I’m sure the Arsenal fan in all of us thought, “here we go again” when the Gunners gave up a comically poor goal to Leicester City six minutes into the match. We’d all seen this movie countless times before, and none of us liked it any of the dozens of times before.
But the Gunners flipped the script. They battled back. And really, they thoroughly outplayed Leicester City en route to a comfortable 3-1 win. The Foxes were dire today, and Arsenal were quite good. And regardless of how Leicester played, it’s extremely encouraging that Mikel Arteta was able to rotate the side and pick up three points. With everyone healthy, Arsenal are actually a decently deep club, especially in attack.
Looking across the field, I’m sure that the “here we go again” feeling is pulsating through that Leicester locker room and fanbase right now. Leicester, historically, have not been good down the stretch, nor have Brendan Rodgers-coached teams closed out seasons particularly well. Their thin, under-rotated side tends to pick up untimely injuries as the season wears on, and they are definitely in the throes of that right now. Both Harvey Barnes and Jonny Evans left today’s match with injuries, and unfortunately, Barnes’ looked serious.
Contrast that injury-riddled, leggy-looking side with the heavily-rotated Arsenal side deployed by Mikel Arteta. When you look at it that way, Arsenal’s dominance today makes sense. The only downside on the day with Emile Smith Rowe being forced off in the first half with (maybe) a groin injury.
The Gunners left it somewhat late in the first half to actually erase the deficit, but David Luiz’s goal to even the score felt a long time coming. Arsenal had been knocking on the door for a while before putting one home. The goal was a good one — it came from a well-designed set piece that had David Luiz loop around a block of players to get free for a diving header into the corner. The Gunners went ahead a few minutes later when Alexandre Lacazette converted one of the clearest, without-a-doubt penalty kicks you’ll ever see given. In very un-Arsenal manner, the Gunners salted the match away early in the second half on a perfectly executed counter-attack with a lovely pass from Martin Ødegaard, a Willian un-assist, and Nicolas Pépé putting it away.
Speaking of Willian and Pépé, the pair were Arsenal’s best players on the day. For the first time since the Fulham match to open the season, Willian looked like the dangerous creative threat Arsenal thought they were getting when they signed him from Chelsea. Mikel Arteta backed him to “flip the switch” after assisting against Benfica and has been saying all along that Willian just lacked confidence. Maybe he was right! Let’s hope Willian keeps improving his form.
And man, what a day from Nicolas Pépé. The Ivorian was unmarkable. He almost earned a penalty (that had to be VAR’ed to a free kick just outside the area), earned the free kick for the first goal, took the shot that earned the penalty, and scored a goal, too. He beat Luke Thomas down the right so many times in the first half that Brendan Rodgers had to make a halftime change. As I tweeted during the match, it was very much a “hey Mikel, why did you drop me in the first place” performance from Pépé. He’d been playing really well before Mikel Arteta went to the Smith Rowe-Ødegaard-Saka midfielder, and I don’t see how Arteta can drop him after today’s performance. Depending on the severity of ESR’s injury, Mikel Arteta might be spared that decision.
Arsenal needed this one today. They’ve been playing significantly better since Boxing Day, but the results had slipped in their last few Premier League matches. Getting three points keeps them in touching distance of a Europa League place. They’ve got almost no room for error given the gap, the number of teams ahead of them, and games in hand, but they aren’t out of it yet. All they can do is put together a run of form and hope some other sides falter. But if they do string some wins together, I’ve got a gut feeling they’ll end up back in the EL next season.