It was a difficult night for Gunner fans to swallow. After the Brighton match, a point against Leicester may have seemed like a tough ask and a result that Arsenal would have taken and ran with, but the disappointing fashion in which it happened will leave you questioning if it was a point gained or two points dropped.
A sopping wet Emirates set the stage for a clash between struggling Leicester City and an inform Arsenal team coming off four straight wins. Arteta looked ahead on Sunday and commented on how important these games are to the current state of the season.
Arsenal XI vs. Leicester: Martinez; Kolasinac, Tierney, Luiz, Mustafi, Bellerin; Ceballos, Xhaka; Saka, Aubameyang, Lacazette
Arsenal’s line up saw only a few changes from previous games. Hector Bellerin was understandably back in the squad, Saka-Laca-Auba made the front three, and Kolasinac at the left-center back role making himself a regular. No Pepe in the lineup, presumably due to missing for the birth of his child only a few days prior and not having adequate prep time for the game, and no Matteo Guendouzi or Mesut Ozil once again.
Arsenal came out of the gates in a lively manner with a bit of confidence going forward and Tierney and Bellerin looking to attack in the wings and supply some of their attacking energy. However, the wet pitch would take some time to adjust to as play felt a little sloppy at key moments making life difficult for both teams.
As things settled in after the first fifteen minutes passed and teams adjusted to the natural challenges, Arsenal really began to feel dangerous. They weren’t dominating possession, but what they were doing with their possession made it feel like Leicester was incapacitated. First to loose balls, daring passes forward to take chances, whipping in crosses from the wings, and using both channels dynamically would lead to their reward in the 21st minute.
Dani Ceballos, who had another brilliant game, would pick out Bukayo in transition who would make it look all too easy to fake inward and drop his shoulder to leave Evans on the ground. From there it was an impressive grounded cross to Aubameyang for the easy tap in goal. The boy is beginning to really make the game look easy.
Arsenal would continue to have great chances throughout the first half. Lacazette would settle a ball on the penalty spot to set up for one of his Lacazette-esque swivel goals but was denied by a great save from Kasper Schmeichel. Moments later, Hector Bellerin would put a beautiful ball into the box for a diving Lacazette who couldn’t quite angle the ball into the ground and instead put it comfortably into the hands of Schmeichel again.
At the half, Arsenal would have been feeling very confident. With 47% of the ball they had managed 7 shots, 6 on goals, and 7 created chances – something they had struggled to do in past games with their control of the ball. Arsenal again were looking dangerous within their fluid 3-4-3 formation. Another 45 minutes of that level of complete performance Arsenal would leave with their 5th win in a row.
The second half would prove to be a tale of its own. Arsenal would struggle to get on the ball and move it with probing intent, would be denied the fluid movement that saw them create dangerous chances, and stumble when it came to putting the game away with a second goal. It opened the door for the game to be taken out of their control and put in the hands of others.
In the 71st minute, Eddie Nketiah would come on for Lacazette. In the 73rd minute he would mistime a tackle on a bouncing ball and go studs-up into it all. In the 75th minutes, VAR would upgrade the yellow card to a red card sending Nketiah off with zero touches in the game and put Arsenal down a man. It was unlucky, there was no attempt, but I have a tough time arguing against it being a red card. It is very high, it is late, and it is a tackle that can cause a lot of damage.
In the 85th minute, Jamie Vardy would seize one of his few opportunities and level the game on a very nice ball in that split Arsenal’s defending line. There were valiant efforts made by defenders to get something on it, but it was placed perfectly to skip off the turf and evade intervention. Arsenal will feel let down, but with legs trying to get through this compact schedule, two games at 10-men, and another mental blow of being down a player once more – one can empathize with the difficulty of the situation.
The game would end 1-1. Arsenal leaves with a point. But on a night that might feel very frustrating, here are a few thoughts on the game and a few positives.
Fantastic transition play and fluid attacking
While it wasn’t maintained well enough for the full 90 minutes, Arsenal have displayed for fans their ability to use the 3-4-3 formation for rigid defending and great attacking movements. Against Norwich we saw an attack that was devastating and controlled the game. There has been a fear that within this formation, Arsenal would not create enough chances and depend on near-perfect efficiency to finish enough of their chances.
Against Leicester City, one of the Premier League’s top defending sides, Arsenal displayed an attack that was dangerous from both the left and right and a lot of danger in transition from turnovers and recoveries. Moving the ball through the channels to Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney to whip in balls and cause moments of panicky defending was a staple of evening but there was more to it. On multiple occasions, the attack would start on the left side with Kolasinac, Tierney or Granit Xhaka and fluidly be funneled to the right for Bellerin to create the chance with a cross.
Rather than being entirely concentrated on individual sides of the field like we have seen in the past, Arsenal used the full width of the pitch to their advantage. A lot of this success was enabled through impressive holdup play and distribution of central striker Lacazette, who has struggled this year to consistently distribute with his back to the goal. Last night, the ball movement through the lines was present, rather than long balls skipping the midfield, and it made life for Leicester difficult. At times they were unable to keep up with the side to side shift which allowed Arsenal to pick and choose which channel to attack down – right, left, or center.
While the finishing of these chances wasn’t there, which is an aspect critics have held against this team all season, the dynamic attacking and quick transitioning is a sign of progress from Mikel Arteta and Arsenal as they look to make something of the quality they have.
One individual has been a difference maker in the last three games and its come in a position that has been missing from the equation all year. Dani Ceballos has been absolutely fantastic at the job he has been given and while I left him out of the previous thought around fluid attacking, that would have been impossible without him.
With 71 touches, 11 recoveries, 3 interceptions, 2 key passes, and the ball that unlocked Bukayo Saka’s eventual assist he was outstanding up and down the pitch. When asked to make a tackle he was getting stuck in, harassing people, he was sliding about and getting himself on loose balls, and doing a lot of the dirty work in the midfield that the silky passer isn’t necessarily known for. By providing this, he was focused, switched on, and noticeably clicked into gear more than the opposition around him.
Against Norwich and last night, he has been the catalyst for attacking movements and quick transitions. By playing in the pivot next to Granit Xhaka, he is receiving the ball facing the game where he is able to take a positive first touch, see everything with ease, and quickly make a decision. In comparison to when he plays the attacking, number 10 role, where he would receive the ball with his back to goal and struggle to turn or combine to make something happen and give himself space.
If he is able to consistently offer his services in the attack with progressive ball carrying and vertical passing or rigid defending in the center when called upon, as we saw in Wolves, he may be the midfielder Arteta hoped he could be when he declared the #8 role a better fit. It’s a shame that it’s coming this late in the season when it feels as though there is little to play for, but it certainly will leave Arsenal with an interesting situation over what to do with his future. While it appears he is set to return to Spain at the end of the year, there is time for things to change. At the very least, it is nice to see his loan spell ending with a flourish as he aids some of Arsenal’s late success.
The tale of two halves
This year, possibly more than ever before, Arsenal have struggled to maintain their success for a complete game. Be it slow starts, none worse than versus Everton, midgame adjustments that they can’t respond to, as we saw against Chelsea in Mikel’s first match against them, or what appears to be a completely different side in the second half versus the first – the inconsistency in performance has been a problem.
Early in his appointment, Arteta alluded to the fact that this could be caused by a lack of fitness meaning they were incapable of playing 90 minutes at the level they wanted and it something that could still be continuing today given the lockdown period, but last night, Arsenal went from being a menacing attacking side to one that couldn’t even retain the ball.
The second half saw Leicester City make no major changes to their game, just tighten up the technical play a bit, and Arsenal lost the aspects that made them dangerous. They were sloppy in possession, lost some of their daring flare, and with it went their confidence. Certainly, the red card shifted the game completely, but the truth is Arsenal weren’t that in control of the second half before that point either.
Arsenal were defending well and Emi Martinez was only force to make one or two good saves, but the major switch in control is a continued trend in inconsistency. It’s a trend that Arteta will need to stop during the offseason when he can begin to piece together a semblance of the team he wants.
In the end, it’s a point. It’s disappointing, it doesn’t feel like a good point because of the fashion in how it was gained – or lost – but it’s a point that keeps Arsenal in contention for a spot in the Europa League. Next up is a huge north London derby with a lot at stake beyond pride.
Arteta’s first matchup with Spurs as a manager and with the added Mourinho element this could be interesting!