This was a game Arsenal should have won. Nobody knows that more than Mikel Arteta who was quite clear about it when he spoke afterwards. Referencing what was a very good first half display from his team, he said:
The first half that we made, clearly we should have gone three or four-nil up and killed the game. That’s what you have to do against this type of opposition … you have to kill them.
It’s worth pointing out that it took us a little while to get going, and there were shades of Brighton when we got caught by a short corner again, but Emi Martinez came to the rescue – not for the last time – with a good save. However, we grew into it well, started to produce some nice combinations, and Kieran Tierney’s blaster from 35 yards signalled some intent.
Minutes later we were ahead through Aubameyang at the back post, but the Dani Ceballos pass to Bukayo Saka to provide the assist was superb, and the delivery from the young man belied his tender years. The little shift of the ball from one foot to the other left Jonny Evans sprawling and the captain had a simple finish to put us 1-0 up.
Auba tried to return the favour for Saka but Soyuncu cleared over the bar; Schmeichel then saved from Saka, Lacazette and Bellerin; before a moment I feel was pivotal in the game. Bellerin produced a glorious pass over the top of the defence for Lacazette, and with just the keeper to beat with a close range header, he put it straight into his arms at head height, easy-peasy for Schmeichel. You don’t need me to tell you what he should have done – head it downwards etc etc – but that was bad, bad miss, and it was hard not to worry that we’d pay for our profligacy in the second half.
Whether it was the game state – in which we didn’t have to go chasing; fatigue, or both, we weren’t really at it in the second half. Leicester had a lot more of the ball than I would have liked and while I can understand why we might look to sit off and hit them on the break, it didn’t really work. Maybe we needed to be a bit braver in terms of our attacking set up to do that. Bringing on Pepe for Lacazette (a player who enjoys that kind of scenario), and shifting Aubameyang centrally, might have given Leicester a bit more to think about.
Martinez made a couple of good saves, we had a goal disallowed (rightly) for offside, before the manager brought on Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock. Within two minutes Nketiah fouled James Justin on halfway and was booked, but VAR decided it needed to check, which it did for some time. The referee then consulted his pitch-side monitor, saw a slow motion of Nketiah’s studs making knee-high contact with his opponent and changed the decision to a straight red card.
My rule when it comes to gauging these kinds of incidents is how I would feel if that foul was committed on an Arsenal player. Would I be screaming blue murder and looking for a sending off? I think it was a bit harsh, he was definitely going for the ball, but when you see the replays and how/where the contact was made, I can understand why it was given and I don’t think we can complain too much to be honest.
Afterwards, Arteta was clearly unhappy, not so much with the fourth sending off of his short tenure so far (he’s an Arsenal man all right!), but with the incident late in the first half which saw Jamie Vardy’s boot make contact with Shkodran Mustafi’s face. He said:
With the red card decision, he doesn’t see the player, you have to know that he’s a young kid. It can be a red card, but then Leicester has to play with 10 men after 42 minutes; for one challenge that is between 40 and 45 minutes. That has to be a red card as well.
At the time, I thought it was accidental, one of those unfortunate things that happens when players go tumbling to the ground. Having seen replays, I’m pretty sure I’m wrong. Obviously it’s impossible to prove, only Vardy himself knows if there was intent or not, but I don’t think it’s a natural movement at all. He seems to take a look at where Mustafi is before his boot goes backwards, and if Nketiah’s red card was deemed dangerous play when there was an honest attempt to win the ball, it seems strange that this barely got a mention at the time. You can see from the picture at the top the damage that was done, and I think Arteta makes a reasonable point about the two incidents.
However, it does nothing to change the fact we had to play out the final 15-20 minutes with ten men, and in that period we conceded a goal to Vardy, of course. The VAR check for offside seemed to be more about whether Perez touched the ball or not, I don’t think it was conclusive in any way in that regard, and rather than rail at officials we need to look at what we could have done better to prevent it. Xhaka was beaten a bit too easily, the cross travelled too far, Mustafi probably should have been sharper, but this is one of the Premier League’s most predatory strikers and we gave him the kind of chance he gobbles up. We’d have a few warnings earlier too, so it wasn’t completely against the run of play or anything. Arteta can do nothing about the decision making of the Mikel Riley’s muppets in the VAR bunker, but he can when it comes to his team’s defending.
Given the amount of injury time we had left, I feared another Leicester goal. The fatalist in me was steeled for that moment where the ball hits the back of the net and you have that half a second where you hope that what you’re seeing isn’t real, but thankfully it didn’t come. We competed pretty well, I thought Martinez in goal was superb all night giving us an important presence, and at the final whistle there was some relief. I won’t lie though, it was immediately followed by real frustration because of what we left out there in the first half and what we should done with that dominance.
There’s another side to that, of course, because it comes from the fact we played well and made chances. It’s fine to be vexed by that, but we should remember that it was a really good display and I think one from which we can take real positives. Bukayo Saka notched his 12th assist in all competitions, Ceballos was excellent again in midfield – it’s like someone has flicked his switch to ‘All Burnley, all the time’, and I liked what both our wing-backs gave us. Our profligacy cost us, but we played some really nice football, and as part of the process of developing under Arteta, it was stuff we can build on.
I wonder too if a sense of injustice, whether that’s over Eddie, Vardy, the late goal, or whatever else, might not be a bad thing to take into a North London derby. Obviously it’s the kind of game that every player is well and truly up for, but when margins are as tight as they, perhaps that little bit extra won’t hurt.
Arteta was obviously frustrated at the end, but pleased with what he got from his players too:
They played tremendously well. In terms of time and recovery is really difficult, but you can see the effort and the intensity and the quality that the players are putting in. That’s why I’m extremely proud of our players.
We now have a few days on the training ground to recover, recuperate, recharge the batteries a bit, and prepare for what is going to be a crucial derby on Sunday. There were always going to be bumps on the road during this period, that second half last night proved to be one, but there were enough positives to take heart from, and a few things for Arteta to take note of when he picks his team for Sunday.
For more on this game, James and I will be recording an extra Arsecast Extra for you this morning. As ever if you have questions or topics for discussion, send to @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.
The podcast will be out for you before lunchtime. Until then, take it easy.