Ten minutes into the second half at the Emirates Mesut Özil muscled Dele Alli off the ball on the edge of his own box, buffeted forward through the white shirts, played a perfect little combination with Aaron Ramsey and just missed out on the final scoring pass having sprinted 80 metres, carving his way across the lime green turf of a November afternoon like an elegantly high-spec German bulldozer.
It wasn’t an isolated incident. Özil was sensationally good throughout on an afternoon when Arsenal beat Tottenham 2-0 without ever really taking a punch in return. Best of all, he was good in a way he hasn’t always been, not just the incisive conductor of his best days, but a vigorous, foraging, assertive presence. At one stage in the first half Özil left Ben Davies face down in the turf with a flex of the shoulders and powered forwards only to be called back for the free-kick, leaving Özil raging and roaring at being interrupted mid-surge, like a very neat, slight Bryan Robson – Bryan Robson in a pair of spats.
Arsenal were a bit lucky at vital moments, benefiting from a couple of favourable offside calls for both goals. But the fact is they deserved to win this game for the vigour and precision of their front three alone. Özil, Alexis Sánchez and Alexandre Lacazette started just their third game here together and their first against a major Premier League power. This is not some peculiar oversight on Arsčne Wenger’s part. Injuries, fatigue, motivation issues, the need for more bulk at times: these have all played a part.
Together at last, they were wonderfully convincing here on a chilly, dank north London day when the sky seemed to close in to just above the lip of the stand. Özil, Sánchez and Lacazette all made or scored a goal. Best of all, they played as a genuinely compelling unit, with speed, slick passing and real aggression.
At times in the first half Lacazette, Sánchez and Özil lined up flat, roped close together, pressurising Davinson Sánchez, who is a fine one-on-one defender but who has a slight air of panic on the ball that was also isolated by José Mourinho in the Europa League final. As Arsenal began to push Spurs back the interplay between the three was zippy and fun, intricate triangles picked out at high speed.
Özil in particular played with real swagger, using his left foot like a scalpel in between the bruising midfield collisions and repeatedly teeing up Sánchez near goal. He had a hand in the first goal too, Sánchez fouling Sánchez – just about – and Özil steepling a free-kick into the box for Shkodran Mustafi to loop a header across goal and into the top corner.
The second goal came via an excellent move down the right, with Héctor Bellerín playing a fine pass through the back three for Lacazette. His cut back was semi-controlled by Sánchez. At which point there was a glimpse of the benefits of being a power-packed little skill-goblin with feet that move at three times the speed of average flesh and bone. As Hugo Lloris and Kieran Tripper ran through heavier air, Sánchez adjusted his balance, took two rat-a-tat steps like a lightweight boxer teeing up a combination and smashed the ball into the roof of the net.
And that was pretty much that. Spurs weren’t great. Some will point to a “big game” phobia in this team, but the problem here was more specific. Dembélé-Sissoko is a brawny, powerful central midfield, all slabbed and rippling muscle at close quarters, but without the same ability to close space and read the play Harry Winks brings to those areas.
Ramsey was scragged a few times in broken play but on the ball he found space to make a pass. There must also be a little sympathy for Alli. If he doesn’t consistently dominate mature Champions League level opponents away from home aged 21 this is perhaps to be expected. In front of him Harry Kane, who has just had 13 days off, looked like a player who could do with 13 days off.
At the end of which Arsenal are a point behind Spurs and well in the race for a top-four place. There will, though, surely be one or two tremors of regret. Sánchez was cheered off at the end with real affection by the home crowd, just as Özil left the pitch to a full standing ovation with five minutes to go. Quite how many more afternoons this beautifully balanced front three might give late-Wenger Arsenal remains to be seen. A cynic might suggest that as auditions for a jackpot-hitting Bosman go, both Özil and Sánchez tailored this to perfection. Either way, on this evidence a full season from here could be quite a lot of fun to watch. Plus, of course, they will always have Spurs.