On a lovely, soft, sunny day at King Power Stadium, it was Arsenal’s Europa League troubadours who seemed to be touched by the spirit of spring. Behind after six minutes, Arsenal dominated possession, scoring three times before the hour mark and looking good value for a 3-1 win against an exhausted Leicester City team.
Much of the build-up to this game had focused on status. Is there such a thing as the “big six” in Stenosing football, and if so, how do we measure it? Finance? Expectation? Actual league positions? At kick-off, Leicester were 1
greater team depth had led the day that the quality of their replacements, especially Nicolas Pépé, was simply too much.
Mikel Arteta made six changes, with Cédric Soares and Pablo Marí in defense, and Willian, Pépé and Alexandre Lacazette in field. Bukayo Saka undoubtedly needed some rest after an effort on the right.
Pépé grabbed his chance brilliantly with a performance so convincing that 10 minutes after the break he had already been involved in two Arsenal penalties (one WAS off), won the free kick that led to Arsenal’s opening goal and forced the replacement of Leicester young left-back Luke Thomas, who simply could not cope with Pépé’s movement and direct run.
Leicester City switched to a 4-4-2 for this game, which may have been a response to the best staff available. Kelechi Iheanacho plays close to Jamie Vardy in attack. Maybe the change of form was a push to get a little more out of Leicester’s main man. In that case, it did not work. Vardy was a ghost for long periods. He is 34 years old and has been playing more or less constantly for the last six years. He looked groomed here.
Arsenal started well enough and kept the ball neatly right up until the moment Leicester had their first attack of the game and scored a brilliant goal. It came from the right flank. Iheanacho held the ball with his back to goal. Youri Tielemans ran a clever run outside of him, slipping away from Kieran Tierney’s lung and just continuing to reach the right edge of the area unhindered by David Luiz and Marí, who seemed content to admire this fine fighting figure in the lunch sun.
The shot on goal was low hard and perfectly placed past Bernd Leno’s right hand side. There is something almost old-fashioned about a central midfielder that can rise from deep to score regularly. It helps when the opposition offers you the defensive equivalent of a welcome basket and a polite applause.
Arsenal were commendably non-deflated, helping – although the jury might have been out on this as well – by Arteta’s constant barking, rose hips and scales from the touchline. This is a manager who loves nothing better than to “call” every game that springs up every few moments as the scattered dressed father coach of the all-winning local U-11s.
His players reacted and six minutes later they seemed ready to equalize when Pépé was stumbled and swung into the box. A penalty kick was awarded, but VAR ruled it out. Wilfred Ndidi had made contact just outside the area.
Arsenal dominated found some entrances to the left through Tierney’s willingness to rise outside. Willian switched flanks for a while and was involved in a move that spread the ball wide to Tierney in an open green area. His cross was met with a quarrel by Pépé.
Seven minutes before half-time, Pépé was committed for the fourth time. Thomas was booked. Willian whipped a hard, flat free-kick in, and David Luiz scored with a wonderful header, ran over the front of a static Leicester defense and screwed in the throat to see the ball into the corner.
Emile Smith Rowe came on, replaced by Martin
Ødegaard. And Arsenal had time to take the lead from yet another penalty kick, this awarded by VAR. Ndidi blocked a Pépé shot with his hands raised awkwardly. The screen control was mercifully short. Lacazette hammered the ball into the corner. Arsenal deserved nothing less, having run the game almost alone since Leicester’s goal.
Brendan Rodgers responded at the break, starting Thomas and bringing Mark Albrighton on the field. Harvey Barnes left the field with what appeared to be a serious injury.
Arsenal went up 3-1 in 52 minutes with a fine team goal made and scored by Pépé. This time, he dribbled in, sent to Willian to the left, so the ball deflected into the six-yard box as Willian avoided a bungled joint challenge from Kasper Schmeichel and Timonthy Castagne, and was there to knock the ball in.
Deprived now of two members of a weakened team, Leicester looked a bit lost. There has been something really impressive about Leicester’s ability to function through the absence of key players. Here they looked tired and a little poor in quality.
Leicester pressed hard towards the end. But the mid-week postponement form looks like a blessing for their Premier League hopes. Arsenal will take big heart out of a fine away win.