Arsenal were held to a 1-1 draw by an adamant Leicester City at the Emirates on a wet Wednesday evening. Aubameyang opened the scoring for the hosts while Jamie Vardy equalised for the Foxes after Eddie Nketiah received a red card for a challenge on James Justin.
Arsenal Line-up Against Leicester City: Martinez; Mustafi, Luiz, Kolasinac, Bellerin; Ceballos, Xhaka, Tierney, Saka, Aubameyang; Lacazette.
Arsenal had to deliver a performance against Leicester City, but they didn’t necessarily need to put on a show. It was all about the points and for the Gunners, there was so much more at stake with Leicester merely looking to hold onto a respectable third place.
Arsenal had managed to fritter away points and gift goals for the majority of the season and at this stage of the campaign, every point was crucial with every fixture looking like a cup final.
Supporters would even cheer an ugly win if it meant that they traveled to White Hart Lane on Sunday with form on their side and a point’s advantage in the bag. Arsenal used to specialise in ugly wins under George Graham wherever necessary, and an updated Arteta version would be gratefully received under the circumstances.
Brendan Rogers and Jamie Vardy were out to put a dampener on that ambition by just being the usual Leicester, full of running, flooding the Arsenal half, and getting behind the defence. Arsenal were prepared for that, it was just a question of whether they could rise to the challenge of lofted balls forward into the danger areas.
It’s not that Leicester can’t play, they can. They aren’t just a punt and rush side, you don’t get to be third in the table by doing that! From the opening minute, the Foxes set about Arsenal but the Gunners kept there shape with just the odd glitch, they started to press in a fairly evenly matched game on the whole.
Arsenal kept up the heat with Bellerin and Tierney raiding the channels and opening up pockets of space which put pressure on their back three. Then, Ceballos made the breakthrough by cutting the Leicester defence in half with a beautifully weighted precision pass to Saka who raced forward to collect. The 18-year old managed to shuffle the ball from his left foot to his right before delivering it on a plate for Aubameyang to thump past Schmeichel (21).
Arsenal then put the squeeze on their opponents with Leicester City completely bamboozled by the three strikers, all of whom presented Brendan Rogers’ team with different problems. Saka had limitless energy and ambition on the right, Lacazette posed a twisting and turning threat in the middle of the strike line and Aubameyang was the unstoppable force that could break free at any moment.
The Arsenal vs Leicester City game had become an intriguing battle, but one which I fancied Arsenal to narrowly win. However, there were two key incidents apart from Leicester’s two disallowed goals that would provide endless conversation and discussions for weeks to come.
After 45 minutes, there was an incident where Vardy clashed with Mustafi. As they fell, Vardy’s foot contacted with Mustafi’s right cheek. To me, it looked like a straight red. It wasn’t. You can’t prove intent, ask Nketiah. We’ll come to that later but under the FA rules:
“Violent conduct is when a player uses or attempts to use excessive force or brutality against an opponent when not challenging for the ball, or against a team-mate, team official, match official, spectator or any other person, regardless of whether contact is made.”
How about two stud holes in a player’s face? Replays make it harder sometimes to decide what happened but after countless replays, I felt the way that he fell and the way his leg hung out were enough to at least merit a little more investigation from VAR and the ref. At this point, we’ll pause for reflection.
In the second half, Leicester City came out with purpose while Arsenal looked as if they needed another 5 minutes in the dressing room. Arsenal spent a lot of time chasing shadows as the away side slid the ball around the pitch and every time they went forward, Vardy could be seen going from 0-60. Arsenal needed to shut him down!
Then the second incident (73), Nketiah replaced Lacazette and within minutes, he went for a loose ball that pinged off the wet surface around the centre-circle. The youngster extended his leg, the ball disappeared and he caught Justin around shin height. It’s was an attempt at interception, by an inexperienced player, who wanted to put his mark on the game.
It was woefully mistimed but far from malicious. Out came a yellow card but then, VAR got involved by replaying it over and over. The ref then viewed the incident on the monitor pitchside and it felt inevitable that he would leave the field of play.
So, the interpretation of the laws of the game got Nketiah sent off, but Vardy remained on the pitch to score the equaliser (84), which I felt was a shade offside but with two disallowed goals, could it ever have been anything other than a leveller?
Bitter? Well, yes I am! Arsenal looked reasonably comfortable and but for the sending off and a Bellerin/Mustafi mistake, Arteta’s side were on the verge of a decent win that kept them in contention for a top 5 finish.
The rain that had come down by the bucket full summed up the evening Arsenal were having. They deserved a win with a disciplined and solid and a standout performance from Ceballos, who provided a series of creative flourishes.
On this performance, Real Madrid should be ordering the plane tickets and organising the welcome home party. The pass to Saka was sublime and showed immense vision but, it’s his blossoming partnership with Xhaka that is noteworthy. They compliment each other in different ways, a yin and yang pairing that will probably remain in place for the entire season.
Other Reasons to be Cheerful: Martinez had another outstanding performance and we saw the best version of Bellerin for some time. Tierney is probably the best defender Arsenal have at the moment and he will only get better. The distribution from Luiz was simply astonishing, long or short, it’s in his repertoire.
Negatives: Arsenal were wasteful with their chances and that cost them dearly with Lacazette missing opportunity after opportunity.
When asked on the sending off, Arteta told Sky Sports via Metro:
“The red card, he [Eddie] cannot see the player and didn’t want to hurt anybody. You have to understand he is a young kid.”
“It can be a red card but Leicester have to play for ten men after 42 minutes. For one challenge between the 40 and 45 minutes”
“If we review incidents of that type we review them all. It has to be something equal for everybody because it changes the game for everybody.”