We boosted our hopes of securing a top-four place with a fine performance at Stoke on Saturday as we cruised to a comfortable win in the Potteries.
This was a hugely impressive display; professional, incisive and ruthless against opponents who have caused us no end of trouble at this ground in years gone by.
But right from the off this felt different. We controlled the opening exchanges, saw Shkodran Mustafi and then Nacho Monreal go close and continued to knock on the door.
We finally had our reward just before the interval when Olivier Giroud converted from close range, and added to our lead after the restart through Mesut Ozil’s beautiful strike.
Stoke got their way back into the game via the hand of Peter Crouch and suddenly it was game on – and the hoem crowd certainly knew it.
But Alexis silenced them with a goal that arrowed into the bottom corner, before Giroud made it four not long afterwards as we recorded our best-ever away win at this ground.
It was no more than we deserved – and beyond the confidence boost this result will provide, it also helps up the pressure on Liverpool in the race for a top-four place.
Our fate may not be in our hands, but we are doing everything we can to secure Champions League football for yet another season.
CHANGES AT THE BACK
With the team on a run of four wins in five Premier League matches prior to kick off, Arsene Wenger was understandably keen to keep changes to a minimum.
However, he was forced into reworking a backline that had kept three cleans sheets in four, and had two successive shutouts for the first time since the turn of the year.
The first was expected, as the minor hamstring issue that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain limped off with against Southampton ruled him out, but in Hector Bellerin we had a ready-made replacement at right wing-back.
But a tight calf for Kieran Gibbs ruled him out, although the welcome return of captain Laurent Koscielny softened the blow and meant that Nacho Monreal moved out to the left flank.
Elsewhere, Francis Coquelin was drafted into midfield in place on Aaron ramsey, who dropped to the bench, while Olivier Giroud – fresh from his goal in midweek – replaced Danny Welbeck up front.
A CONFIDENT START
We may not have had much luck at Stoke down the years, but there were no signs of any early nerves as we dominated the opening exchanges.
Alexis had an early opportunity after being found on the diagonal in the box by Shkodran Mustafi’s angled pass, but Jack Butland raced off his line to block the Chilean’s shot – right as the flag went up.
Not long after, we called the Stoke goalkeeper into action again as Mustafi rose to glance Mesut Ozil’s corner towards the top corner, but Butland was able to stretch and tip it just over the bar.
It was all Arsenal, and we would go closer still when, after patient build-up play, Hector Bellerin drifted in a good ball from the right that the onrushing Monreal directed against the post before the hosts scrambled it clear.
GUNNERS ON TOP
Where in previous years, the Potters have been able to knock us out of our stride, there was no sign of it during a first half that we continued to dominate.
Alexis hit the sidenetting with a firm drive after preying on a defensive mistake by Glen Johnson as we continued to press and probe at the hosts, who offered little attacking threat.
Then, just before the break, we clicked into gear – and were rewarded for a professional, dominant first-half performance with the opening goal.
It came as Coquelin received midway through the Stoke half, and played an incisive ball on for the overlapping Bellerin, who raced into the box. The Spain international looked up, kept his cool and rolled the ball across goal and Giroud couldn’t miss – slotting home from a few yards out.
It silenced the home crowd, usually so raucous, and offered further encouragement for Wenger’s side who were in total control heading into the interval.
OZIL DOUBLES THE LEAD
Having been second best during the first half, a big response from the home side was expected after the restart, but we remained on the front foot.
It was a really controlled, calm performance and we did not have long to wait to double our lead – and it was a beauty.
Alexis, such a lively presence all afternoon, was at its source, collecting the ball 25 yards out and slipping a delightful, eye-of-the-needle pass through to the onrushing Ozil.
The German took the ball at pace behind the Stoke defender, glanced up and nonchalantly slipped the ball over the sprawling Butland and into the far corner.
What a strike – and right in front of the jubilant travelling Arsenal fans to boot.
STOKE GET BACK INTO IT
Stoke’s response finally came, and they could – and really should – have halved our lead when Marco Arnautovic beat Rob Holding in the area and whipped a fierce ball across goal.
It flew at Diouf five yards out, and it seemed easier to score than miss – but the forward’s header somehow squirmed wide, via a slight deflection.
Petr Cech – in his 400th Premier League appearance – was then called into action to push a firm Martins Indi header over the bar after a succession of corners had upped the pressure on the Gunners.
But finally the hosts did break through – albeit in hugely controversial circumstances - as Arnautovic broke down the left once more and whipped in a cross that Crouch sent in via his hand.
The Arsenal players were incensed that it had been allowed to stand, but stand it did - and it made for a tense finish to this game.
ALEXIS WRAPS IT UP
With the home fans now at full volume, and the hosts suddenly energised and looking much more like the Stoke we have come to expect, we were right up against it.
It would have been easy to be cowed by the situation, but we stood tall and mounted our response.
With 14 minutes remaining, we looked to have put the game to bed when Holding won the ball on the right flank, fed Bellerin and the wing-back found Alexis racing towards goal.
There was still work to do, but Alexis simply sized up the situation and fired it low into the bottom corner to the delight of the raucous travelling support, who exploded in celebration.
GIROUD GETS HIS SECOND
There was still more to come though when Ramsey, just on for Alexis, ghosted his way into the area, put two defenders on their backside with a neat shimmy but saw his shot saved by Butland.
Moments later, the Wales international was played in on goal again but was forced wide to the right of the area by Martins Indi.
Ramsey may have been heading away from goal, but he did brilliantly to fire the ball across the face of goal to Giroud tio slam in our fourth from close range.
Finally we were laying the ghosts of Stoke defeats of the past to rest – and in fine style. Four goals on the road is impressive enough, but when it comes at a ground that you have traditionally struggled at, it is even more noteworthy.
We would not add to our tally, but this win not only maintains our momentum with our fifth win in six Premier League games but also ups the pressure on Liverpool in the race for a top-four place.
Sunderland await us next. Bring it on.