Everyone knows the old cliche about how football is a game of two halves, but Arsenal again demonstrated they’re like a team of two halves with a second 45 minutes that brought about our tenth successive win in all competitions. In our last seven Premier League games we’ve been drawing at the break before going on to win, and the difference between the first period and the second is often quite marked.
That was true again last night. Leicester caused us problems from the very start. This is not, as some might like to believe, part of Unai Emery’s plan to soak up pressure then use our superior fitness and physicality to hit them when they’re tired. This is exactly what he was talking about when he said we needed to improve, and he addressed it again last night saying:
We need to continue improving, we need to continue keeping our demands high – every first 30 minutes we are suffering more than we want, like today.
They had a sight of goal early on, Leno made two very good saves – the one from Maguire in particular was outstanding, they could have had a penalty for a Rob Holding handball – and when their goal came in the 31st minute nobody could say it hadn’t been coming. Chilwell got a bit of good fortune when his cross wrong-footed the Arsenal keeper after deflecting off Hector Bellerin, but inevitably when you allow yourself to be exposed defensively, you’re going to concede and so it was last night.
What you would say about this Arsenal team though is that going behind doesn’t seem to damage confidence in any way. We finished the first half strongly and just before the break captain for the night Mesut Ozil equalised. The assist came from Bellerin after the German had made a strong run through midfield and carried on into the box, and his finish was laser-guided into the net off the post which, as we all know, makes a goal 22% better. The technique to finish that way shouldn’t be overlooked either, a classic case of him making something look easy that definitely wasn’t.
I have to say I was expecting a half-time change despite the goal, but Emery kept his counsel and we were easily the better side, dominating possession and territory. All the same, the fine margins of football were on display as despite us being the better side Leicester could have gone ahead again when Ndidi’s header from a corner crashed off the bar with Leno in no-man’s land. A couple of inches lower and the game would have taken on a very different complexion.
The Spaniard made changes then, bringing on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Matteo Guendouzi for the ineffective Henrikh Mkhitaryan and the exhausted looking Stephan Lichtsteiner. The Swiss international was playing out of position at left back due to injuries to Monreal and Kolasinac, and the coach’s decision to put his international teammate, Granit Xhaka, there certainly raised my eyebrows. I thought he’d been having a poor game in midfield, and was on a yellow card, so it was a brave move – but one that paid off as he was better there for the last half an hour than he had been in his natural position. Maybe just having a left footed player there gave us better balance.
Either way, within five minutes of making the changes, the game was effectively won. Ozil’s pass to Bellerin in the build up to the second goal was the very definition of precision. The trajectory, the weight of it, the vision to see the run and find the gap to play the ball through was as good as it gets, and the full back played the ball to the back post where Aubameyang had the simple task of tapping it home to take the lead.
As for the third goal: wow. Just wow. We’re beginning to see the collective click on a more regular basis now, but this was just wonderful football. A move that began at the back saw Ozil flick it on in midfield, Guendouzi played it to Bellerin who drove on and fed it Ozil who, in one almost balletic move, stepped over it and span behind the defender allowing Lacazette to feed him the ball and with the outside of his left foot he sliced it with the perfect amount of spin to get it beyond the keeper and to Aubameyang who again finished from close range.
Like the Aaron Ramsey goal against Fulham it’s one that stands up to repeated viewing and one which must have felt like a dagger in the heart to Leicester. Still coming to terms with the one that came off the bar that would have given them the lead, all of sudden they find themselves 3-1 down and in spite of their best efforts defensively, they had literally no answer to what Arsenal did to them in those four minutes. It’s got to be massively demoralising, and after the third Kaspar Schmeichel seemed to be complaining to the referee about something, as if to suggest ‘It’s not fair!’.
Conceding a goal is bad enough, but if you can easily see why it happened – a mistake, a lapse of concentration etc – it’s easier to come to terms with. When you’re standing there trying to figure out how the opposition did what they did it’s much more difficult. Without wanting to compare it to something gruesome, it’s like that scene in The Talented Mr Ripley when Matt Damon hits Jude Law in the forehead with an oar. For a moment or two he cant quite figure out what’s happened, then the wound opens and starts gushing blood, and in football terms that’s what Arsenal’s third goal did to Leicester last night.
After that there was no way back even though there were over twenty minutes left, and we could have scored more. Ozil was enjoying himself and not only was this his best performance in a long time, it felt like one which might help him turn a bit of a corner. The ovation when he came off was well deserved, hopefully we can see of this from him – and it’s hardly a coincidence that it came when he’d been deployed in his most natural position.
Alex Iwobi also deserves a mention for growing into the game the way he did, the confidence, strength and skill he showed was great to see. And what can you say about Aubameyang? Off the bench to score a brace for the second game in succession that’s eight goals in ten games this season, and since his arrival he has been a consistent goal threat despite the fact he’s barely started more than a couple of games in the striker position. He’s giving Unai Emery the best kind of headache, because how can you leave a player with that kind of scoring record out of the team?
The positives and negatives of our performance give the head coach plenty to think about, but the bottom line is that we’ve won ten games in a row and there’s simply no arguing with the results we’ve been racking up. There are tougher tests to come of course, but if the expectation is that we beat the so-called lesser teams in the league and in Europe, you can’t really complain when we do just that. Not everything is perfect but you can see the signs of progress, so winning games while that happens is a real plus.
James and I recorded the Arsecast Extra last night, straight after the game. You don’t need me to tell you what we talked about, just listen and subscribe below, and we’ll have more reaction over on Arseblog News throughout the day.