I so much more enjoy writing a post match review after a victory. Monday mornings become so much more palatable!
So it is that we all get to start this working week with the sweet smell of victory metaphorically permeating our nostrils this morning, having gone to Leicester and delivered an impressive performance against a team whose motivation was to be able to go second if they’d have beaten us on their own patch.
I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t think that we’d get anything from the game yesterday. In fact as soon as the teams were announced an hour before kick off, I said to myself out loud in my house “I’d be happy with a draw to be honest with you”. Mikel made a fair few changes with Cedric, Pablo Mari, Elneny, Pepe, Willian and Lacazette all coming in for players who had clearly exerted themselves quite significantly against Benfica the Thursday before. We’ve seen for a while now how the midfield of Xhaka and Elneny doesn’t really work and we all know what Willian has delivered in an Arsenal shirt up until now: pretty much naff all. So when seven minutes in Willian and Xhaka misplaced an exchange of passes with each other that allowed Tielemens to bear down on goal and put Leicester one up within the first 10 minutes of the match, I don’t think many of us thought we’d stand much chance in getting anything from the game. To be fair to Xhaka and Willian, Elneny and Pablo Mari must also take a large chunk of the blame for the goal. Both backed off and backed off and basically allowed him a free run into the box. It was schoolboy defending. Kind of like when you’re playing Fifa and you switch from one player to the other, but the player you switch to isn’t the one you thought and so you end up running in the wrong direction and opening up space. It was the worst possible start and once again we weren’t switched on from the first opening 10 minutes of a game.
But that is where any negativity on the blog finishes for today, because the response from the Arsenal players was exactly what you want to see. We’ve really struggled all season with turning defeats in to wins and have rarely come from behind to win football matches. But straight after the goal we started to control the game. We had more possession, we looked more composed on the ball and whilst there were stray passes everywhere on the pitch from both sides, it was us who were moving the ball quicker. I also liked our intensity; the likes of Cedric were pressing and harrying the Leicester players and we managed to force turnovers of the ball all over the pitch. But mainly in the middle and our attacking third. Leicester just couldn’t get going in our defensive third and I’m sure BT flashed up a stat in the second half which said that they had only had fives passes in the final third in the first half. We made a mistake for the first goal but thereafter all of our back line were solid enough.
I also want to have a shout out to Cedric and Pepe actually, because both worked well and Nicolas Pepe was one of the stand out performers on the right hand side. Cedric is a right back who is far more comfortable going on the overlap and that meant that Pepe had space to come in from the right hand side. It was the Ivorian who even got what we thought was our first key moment when he jinked in between two Leicester players and was brought down on the edge/inside the box. VAR got the right decision in the end and there was no penalty, but it was telling that we seemed to have a lot of fouls on that right hand side, because Pepe had the beating of his man every time.
And it was one of those fouls in which we scored. Pepe fouled again by the left back, but it was Willian who would finally rack up an assist and a bit of end product. His ball to Luiz was good but it was the defender who made the goal with a good run and great header. 1-1, back on level terms and deservedly so.
From there we started to really assert our dominance. On the left hand side Willian seemed to have suddenly found a burst of speed from somewhere. He was lively, energetic, closed down space and even was able to beat a man on the 1-v-1 for a change. He was even involved in the excellent third goal in which Pepe tapped in, but we’ll come to that in a minute. Before then we had to take the lead before halftime and I guess ultimately it was good that VAR was actually looked at eventually after Ndidi had clearly handled the ball inside the penalty area. Quite why referee Paul Tierney didn’t see that in real time is a little worrying, but I guess the end result was the same whether by VAR or in real time and ultimately you want the right decision to be reached in that scenario. Lacazette puts away the penalty and at halftime I’m wondering just how much of a battering we are due to have from Leicester.
But it never really came. They looked leggy and maybe their midweek exit was playing on their mind a little bit? But we continued the good football by winning more ball in the middle and final third and got the extra goal cushion that our play warranted. It came from a turnover in possession and from Arsenal breaking on Leicester with numbers and bodies. Pepe, Odegaard, Willian and Lacazette were all arriving in the box and each had a little part to play to give Pepe the tap in, but for me what was most pleasing was the rapid pace at which we committed bodies forward. When you get men into dangerous positions you increase your chances of scoring. It really is that easy and was great to see.
The only ‘not great’ element of the game – the opening goal aside – was that of ESR going off injured. Mikel seemed to suggest that they took him off as a bit of a precaution and so my hope is that it isn’t anything long term. Whilst he wasn’t at his sparkling best yesterday, he still provides a threat and is an important player for us. Odegaard did really well when he came on but we want both options in the team.
I still think that any kind of meaningful position in the league is probably beyond us, but this victory feels big because of the nature of the opponent and also the fact that we want to build momentum as we get to what they call the ‘business’ end of the season. That’s what I’m looking at more than anything else and if we can have a week of rest and with Mikel getting those players on the training ground to prepare for Burnley, then that’s grand, because if we can also win away there then we’ll start looking at the North London Derby and the upcoming Europa League games as a team in form.
That’s it from me today. Back tomorrow with some more musings. Catch you then.