Tomas Rosicky steps up his game at crucial moment for Arsenal

The Gunners cruised to a 3-0 win

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The Independent Football

This was a familiar sight at this time of year, as the competitions start to narrow down and the remaining games tick away. It was Arsenal starting to play properly again, producing their best performance of the league season and warning Manchester United, Southampton, Tottenham and the rest that they fully intend to reclaim their rightful place in next season’s Champions League.

It has not been an impressive season from Arsenal. The best team they have beaten since defeating Manchester City in August’s Community Shield is Borussia Dortmund – second from bottom in the Bundesliga – and most of their wins have been delivered by Alexis Sanchez alone.

No one could claim that Arsenal were not indebted to Sanchez on Sunday. This was, amid serious competition, arguably Sanchez’s finest display of the season, scoring two, setting up the other and mystifying Stoke City with his pace and his class.

But this was not one of those games where Sanchez had to make up for the deficiencies of his team-mates or win the game despite them. Rather, Sanchez brought the best out of his colleagues and together they found a new balance.

If there has been a lack of tempo and movement to Arsenal this season, that was not the case. It was an unusual midfield, with Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta out and Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini on the bench, but it functioned perfectly. Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky are arguably Arsenal’s two most intelligent technical players and they set the pace from the start.

 

Too many times this year Arsenal have walked through games, waiting for Sanchez to do something special. Here, Rosicky and Cazorla aimed to reach his level, always incisive, mobile and brisk. “I think we moved well without the ball, and we moved the ball well as well, as that is the basis for our game,” a delighted Arsène Wenger said afterwards. “Overall we created chances and were mobile, and the speed of our game created problems for Stoke. And we took advantage of it.”

Rosicky is a routine character in Arsenal’s new year resurgences. This was only his third league start of the season but he returned as if he had never been away, taking the attack to Stoke – forcing a save from Asmir Begovic in the third minute – and knitting the whole Arsenal team together. “Today from the first minute on we played with pace and put them on the back foot,” Wenger said. “And that was the big difference.”

This was a new standard in Arsenal’s flat season and the challenge now is to maintain it. Rosicky, unfortunately, cannot be counted on to run every game. Arsenal must make the best use of him when available. But the injury situation at Arsenal, so often their downfall, suggests that they will have resources to deploy in their pursuit of fourth spot.

Theo Walcott, whose 2014 was ruined by injury, came on for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the second half. He did not look at his best, dragging his best chance wide after being slid through by Sanchez, but it was still an important outing for a player who needs a good 2015.

This is an important year, too, for Mesut Özil who also returned to the pitch after more than three months out with a knee injury. Aaron Ramsey, five weeks on from his Istanbul hamstring injury, was on the bench. Of course, this was Sanchez’s afternoon, but it was also a team performance, and not before time.

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