An impressively weird match, a Hollywood body-swap comedy on grass, during which Stoke City and Arsenal offered up more than passable impersonations of each other.
Stoke passed Arsenal off the park, but were overcome courtesy of three goals from set pieces. If that much was counter-intuitive, then the identity of Stoke’s assassin was more predictable. Mesut ├ûzil’s hat-trick of assists in front of German national coach and fellow umlaut owner Joachim L├Âw, was further evidence of his talismanic effect on this squad.
The ├ûzil bandwagon shows no sign of slowing down. On his home debut, Arsenal’s fans greeted him with a strangely reverential devotion. Before the game the club had organised a promotional photo-shoot in front of the Emirates club shop, featuring dozens of fans in “├ûZIL 11” replica shirts. This was not a welcome ever afforded to, say, Yossi Benayoun.
The arrival of the ┬ú40 million man has been met in these parts with a certain joy and a certain relief, but most of all an overwhelming, almost theological gratitude. Everything he did was oohed and aahed, even the rare misplaced passes.
He was warmly applauded when he wandered over to take a corner, as if he were a UN aid worker on his way to deliver food, blankets and pinpoint through-balls to some disaster-stricken part of the world. His name was sung throughout, praising him to the heavens for being here, alive and Mesut ├ûzil all at the same time.
And so it came to pass that in the fifth minute, ├ûzil created a goal. A low free-kick was parried by Asmir Begovic but only to Aaron Ramsey, who like the Woody Allen character Zelig is developing the propitious knack of being present at all the defining moments of history. The man standing in front of the tank in Tianenmen Square? Aaron Ramsey. The man whispering in Yitzhak Rabin’s ear as he signs the historic Oslo Peace Accords? Aaron Ramsey. The discoverer of penicillin? Not Alexander Fleming at all, but in fact Aaron Ramsey.
Ramsey converted the rebound – of course he did – and thus the tone of the match was set. And ├ûzil looked upon the assist, and he saw that it was good.
Against the run of play, Stoke equalised. Steven Nzonzi played a beautiful diagonal ball, new signing Marko Arnautovic peeled away from Per Mertesacker, and with impeccable technique fired a low left-footed volley against the post. The ball came out to Geoff Cameron, who side-footed the ball first time into an empty net.
The old Stoke under Tony Pulis would never have scored a goal that fluid. Then again, the old Stoke would never have conceded a goal so elementary just 10 minutes later. ├ûzil’s corner, Mertesacker’s glancing header, and Arsenal were ahead again.
As half-time came and went and the minutes began to tick by, Stoke briefly threatened. Marc Wilson ratted Wojciech Szczesny’s fingers with a low hum-dinger, while the outstanding Cameron delivered a couple of searing crosses. Mark Hughes may have smoothed over some of Stoke’s rough edges, but robbed them of none of their heart.
Something has definitely happened to them at set pieces, though. With virtually the same personnel as last season – Cameron, Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth and Jonathan Walters – Stoke looked vulnerable every time the ball was delivered into their area. Eighteen minutes from time, another ├ûzil free-kick was won in the air by Bacary Sagna, whose header had sufficient loop to evade Begovic and nestle in the far corner.
And so the early gloom shrouding the Emirates has been shredded in the space of just five games. The club that lacked the ‘ambition’ and ‘firepower’ to challenge for the title now leads the Premier League on the strength of their ┬ú40 million midfielder. Work that one out.