Yesterday was a nice surprise. There were all kinds of reasons not to feel confident. Playing at noon on a Sunday after a reasonably lengthy European trip on Thursday. Our record after Europa League games being so poor this season. Starting against a team who have been very good this season without Bukayo Saka, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Thomas Partey. Mikel Arteta selecting a side which, on paper at least, looked like it would struggle.
But football is a bit mad, which is why we all love it. I’ll admit, I thought it was going to be a long old afternoon when we conceded that early goal, but the way we responded was excellent and in the end we were well deserving of all three points.
Let’s start with their goal then, and in real time it looked bad for Pablo Mari who backed off and backed off after Granit Xhaka and Willian turned over possession on the left wing. That mistake was compounded by the fact Kieran Tierney had overlapped and there was all kinds of space for Youri Tielemans to run into. However, Mari had to contend with Jamie Vardy, David Luiz was miles over on the other side of the pitch, and Mohamed Elneny is actually the one I’d look most closely at.
Instead of running across to cover the space and to block off/challenge Tielemans, he basically runs in a straight line and never makes any attempt to stop the danger. In fact, as the Leicester man gets towards the box, he moves further away from the ball. Perhaps right at the end Mari could have been given a shout to step towards the ball, but for me Elneny could and should have done more.
The recent trend of conceding early goals is a bit of a worry, something the manager needs to get on top of quickly, but to be fair the Arsenal reaction was good. Being 1-0 up allowed Leicester to sit and try and play on the break, but they rarely had any chance to do that. We almost had a penalty when Pepe was tripped just outside the box, VAR overturning the referee’s initial award, and the Ivorian was fouled frequently as they tried to stop him.
One of those fouls led to the free kick which drew us level. It looked like a training ground routine as Luiz peeled off the back and Willian delivered into the right area. Not only is it a very good header by the defender, generating lots of power, it’s a brave one too as there were Leicester studs in the mix for him to think about.
The VAR check for the actual penalty a few minutes later was a bit confusing because I don’t quite know how the referee didn’t see it in real time. Maybe, if they’re not sure, they just play on and wait for the communication from on high, but it was obvious. Credit to Willian for the kind of burst through midfield that we’ve almost never seen from him since he joined the club, that went some way to creating the moment for Pepe’s shot to hit Ndidi’s hands, and Alexandre Lacazette made no mistake from the spot.
Taking a 2-1 lead into the break having gone behind so early was a bit unexpected, but very pleasant, and scoring early in the second half made life much more comfortable. Perhaps Leicester were a little disorganised having just lost Harvey Barnes to an injury, but were decisive in midfield, Pepe took it on, we had men in the box and when it broke after involvement from Odegaard and Willian, the winger was there to tap in his 5th Premier League goal of the season.
It’s funny how that two goal lead, to me at least, felt much more comfortable than the one we had against Leeds a few weeks ago. I thought we played smartly though, there was plenty of experience in that second half performance, and while he was somewhat culpable on the goal, I liked what Xhaka did. Not least because since his daft red card against Burnley, he has played in all 16 games we’ve played, starting 15 of them. I know he frustrates but his durability is impressive, and his defensive work yesterday was good.
Leicester barely threatened, the odd blocked shot, and there was one moment where it looked like Jamie Vardy might get himself into a dangerous position, but he was more worried about trying to get Pablo Mari sent off than getting the ball. The Spaniard dealt with it well, and whether it’s age catching up with Vardy or something else, he didn’t exactly run away from an Arsenal defender whose pace wouldn’t necessarily be top of his list of attributes.
There was a chance to get another 20 minutes of match-fitness into the legs of Thomas Partey, and we rested Bukayo Saka completely which, given Arteta’s comments after Benfica, was really important. The only real negative on the day was an injury to Emile Smith Rowe, so hopefully that’s not too serious. It was nice to be able to bring on a player of the quality of Martin Odegaard though, and he had another decent game.
Afterwards, Mikel Arteta was rightly pleased, saying:
I’m certainly happy with the performance of the team, and again the character, the composure that we showed. Coming here after a very short turnaround from Benfica, and going down very early put us in a really difficult position against a Leicester team that probably is the best in that area. I think we played some really good moments in the game, looked really solid, we dominated the game and I think overall we deserved the win.
Consistency, or lack of it, has been one of our major issues this season, and in part it’s because we haven’t been able to get enough from certain players. This, I’m sure, is much more what the club expected in terms of performance levels from Willian; while Pepe has been in and out of the team so much it’s been difficult for him to produce. The record signing has Bukayo Saka to contend with, which does make it more of a challenge, but he was very good again yesterday in almost every aspect of his game, and that kind of competition for places – players giving the manager actual decisions to make – can only be a positive.
We now have a ‘free’ week, a chance to recharge the batteries, get some work done on the training ground, and then into another run of challenging games which include a North London derby and our Europa League fixtures. The last few days, with wins over Benfica and a very good Leicester team, have been encouraging. We’ve played well, created chances, shown some genuine character in coming from behind in both games, and hopefully there’s more there to build on in the weeks ahead.
James and I recorded the Arsecast Extra for you last night, so it’s there for you listen to below, or in your favourite podcast app, if you haven’t already.
We’re also aware there’s an issue with images not appearing on the site when you’re viewing on desktop, but it’s all fine on mobile. We should get that sorted later this evening.
In the meantime, enjoy the win, take it easy, and look after yourselves.