Arsene Wenger feels Arsenal’s failure to mount a title challenge was the main reason for another sparse crowd as three late goals saw them beat relegation-threatened Stoke.
The Gunners were booed off at half-time at Emirates Stadium after seeing Aaron Ramsey clip the crossbar with their only clear chance of the first 45 minutes.
But Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s penalty broke the deadlock after a disputed foul by Bruno Martins Indi on Mesut Ozil, before the Gabon striker fired home from an Ozil corner.
Aubameyang then passed up the chance to claim a hat-trick after Badou Ndiaye’s push on substitute Alexandre Lacazette, who converted the penalty for a scoreline that flattered the Gunners.
Arsenal, who host CSKA Moscow in the Europa League next, remain 13 points outside the Premier League’s top four after Tottenham later won at Chelsea so Wenger understands why there were scores of empty seats.
“It’s just down to the fact that we’re not fighting for the championship,” he said. “People know that will not change now. They will be back on Thursday, don’t worry.
“It’s explainable by the fact that it’s Easter. It’s a family happening where people go away and it’s a fact that we don’t think about a lot in the Premier League. There’s also the fact that we had a break.”
Despite having 17 days between matches – a result of the international break and being out of the FA Cup – Arsenal looked laboured in possession before showing greater urgency after the break.
Stoke did hit the woodwork through Xherdan Shaqiri’s second-half corner but the hosts were in the ascendancy when the first penalty was awarded. However, replays showed that Martins Indi appeared to get his left foot to the ball before catching Ozil from behind.
Ndiaye then fired narrowly wide for Stoke before Arsenal condemned the Potters to their eighth game without a win, keeping them second from bottom and three points from safety.
Could the Europa League save Arsenal’s season?
Petr Cech and Granit Xhaka’s ever-present league records came to an end while Laurent Koscielny was left on the bench, with Wenger perhaps trying to keep them fresh for Thursday’s quarter-final first leg.
Arsenal’s European campaign has taken on huge significance for Wenger and the club, at a time when many supporters have been calling for change while disillusioned fans continue to stay away.
Arsenal look certain to miss out on a top-four finish, so it seems their only way of qualifying for next season’s Champions League is to win the Europa League. Wenger may also need to win it to convince the Arsenal board to keep him in charge.
The team he fielded against Stoke played like a side with their eyes on a bigger prize. They were sloppy and sluggish early on, and it was not until the 23rd minute that they got behind the Stoke defence for the first time.
Hector Bellerin’s low cross was deflected into the path of Ramsey, whose deft volley went behind off the bar. Ramsey and Mohamed Elneny then saw shots deflected wide.
Danny Welbeck fired wide as Arsenal improved in the second half. Elneny’s shot was then blocked, with Nacho Monreal’s follow-up saved by Jack Butland, but the Gunners breathed a sigh of relief as Shaqiri’s inswinging corner came back off the far post with David Ospina beaten.
The ruthless nature in which the home side finished the game will encourage Wenger before the European clash, though. Butland had to deny Aubameyang and Calum Chambers before their late goal burst.
Jack Wilshere’s presence, after being forced to withdraw from international duty, was a positive for both Wenger and England manager Gareth Southgate before the World Cup.
‘The ref needs to watch it again’ – Stoke’s penalty rage
Stoke had frustrated Arsenal for long periods before the penalty was given and the visitors had complaints about the decision.
Manager Paul Lambert said: “I thought we were excellent and looked really good but Arsenal got the penalty. It was a game changer.
“I saw Craig Pawson after the game. I respect the referee but he has not got the benefit of television. He explained they only have one major angle to have a look at it.
“Do I have sympathy with the referee? I don’t know. It was harsh on us because I thought we were great. I’ve been here a few times and won, but we haven’t played as well as that.
Defender Bruno Martins Indi said: “It was not a challenge. I touched the ball and it was not a penalty. The referee had a different view or something and gave it.
“I could not believe it. It cost us because we played very well. It killed the moment. I’ve seen it back; I think the referee’s angle was not good enough.
“He said that I stretched my leg and I made a foul. He needs to watch it again.
“Mesut Ozil is of course going to say it’s a penalty – if I was in his position I would say the same. It was no penalty and the cameras don’t lie.”
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said: “I will have to look at it again. I don’t know. From outside it looked like it was a penalty.”
Time running out for Stoke
The Potters have won just one of their 10 games under Paul Lambert, who has been trying to stamp his authority on the squad he inherited from Mark Hughes.
Lambert said Stoke would try to win at Arsenal and they certainly started with that intent. Rather than leaving Mame Biram Diouf as a lone striker, Shaqiri and Ramadan Sobhi were up in support.
Shaqiri curled an early effort just wide of the top corner and, partly due to Stoke’s urgency, Arsenal frequently gave the ball away in dangerous positions.
But they failed to create any more clear-cut chances in the first half and, before Shaqiri’s corner almost caught out Ospina, the best they mustered in the second was a tame curling effort by the Switzerland forward which was straight at the home keeper.
Lambert’s no-nonsense stance looks as if it will have long-term benefits, and he had no complaints about the effort of his players. But Stoke need immediate results and, in the short term, they seem to be over-reliant upon Shaqiri.
The suspended Charlie Adam said before the game that three wins from their final seven games would be enough to clinch survival.
They now have just six left but, as Adam said, they still have to play West Ham, Crystal Palace and Swansea. This result makes those games even more important.
Man of the match – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal)
Wenger’s big change – key stats
- Arsenal have won their past 16 home matches against Stoke in all competitions, a run stretching back to August 1981.
- Arsenal made seven changes to the team that started their last league game, more than they had made in any Premier League match since 1 January 2011 (8 v Birmingham).
- Stoke are winless in their past 18 Premier League matches in London (W0 D6 L12), since winning 2-1 at Tottenham in November 2014.
- Stoke are without a win in 11 away Premier League games (D4 L7), with no side enjoying fewer top-flight away victories this season (1, level with West Brom).
- Arsenal have scored three or more goals and kept a clean sheet in consecutive Premier League games for the first time since October 2015.
- The Gunners have scored two penalties in a Premier League game for the first time since December 2012 (v West Brom).
Arsenal host CSKA Moscow in the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final on Thursday, 5 April (20:05 BST). The Gunners return to Premier League action at home to Southampton on Sunday, 8 April (14:15 BST), while Stoke host Tottenham on Saturday, 7 April (15:00 BST).
- 35El NenyBooked at 37mins
Substituted forXhakaat 76′minutes
Substituted forMkhitaryanat 76′minutes
Substituted forLacazetteat 61′minutes
- 8JohnsonBooked at 66mins
- 15Martins Indi
- 4AllenBooked at 90mins
Substituted forCrouchat 80′minutes
Substituted forBerahinoat 61′minutes
- Craig Pawson
- Shots on Target
Match ends, Arsenal 3, Stoke City 0.
Second Half ends, Arsenal 3, Stoke City 0.
David Ospina (Arsenal) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Peter Crouch (Stoke City).
Attempt missed. Granit Xhaka (Arsenal) left footed shot from outside the box misses to the left. Assisted by Henrikh Mkhitaryan following a corner.
Corner, Arsenal. Conceded by Ryan Shawcross.
Joe Allen (Stoke City) is shown the yellow card for a bad foul.
Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal) wins a free kick in the attacking half.
Foul by Bruno Martins Indi (Stoke City).
Goal! Arsenal 3, Stoke City 0. Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal) converts the penalty with a right footed shot to the bottom right corner.
Penalty Arsenal. Alexandre Lacazette draws a foul in the penalty area.
Penalty conceded by Badou Ndiaye (Stoke City) after a foul in the penalty area.
Goal! Arsenal 2, Stoke City 0. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) right footed shot from the centre of the box to the bottom right corner following a corner.
Corner, Arsenal. Conceded by Jack Butland.
Attempt saved. Mesut Özil (Arsenal) left footed shot from outside the box is saved in the centre of the goal. Assisted by Alexandre Lacazette with a headed pass.
Attempt saved. Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Arsenal) right footed shot from a difficult angle on the right is saved in the centre of the goal.
Offside, Arsenal. Héctor Bellerín tries a through ball, but Mesut Özil is caught offside.
Attempt missed. Badou Ndiaye (Stoke City) right footed shot from outside the box is close, but misses to the right. Assisted by Peter Crouch with a headed pass following a fast break.
Attempt saved. Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal) left footed shot from the left side of the box is saved in the bottom right corner. Assisted by Granit Xhaka.
Offside, Arsenal. Aaron Ramsey tries a through ball, but Mesut Özil is caught offside.
Substitution, Stoke City. Peter Crouch replaces Ramadan Sobhi.
Attempt missed. Nacho Monreal (Arsenal) right footed shot from the left side of the box is high and wide to the right.
Substitution, Arsenal. Granit Xhaka replaces Mohamed Elneny.
Substitution, Arsenal. Henrikh Mkhitaryan replaces Jack Wilshere.
Goal! Arsenal 1, Stoke City 0. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) converts the penalty with a right footed shot to the bottom right corner.
Penalty Arsenal. Mesut Özil draws a foul in the penalty area.
Penalty conceded by Bruno Martins Indi (Stoke City) after a foul in the penalty area.
Attempt saved. Calum Chambers (Arsenal) left footed shot from very close range is saved in the centre of the goal. Assisted by Nacho Monreal.
Attempt missed. Nacho Monreal (Arsenal) header from the right side of the six yard box misses to the left. Assisted by Mesut Özil with a cross following a corner.
Attempt blocked. Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal) right footed shot from the right side of the six yard box is blocked.
Corner, Arsenal. Conceded by Erik Pieters.
Attempt saved. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) right footed shot from the left side of the box is saved in the bottom right corner. Assisted by Mesut Özil with a through ball.
Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Erik Pieters (Stoke City).
Attempt saved. Saido Berahino (Stoke City) left footed shot from a difficult angle on the left is saved in the centre of the goal. Assisted by Ramadan Sobhi.
Corner, Stoke City. Conceded by Nacho Monreal.
Attempt saved. Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke City) right footed shot from outside the box is saved in the centre of the goal. Assisted by Badou Ndiaye.
Corner, Stoke City. Conceded by Mohamed Elneny.
Glen Johnson (Stoke City) is shown the yellow card for a bad foul.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) wins a free kick in the defensive half.