Arsenal rebounded from two losses on the bounce and four in their last nine to pick up two points on Chelsea, after the Blues were held to a 1-1 draw at Burnley on Sunday. It was another case of two little too late for the Gunners, who appear poised to miss out on the title for a 13th year in a row. Yet with the race for the Top 4 poised to be the most competitive in years, it was a necessary three points earned at the Emirates Saturday.
The Gunners started brightly, if seemingly a bit nervous, presented with three good chances to score in the first eight minutes of the match, their high press causing one defensive error after another from Hull. But Sanchez was only able to muster a weak shot, Ozil took too long on the ball and had his shot blocked and then Iwobi passed up a gild-edged opportunity himself.
Arsenal were in the ascendancy, but playing like a team with little confidence and Hull started to get into the game, with Markovic easily beating Koscielny and Iwobi and Walcott dribbling directly into defenders in quickly succession as the game began to take shape. Yet Hull haven't beaten Arsenal in 8 years, and 13 games, and even though their new coach beat the Gunners in the Champions League with Olympiakos 3-2 just last season, the Gunners did seem destined for victory.
In the 14th minute that destiny was tested as Hull’s second big chance of the game emerged from a cross, as Niasse’s free header was cleared wide by Cech. Less than a minute later, Bellerin was presented with a chance of his own, set free down the right channel after a nice exchange, but shot just wide of the target. Sanchez spurned another chance a minute later, his third of the early going.
In the 25th minute, Sanchez turned provider, lifting the ball over the defense from the left, but Ozil skied his volley and the chorus of boos echoing through the Emirates only rose, the crowd restlessness growing with every missed pass or defensive lapse. Huge gaps were emerging in the makeshift Arsenal midfield and the defense seemed susceptible to the more direct attacking approach employed by Hull.
In the 27th minute, Coquelin sent an excellent lofted ball to Sanchez, but he was offsides and his header saved anyway. Even as they spurned one chance after another, Arsenal were the joint top scorers with Liverpool heading into the game and there was a sense it was only a matter of time before they cracked a leaky Hull defense. Five minutes later, Walcott had an excellent chance set free on the right 10 yards out, but he paused before shooting, giving the Hull defender time to get across and block his shot.
Finally, on 34 minutes, Arsenal strung together a series of passes, with Gibbs launching a shot that was cleared off the line. Sanchez collected and shot, but Jakupovic saved before the ball came off the charging Chilean who handed it into the net. Clattenburg conferred with the linesman but allowed the goal to stand. Given the common interpretation of the rules, it appeared to be ball-to-hand rather than the obverse, which is generally considered a goal. However, Clattenberg apparently apologized to Hull players right after halftime and the league officials explained afterwards that handed goals would no longer count, news to pundits across the country. In any case, Arsenal were ahead and Sanchez had equaled Lukaku in the Golden Boot lead.
The goal also sent Arsenal to top of the league in scoring, at least until Liverpool equaled their tally later in the day with their 2-0 win over Tottenham. It is the defense of the two sides, however, that has kept them from keeping pace with Chelsea and that might just cost one or both a coveted spot in the Top 4 come the end of the season. Arsenal continued to press for a second, while Hull played on the counter, but the half ended with the narrow lead intact.
Hull came out with ithe second half and on 51', Liverpool-loanee Markovic easily beat Kos again before Niasse’s shot was well saved by Cech at the near post. A minute later, a largely ineffective Walcott lost his cool after a Hull defender shepherded a ball down the right channel out of play and earned a Yellow minutes before a rash challenge from Gibbs almost led to a straight red, for impeding a clear goal-scoring chance - with Kos and Mustafi caught out of position for not the first time in the game.
In the 59th minute, a juking run by Iwobi led to an exchange between he and Ozil, though Iwobi shot over from just outside the box. Two minutes later Arsenal were on the break, with an excellent run from Ox, who impressed in the middle of the park, though the move broke down when Sanchez passed across goal. And seconds later, Arsenal were at it again, though this time it ended with a feeble shot from Walcott.
Arsenal were hanging on, but Hull were soon on a counter of their own, with Markovic's cross blocked for a corner. Elneny soon came on for Walcott, still stuck on 99 career goals for the club, and a moment later a Yellow card was shown to Ranocchia for a foul on Sanchez.
A beautiful ball from Gibbs to Sanchez, was then pushed out to Ozil and back to Sanchez, leading to a corner. Mustaffi got up for a header, but it was high and wide. In the 74th minute, Hull were awarded a free kick after Coquelin was called for foul that looked 50/50, but the resultant header was sent wide.
Two minutes later, Sanchez was again out on break and appeared to be caught on the back of his heal, but Clattenberg disagreed, giving the Chilean a Yellow for diving. If the call had gone the other way, it most likely would have been a second Yellow and sending off for Ranocchia. Hull, still in it, sent Diomande in for Huddleston and almost equalized a couple of minutes later, with Niasse’s header in the 80th minute just wide of the near post after more poor defending from Arsenal.
In the 82nd minute, Wenger sent Welbeck on for Iwobi and Perez for the Ox. Nonetheless, Hull were gaining momentum, with Markovic again getting through the Arsenal defense and earning a corner.
Diamande somehow found himself with a free header but hit it high with a good chance to equalize.
Arsenal finally snatched back control in the final two minutes of the 90, but their insurance goal wouldn’t come until the third minute of stoppage time. A counter after another Hull corner led to Sanchez navigating around Jakupovic and crossing to Perez, whose goal-bound header was handed away by Clucas, quickly earning the defender a red. Sanchez stepped up the spot against the Hull keeper, who saved a penalty of his in the reverse fixture, but easily beat him to the right side. That made it seven goals in four appearances against Hull and a lead in the race to the Golden Boot. With Juve and PSG circling around the star, Arsenal can ill-afford to lose their clear talisman, but Sanchez increasingly looks like a player ready to move on to greater heights. The disappointment if he does, beyond the gaping hole it will leave in Arsenal’s attack, is the sense that he failed to perform in a few too many of his biggest games with the club, including last weekend at the Bridge.
After the win, Wenger attempted to allay concerns that this will be his last season in charge, but the rumor mill is churning, and one would not be surprised to see a new manager pacing the touchline next season. The most mouthwatering prospect on offer is Juve’s Allegri, though he tried to quash the rumors after his own victory. Other possibilities include Howe at Bournemouth, a young manager with great potential, though a similar penchant for neglecting the defensive side of the pitch, or Dortmund’s Tuchel or, though it would likely require a sea change in approach, Atletico’s Diego Simeone.
More pressing is the first leg matchup with Bayern this Wednesday, with Arsenal in their current form looking like longshots to even give the Munich side a game. Maybe they can look to their victory last year in the Group Stage at the Emirates, while trying to erase memories of their last visit to the Allianz, where they were slaughtered by the Guardiola version of the team. If this is to be Wenger’s last stand, one does hope they can find the miracle necessary to finally get past the Round of 16 for the first time in seven tries. More heartbreak seems the most likely result though.