to bring about the equaliser towards the end of the opening period. Alexis Sanchez picked out the full-back after dropping deep from his nominal centre-forward position, with Bellerin’s low cross then turned home by Walcott at the near post.
It was an excellent delivery, but the Bellerin’s positioning was also important in bringing about the chance. The Spaniard’s willingness to advance up the pitch allowed Walcott to drift inside while ensuring width was maintained, with Stoke wing-back Erik Pieters forced to follow Walcott and leave Bellerin free after being overloaded down his side of the pitch.
It was a common theme throughout the rest of the match. Mesut Ozil edged Arsenal in front with a deft header in the 49th minute, before Alex Iwobi sealed all three points after a sweeping passing move involving six other players.
Bellerin was the key figure in the turnaround, though, rarely wasting the ball and offering an extra source of creativity in attack. Last month’s announcement that he had signed a new six-year contract went down extremely well in the red-and-white half of north London, with the former Barcelona trainee continuing to demonstrate why he is now one of the best right-backs in the world.
“We had a hesitant start but we found the resources at 1-0 down to come back and win the game,” Wenger said in his post-match press conference.
“The key was to keep our nerve and our composure. That’s what we did: we kept passing the ball and we didn’t panic.”
Although the Frenchman did not publicly acknowledge Bellerin’s contribution, he must have been delighted with how quickly the Spaniard was able to rediscover his rhythm following a spell on the sidelines.
The loss of Mustafi for at least three weeks is a blow, but his injury allowed Bellerin the chance to remind everyone how valuable he is to this Arsenal side.
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