Arsenal fans could have been forgiven for approaching their Premier League clash against Leicester City with pessimism, despite seeing their side secure an impressive win against Benfica to progress in the Europa League.
The spirits of unexpectant supporters, ready for a rollicking from a well-oiled Leicester machine, were not eased upon the release of the team sheets. A midfield pivot of Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny looked to be too cautious, whilst the decision by Mikel Arteta to start Willian on the wing over Gabriel Martinelli further raised eyebrows.
When Youri Tielemans drove an effort into the far corner to put the Foxes ahead after seven minutes, a sense of inevitability hung in the air. It has been symptomatic of Arsenal this season that they splutter to a stop on the back of achieving a solid win, particularly against sides from the Midlands.
Yet on Sunday, something strange happened.
Coming from behind, Arsenal rallied, with the performances of much-maligned senior players proving crucial as they steered the Gunners to victory at the King Power.
After setting up Kieran Tierney’s winner in the week, Willian was influential again, producing his best performance for the club since his opening day debut at Fulham. It was his
well-executed free kick, whipped flat in front of the Leicester defence, that allowed David Luiz to head home. After Alexandre Lacazette’s penalty gave Arsenal a half-time lead, Willian was again involved for the third goal, having the presence of mind to keep ball alive and in play for Nicolas Pepe to tap into an empty net.
Pepe himself has struggled to nail down a starting spot under Arteta, the emergence of Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith-Rowe and Martin Odegaard pushing Arsenal’s record signing down the pecking order. However, with rotation of those youngsters necessary amidst a gruelling schedule, the Ivorian played a prominent role. Challenged by his manager to contribute more consistently, Pepe has delivered, scoring four times in his last seven league matches. He also benefitted from consistent service in the first half, touching the ball 25 times in the first half alone, drawing five fouls in the process.
Having struggled to get out of first gear in the early part of the season, Arsenal’s attack is accelerating not just in the player’s speed of movement, such as Cedric’s lung-busting run that created space on the other flank for Pepe’s goal, but also in terms of their efficiency. Arteta has repeatedly hammered home the importance of being clinical to his players, who have sharpened their previously blunt attacking instincts.
In their last two matches, Arsenal have scored six goals from nine shots on target. Although goals came from the penalty spot and an unmissable chance versus Leicester, 22 shots in two outings for the Gunners highlights that a rapport is being developed when it comes to precise patterns of play in the final third.
Granit Xhaka was key to this, electing to play a pass that would help progress a move forward. The Swiss international often chooses to go for the safer option of passing laterally or backwards but he demonstrated distribution of great quality to set Arsenal on their way. In the same way Dani Ceballos did in both legs against Benfica, purposeful forward passing from Xhaka allowed Arsenal to exploit spaces in attacking areas more frequently. Although there is a perception that Xhaka stifles attacks, the Swiss showed he is an important initiator in getting Arsenal to advance.
Experience also played its part in keeping Jamie Vardy as quiet as a mute mouse, with David Luiz closely marshalling the Foxes marksman throughout. His defensive partner Pablo Mari was also able to keep Vardy quiet. The Spaniard’s fleetness of foot to beat the striker in a one-on-sprint marked the best of several good moments for Mari in what was an impressive display.
Victory against high-flying Leicester also marked a small milestone for Arsenal as it was their first away win against a team starting a day in the top three of the Premier League since that 2-0 win at Manchester City in January 2015. But the reality is that does not earn any extra points.
What matters most is that Arteta uses this win, which he achieved after naming a
much changed lineup, as a springboard for a set of consecutive victories in the league, something that he has struggled to do since taking charge.
It won’t be straightforward, with West Ham, Tottenham and Liverpool to face in the coming weeks, but the performance against Leicester serves as an example that it can be done without a dependence upon youth, the old heads showing that they are useful too.
Zac CampbellFollow @ZPRCampbell