Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Arsenal 4-2 Leicester: I love it when a plan comes together

Match reportPlayer ratingsArteta reaction

In the end, I think the 2 slightly flattered Leicester, and the 4 didn’t do us justice, but that’s a minor complaint on what was an excellent day for this fast developing Arsenal side.

As expected, Mikel Arteta didn’t make any changes to the starting line-up, but we saw Takehiro Tomiyasu and Emile Smith Rowe return to the bench to give us important depth. Yes, Leicester had an early chance when Xhaka was robbed and Fofana went through on goal, but Aaron Ramsdale made a good save.

After that, it was basically one way traffic in the first half. Xhaka, mindful of the fact he’d been culpable in a very Xhaka way, turned on a part of his engine I didn’t know he had. Consistent, well-timed runs down that inside left channel provided genuine moments of danger. There was a pass that almost put him through on goal, and a Saka cross which he headed like a bullet onto the post. He had the freedom to do this because in possession he’d stay wide with Oleksandr Zinchenko moving into the centre, and it was a tactic which worked well and which Leicester found hard to deal with.

The opening goal illustrated all that is good about Gabriel Jesus, and the way he combines with those around him. Some of Arsenal’s interplay around the box was absolutely superb yesterday, and what can you say about that finish for his first Arsenal goal? He is very much his own man but as it lofted through the air like a perfectly hit pitching wedge, the Leicester players looking forlornly at the ball because they knew where it was going to go, the words ‘Dennis’ and ‘Bergkamp’ were front and centre in my mind. I know we always try and compare great players from the past with the ones we have now, and they’re clearly very different, but the precision chip with almost no backlift had shades of one of our greatest ever, in my opinion.

Jamie Vardy has been a persistent pain in our collective arses for many years now, so I’d just like to take a moment this morning to thank him for the fantastic assist for Jesus’ second, which he nodded in at the back post. At this point, Leicester just couldn’t cope with him. He turned Jonny Evans inside-out in a flash, but just as he was about to shoot, a defender got a great touch on the ball to prevent the goal. Then there was more succulent interplay between him, Martin Odegaard and Gabriel Martinelli to present another chance which the keeper saved. Maybe he could have squared for Saka, but you can understand why he took the shot.

Right at the end of the half Leicester were awarded a penalty, but after a VAR check by Mike Dean of all people, the referee had a look at the overturned the decision because it was an obvious dive. Vardy tumbled to the ground like a mobile phone somehow falling off a boat.

Leicester had a little bit more about them in the second half, maybe Arsenal were a touch content to let them have the ball, soak up pressure, and then go at them because of the two goal lead. Their route back into the game was unfortunate for William Saliba, nodding the ball beyond Aaron Ramsdale after a long punt forward had been headed on. I do wonder if Ben White should have challenged initially, but he dropped off and it was not the way the young Frenchman would have liked to have had the ball in the net at the Emirates for the first time.

Here’s what I really love about yesterday though: the reaction. About 90 seconds later we scored again. Jesus was sharp when the keeper dropped a Ben White cross and Xhaka was there to slot the ball home to make it 3-1. Leicester didn’t even have time to prey on any nerves our own goal might have caused.

It wasn’t just that, it was the reaction to Saliba’s next touch on the ball. Huge applause from the fans, which said ‘Don’t worry, we’re behind you all the way’, and on top of that the fact that the 21 year old, making just his second appearance for the club, didn’t allow that difficult moment to fluster him for even a minute. His levels of composure are preternatural, and that reaction was something Arteta referenced afterwards, saying:

“What they’ve done today with William Saliba is something that in my career I haven’t seen and that shows the connection and to really be there when it matters and when it’s difficult for somebody.

“We should be really proud to play in front of them because that was special. I think it really lifted the confidence of Wilo and how he played the last minutes after that and for the team as well.”

Leicester changed shape, and scored again after some iffy defending. Maddison threatened to make it a nervy last 15 minutes, but guess what? Arsenal reacted again and to say Gabriel Martinelli deserved a goal is an understatement and a half. He tormented Fofana all day, his work-rate is unbelievable, and that the goal began with him winning the ball back in midfield before getting back up the pitch to get on the end of a Jesus pass and thwack it with his left foot in off the post is the perfect illustration of what he’s bringing to this team now.

That was always going to be that, but Jesus should have had his hat-trick when a Saka shot was saved and rebounded to him at the back post. He put it wide with his left foot, and I’m sure he had some regrets afterwards, but I guess he’ll just have to be content with the two goals and two assists on his home debut.

Afterwards, Arteta said:

I’m really happy. I think it was a big performance. I think it was a really good football match from both sides. I think Leicester had their moments as well and they did a lot of good things in the game and overall I’m delighted because we got the result that we wanted.

We can all see what Gabriel Jesus brings to the team and how he moves the needle from an attacking perspective, so it seems a bit redundant to focus on that this morning. He deserves all the props because he’s just going to be so much fun to watch in red and white, but beyond that I think we need to talk a little about the way this team has improved in the opposition final third.

Jesus plays a big part in that, obviously, but to have players like Saka, Martinelli and Odegaard all on that wavelength, with the added technical quality of Zinchenko, is just so encouraging. Even Xhaka – and I say that not to be dismissive – is almost liberated with those players around him, and I thought he had a fantastic game yesterday, that early moment aside.

How nice too that when White picked up a knock we had Tomiyasu to bring on. Smith Rowe got some minutes, Eddie threatened when he got his run-out and there’s just a lot to like about how we played yesterday because it feels like it’s the outcome of the recruitment, the plan, and the coaching, and that’s a heady mix – especially when you see what’s happening elsewhere.

Arteta said:

You can see the interaction and the speed of execution, it’s a different level now. The rotation can be the same and the way that they can execute it at that speed and be that precise is completely different. It’s much more difficult to defend.

Who can argue? And who, having seen that yesterday, won’t acknowledge that this is an improving team which – like others – still has some kinks to iron out, but whose potential is just so exciting?

Lots of credit to go around. Performance, tactics, goals, the way the Emirates was rocking yesterday, and now 6 points from 6 as our impressive start to the season continues. There’s obviously a long way to go, but compare and contrast the mood now from this time last season and we’ve come a long way forward too.

When is the last time you genuinely felt like ‘BRING IT ON!’ for the next game?

Right, I’ll leave it there for this morning. James and I will be recording the Arsecast Extra a little later today. Keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @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.

We’ll have the pod for you around lunchtime. For now, take it easy.

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