Arsenal back on track as Premier League death rattle sounds for Reading

Reading 2 Arsenal 5: Arsene Wenger puts pressure on Theo Walcott to show loyalty after Arsenal record welcome win on the back of Spaniard's hat-trick

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The Independent Football

You could tell by the way that the Arsenal players pulled off their shirts at the end of the game tonight and threw them to their supporters that even a victory over the team at the bottom of the Premier League counted for a great deal after the six days they have endured.

The spectre of Bradford City and the Capital One Cup elimination will hang over Arsene Wenger's club for some time to come but at least last night they could say they took a step back in the right direction. It was a win although, this being Arsenal there were moments when things could have got dicey, until ultimately they prevailed to move up to fifth place.

There was a hat-trick for Santi Cazorla and some pretty sublime football between the midfield trio that he makes up alongside Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere. There was also a second half wobble during which Arsenal conceded two goals and for a few minutes it was not impossible that they might collapse. “At 4-2 I could see your headlines coming,” Wenger said afterwards.

The memories of that 4-0 lead squandered by Reading when these two sides played in the Capital One Cup in October are still fresh, although when it was mentioned in song last night by the away support, the response was all about Bradford. In two games between them at the Madejski Stadium this season these two sides have served up 19 goals, flattering for their respective attacks - less so for their defences.

At 4-2 it might have been painful for Wenger but the panic was ended when the fifth was scored by Theo Walcott, deployed in the role of central striker last night, the position he has lobbied for for so long. Walcott left the pitch to the away fans singing “Wenger, Wenger, sign him up” with the expectation that this latest Arsenal contract stand-off might just be coming to a conclusion at last. 

One missed chance aside, Walcott was impressive in attack. Wenger's pronouncement afterwards that he expected greater loyalty from his English players was the latest shot in this long-running battle over the player's future but it did not appear as frosty as previous exchanges on the subject.

There were reports, albeit unconfirmed, of a banner unfurled at the away end at the end of the game that called for Wenger to go. If that was the case it might have been in keeping with the mood of some elements during the last six days but it was not the mood of last night, when Arsenal cut loose in the style of old. This was the worst team in the division but it begins a run of winnable games for Wenger's side before they meet Manchester City and Chelsea in mid-January.

Whether Walcott is back in the centre-forward role come the game against Wigan on Saturday is by no means certain and Wenger would not be drawn on it last night. Certainly it would have helped the player's chances had he scored from his first good chance on 22 minutes when he was played through a static Reading back line by Cazorla

Bearing down on goal, it required the classic ice-in-the-veins centre-forward's finish that he must envisage himself scoring all the time. Unfortunately for Walcott, Adam Federici saved well with his legs. In the end, the goals came freely for Arsenal anyway.

These are difficult times for Brian McDermott, with a resurgent Queens Park Rangers, emboldened under Harry Redknapp climbing above his side. The Reading manager said that he would like to sign as many as three experienced Premier League players in January but conceded, even after a meeting with owner Anton Zingarevich, that “this club is never going to spend a fortune”.

With six defeats in a row, Reading have something of the death rattle about them, particularly in defence, where they were awful. Much of Arsenal's best work came from the left wing, where full-back Shaun Cummings was afforded little cover by Jimmy Kebe. The 4-4-2 formation that McDermott picked was laudable in its intentions but it made them vulnerable and he switched to 4-5-1 in the second half.

The first goal came from the left wing with Lukas Podolski starting a move that saw Kieran Gibbs cross from the near the touchline. The ball was aimed at Walcott in the centre but Podolski had continued his run and took it himself, dispatching a shot past Federici without much intervention from the Reading defence.

The second was a header from the minute Cazorla, who was completely unmarked when Podolski's cross from the left came in and adjusted himself brilliantly to steer in a low header. For the third he was allowed by the Reading defence to control the ball, turn and shoot, from Walcott's cross that was knocked down by Gibbs.

Reading did have some promising moments themselves, most notably when Thomas Vermaelen had to nick the ball away from Noel Hunt when Pavel Pogrebnyak crossed from the left. But by the end of the first half there were ironic cheers from the Reading fans whenever their side strung a sequence of passes together. Never a good sign.

McDermott resisted the temptation to make a change until Cazorla scored Arsenal's fourth, and his hat-trick goal just before the hour. Then the Reading manager immediately substituted both  his strikers, Pogrenyak and Hunt and replaced them with Hal Robson-Kanu who dropped into midfield and left Adam Le Fondre alone in attack.

The fourth Arsenal goal was a beauty, that was worked, in its final stages, from Oxlade-Chamberlain to Wilshere and out to Podolski who once again crossed from the left side for Cazorla to tap home at the back post.

On 65 minutes, a bad pass by Gibbs and a slip by Wilshere allowed Jay Tabb in to pinch the ball and put Le Fondre in on goal where he did a very nice job of side-stepping Wojciech Szczesny and scoring the first. Seven minutes later, Robson-Kanu battled to hold onto the ball and played in Kebe who scored his side's second.

Then came the nerves for seven minutes when a goal from Reading might have begun a miraculous comeback. Not this time. Walcott got the ball from Cazorla for the fourth and it was all over. Relax, and breathe out, Arsenal. They are just two points off fourth place and the world, for now, looks a kinder place.