The day that Arsenal were forced to make changes to their lineup was always fast approaching. In fact, Arteta had done just about everything he could to prolong the day as much as possible. But with progression achieved during the week and a second straight, three day turnaround, six changes were made from the side used against Benfica.
You would be forgiven for having your confidence in the affair plummet when lineups were released. Six changes, the removal of key figures within Arsenal’s squad, and the addition of a few consistently, underperforming suspects. After all, Arteta hasn’t been rewarded all that often this season when he rotates the squad and puts the keys to the team in others’ hands.
You’d be exonerated if those fears lead you to lose any remaining hope in the 6th minute when this rag tag team conceded a goal to Leicester City in such a terrible fashion. It was the exact type of goal that Leicester looks to create for themselves. Willian stitched Xhaka up by playing the ball back to him with Leicester City’s press bearing down, Xhaka can’t make amends and tries to give it back which created the opportunity for Leicester to win the ball Tielemans to receive it in space, sprinting toward Arsenal’s goal alone.
Pablo Mari really didn’t cover himself in glory as he continued to backpedal away from Tielemans up until the moment Tielemans was burying his shot past Leno. Unsure of what Mari believed his play was, but I don’t imagine he will get much praise from the coaching staff when they look back at it during the week.
Arsenal were down early, again. They had their two recent star players sidelined and they had just conceded a goal in the exact fashion Leicester have looked to create for themselves all year. The Premier League isn’t the top priority with Olympiacos on the horizon and a loss here would simply make that a matter of fact rather than speculation. There was all the reason in the world to roll over and idly wilt their way through a match.
At the twenty minute mark, the match was hard to read. Arsenal had dominated possession, but hadn’t registered a single shot. It was the type of game Leicester is content within, and one that Arsenal are all too familiar with the struggles of. Faced with adversity, Arsenal registered two shots between the 25th minute and 30th minute, suddenly there were glimpses of where the end product may come from.
Arsenal’s wingers were immense and it started with the play of Nicolas Pepe. Dashing runs, twinkling dribbles, direct, and devastating. In the prematch blog I speculated that Pepe would be used on the right side because it would be Soares behind him looking to overlap, not underlap that would allow him to be dangerous. Arteta had the same idea and it came off perfectly.
With Soares drawing defenders away and clearly space for Pepe, the Ivorian could face up against Leicester City’s inexperienced defender Thomas and run at him. The work didn’t come without it’s price as Pepe took a hammering. He was fouled five times in the first half, all in dangerous areas. On the back of one of those fouls, Willian and Luiz would team up to level the score and put Arsenal’s momentum in motion. A well-worked set piece straight off the practice ground saw Luiz in space and capitalizing with a diving header.
The response wasn’t finished there as Arsenal put themselves ahead just before half time. A clear handball, a five minute VAR check, and a well slotted penalty from Lacazette assure that. It was a breath of fresh air to see Arsenal on the scoring end of goals right before half time. The closing minutes of both halves have not been fruitful for the Gunners but today’s goal makes two goals in the final 10 minutes of halves in the last two games. Maybe fortune, maybe something a team is bound to get during the season, but also a potential sign of increased drive and mental acuity in closing stretches.
Up 2-1, Arsenal would look to start the second half with a bang by creating a goal that should bring a smile to just about every Gooner’s face. In the 52nd minute, Lacazette tussled with multiple Leeds defenders producing a loose ball for Granit Xhaka to pounce on and spur on the attack. Breaking at pace, he feeds Pepe in space. From there it’s a smooth piece of attacking football including a wonderfully deft touch from Martin Ødegaard to split the defense and find Willian. Willian won’t get to register an assist as his ball ricochets off a few Foxes on the way in, but the move is capped off with an easy tap in from Pepe to finish his third-man run.
On a day where most people had doubts of what the sum of the lineup could produce together, doubts in a few of the figures and pairings in the lineup, and concerns that Arteta had gone too far in his Europa League prioritization, this rotated squad demonstrated for all what they are capable of. A win against a top four Premier League side, a wonderful performance, a great response to early adversity, and a clear set of tactics and instructions for the team to succeed.
While some matches have left you feeling like the win was produced by the brilliance of players like Saka or Aubameyang, this win felt like the team putting on a performance. Players making pitches to the manager and fanbase that they deserve a look in at the Europa League and that this Arsenal team may not be down and out on the season.
Pepe and Willian will have stolen the show with their play from the wings, but that can’t take away from the others that tactically allow them to flourish. The play of the center back pairing encapsulated by Mari sticking stride for stride with Vardy in space, the good second half from the midfield pivot, the willingness from Elneny to shift right and cover against transition for Soares and Pepe. I gave Arteta some criticism for the second Benfica leg. I didn’t feel like his tactics influenced the match enough, nor were the tweaks he made sufficient example of him learning from the recent past. Leicester was a perfect example of what people are looking to Arteta to supply every game.
He was spot on, the team was sharp, and the result keeps Arsenal’s hopes alive in two competitions. Their fate in the league is completely out of their hands, but they can do themselves a lot of favors by continuing to put on performances like that one. A fantastic response from those that haven’t gotten the most minutes this season bodes well for the coming weeks.