Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Leicester 0-1 Arsenal: Dominant grinding

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Gabriel Martinelli’s goal early in the second half was enough to give Arsenal a second successive away win, on a day when we more or less dominated Leicester.

After last week at Villa Park, the key word going into this one was ‘control’, and with Gabriel Martinelli recalled and Leandro Trossard starting up top ahead of Eddie Nketiah, we exerted that straight away. Leicester barely had a kick as we played most of the game with their ball in their half. It wasn’t temporary either, by the 26th minute we’d had five attempts to their none, with 75% possession too.

“GET INTO HIM TETE, DO SOMETHING!!!”, screamed one home fan, clearly audible on the TV coverage.

Then, from a corner, it looked as if we’d gone ahead. Danny Ward’s punch fell to Granit Xhaka, he laid it back to Trossard who stepped inside and curled a beautiful shot into the top corner. As we know now, it was disallowed by VAR with Ben White adjudged to have fouled the Leicester keeper.

I suppose you can say technically it was a foul, but if you’re going to disallow goals for holding and pulling in the box, we’re going to see a lot of goals disallowed. Well, we’re not because you’ll never see one like this again. Is this really the threshold for a VAR intervention? Not least because there wasn’t a single appeal from any Leicester player before the ball hit the net. Usually a keeper will make it clear he’s been fouled as play goes on.

Arsenal fans will remember clearly that earlier this season a goal was allowed during our game against Aston Villa when Aaron Ramsdale was much more obviously impeded, allowing Douglas Luiz to score straight from a corner. If that was allowed then why the change for this? The constant shifting of the goalposts around what’s permitted and not, the ‘let it flow’ ambiguity and all the rest, drives football fans mad. I think it’s soft, and a shame for Trossard, and the game itself, that such a good goal was chalked off for so little.

As I said though, it could be seen as technically the right decision, which then makes the foul on Bukayo Saka even more ludicrous. If Ben White is punished for holding hands with the keeper – who still managed to get a good punch on the ball by the way – then how is Harry Souttar clattering through the back of Saka, then toppling on him like some kind of felled tree not a foul? I can’t explain it. Anywhere else on the pitch the ref blows instantly for a free kick, so why not in the box?

I’m glad we can ask these questions after a game we’ve won, because football matches are often extremely tight. Even yesterday, when we were so on top, we found it hard to make the quality chances we need to score goals. So, credit to Trossard for an absolutely smutty nutmeg assist for Martinelli whose run from deep between two defenders allowed him to finish beyond the keeper and into the net for 1-0.

He was caught on the knee by Wilfred Ndidi so couldn’t celebrate the goal at the time, but it was a telling contribution from a player who’d had a difficult first half. A second Arsenal goal was ruled out for offside. We didn’t get any lines on the coverage here, and I was just about to say we have to trust that the right decision was made, but that sounds absurdly naive, to say the least. At least they made their minds up quickly, I suppose. That’s as much as I can give them.

Here’s what’s odd about yesterday: usually when you’re so dominant and on top, you’re having an 8 or 9 out of 10 performance. I would say we just about hit a 7 out of 10, but that was sufficient because Leicester were so abject on the day. Ramsdale didn’t have a save to make, there were one or two flashes of danger but that was it. The tension came from the scoreline, because 1-0 can change in a second, not from the Leicester performance.

We all know how perilous 1-0 can be. A player has a moment of inspiration, a corner, something ridiculous that makes you go ‘Football is mad, how did Leicester get anything from that?!’. I felt we needed a bit more control in midfield as the game hit its final stages. Thomas Partey replaced Martin Odegaard, and when we had a corner in the dying minutes and just needed to keep the ball, I nearly lost my mind when he – one of our most experienced players – just gave the ball back them.

In the end though, the single goal was enough. The three points were the most important thing, and not even VAR can take them away from us now.

Afterwards, Mikel Arteta said:

We lacked a little bit of that final pass to score more or create bigger chances, I think we weren’t over the decision with the disallowed goal, which was difficult to take, but to stay really focused and determined to do that, I think defensively we were incredible because we restrict Leicester to one shot on target in the whole game at home is a difficult thing to do. The players did really well.

It’s a good point about the defensive effort, because Leicester do have good attacking players. They started with some of them, then brought the rest of them on as subs, but nothing changed in terms of their threat level. So, kudos to the team for stifling the life out of the opposition, but ideally you’d have wanted another goal to make life a bit more comfortable.

Sometimes though, you have to grind out the results. Go back and look at any of our title winning seasons and you’ll see scorelines exactly like this one – a win by the smallest possible margin. They are the bread and butter of any season in which you challenge at the top of the table. This one is done, we move on to Everton in midweek and set out for revenge for the game at Goodison just a few weeks ago.

Finally, a shout to the away fans who were in incredible voice all day long, and the connection between them, the team, and the manager was almost visceral at the final whistle. I enjoyed Mikel Arteta going over to clap the fans, then finding the rhythm of his song and clapping along in time with that.

Wholesome fun, and three very big points. Right, that’s it for now. Join us for an Arsecast Extra tomorrow.

In the meantime, have a great Sunday.

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