16 Conclusions: Arsenal 2-1 Leicester

Date published: Sunday 14th February 2016 4:43

Arsenal

* Premier League title races may develop over nine months, 380 matches and a million different actions and inactions, but they turn on individual moments. These are seconds that cause the destination of the trophy to shift seismically, as if the earth itself is moving. 

In the last second of the last minute at the Emirates, Danny Welbeck provided one such moment. It was not quite “Aguerrrooooo” and all that followed, but could be just as decisive. From a five-point gap at the top, Leicester now have just two. From frustration, disappointment and despair, Arsenal now have hope. When it mattered most, Welbeck really was Dat Guy.

 

* Too many of the matches between the division’s supposed top sides this season have been dour, unremarkable affairs. This was the perfect antidote. Leicester scoring first made for an absorbing second half, coming after the visitors had survived an early onslaught. The last half hour was the most enthralling extended version of attack vs defence that this Premier League season has witnessed.

Leicester’s defending was heroic, but they were beaten at the death. It’s impossible not to wonder what this will do for their confidence, given the circumstances. Having extracted so much fight, energy and belief from his band of merry men, Claudio Ranieri has to do it all again. The players must realise that they are still the Premier League leaders, but in that last four minutes of injury time they must have tasted the champagne.

 

* I’m struggling to remember a time when a player was less deserving of being on the losing side than N’Golo Kante against Arsenal. He was supreme.

‘Arsenal vs Leicester shaping up as transfer ‘audition’ for Foxes midfielder N’Golo Kante,’ read the Mirror Football headline before the game. If that’s the case, Wenger will be spotted wheeling sack loads of cash towards Leicester on Sunday evening.

Kante didn’t so much perform the job of a midfielder, but performed the job of an entire midfield. He had as many shots as any other Leicester player, only one made more passes, only one had more touches, one won more tackles, one won more interceptions and none won possession more times.

Yet it is Kante’s stamina which is most impressive. Five seconds after helping to clear the ball and he’s up supporting the attack, five seconds later and he’s sprinting back to help out his defenders. He sprinted 66 times in 90 minutes against Arsenal, seven more than Jamie Vardy and 17 more than any other Leicester player. While Vardy gets regular rest when the ball is near Leicester’s goal, Kante does not. He is Leicester’s Duracell bunny, but with added steel.

“People make the mistake of thinking that he’s a defensive midfielder,” said Jamie Carragher at half-time. “But he’s not. He’s like Steven Gerrard or Roy Keane, in that he can do it all and cover every blade of grass.”

You won’t find me disagreeing.

 

* Arsenal fans don’t need any further evidence of Petr Cech’s brilliance, but his save from Vardy’s header was superb. On first viewing it looked regulation, but the difficulty of a 6’5” goalkeeper getting down so low from a header from such close range cannot be overstated.

Making the save was only part of the job, with Cech’s task completed by his ability to hold onto the ball with Vardy ready to pounce. These are exactly the type of chances from which you can imagine Wojciech Szczesny or Lukasz Fabianski conceding.

That said, Vardy will be disappointed not to have scored. Having easily out-jumped Hector Bellerin, any header across goal would surely have resulted in Leicester taking the lead.

 

* It really can’t be much fun being an assistant referee. With every decision available on slow-motion replay to all but the officials themselves within a matter of seconds, your entire reputation is regularly reviewed during high-profile matches.

When Olivier Giroud’s first-half header was ruled out for offside, the striker looked in disbelief at Mike Mullarkey. Alan Smith on commentary raised his suspicions of an incorrect call. In fact, it was a wonderful piece of judgement. Giroud was 30cm in front of the last man.

Strikers miss chances. Goalkeepers drop crosses. Wingers shank crosses out of play. Every bloody player in the league hits the first man with a corner. Full-backs get caught out of position. Officials get things wrong.

Not only does it feel like the last group in that list get criticised for their mistakes more than the rest, they are praised less enthusiastically for their fine work. Oh, and they’re paid a fraction of the wage too.

 

* It’s an underrated talent, the ability to get your body in the way of a ball being whacked full-pelt at your goal. Let’s call it ‘doing a John Terry’, without the negative connotations that phrase could suggest. Wes Morgan is better at it than most.

Morgan’s moment came after 25 minutes, when the ball was pulled back for Alexis Sanchez to strike. With Kasper Schmeichel looking exposed, it was Morgan who blocked the shot for the 27th time in the Premier League this season. Only Ashley Williams, Fabricio Coloccini and Scott Dann have done so on more occasions.

“You’ll never beat Wes Morgan,” Nottingham Forest fans used to chant at the central defender. It’s certainly difficult to get it past him.

 

* The return of Francis Coquelin to Arsenal’s side was met with a huge “phew” from supporters, but he was given a mighty tough task by his manager.

“Coquelin’s return is good because we know about Leicester on the counter attack,” said Wenger before the game. Yes Arsene, but he doesn’t really want to have to do it all by himself. Odds on a booking for the Frenchman at 9/4 looked bloody great.

Leicester’s strategy isn’t rocket science. Arsenal will have seen Manchester City fall into the trap of pushing up their full-backs and then getting caught on the break, so Nacho Monreal and Bellerin needed discipline. Either they had to push forward one at a time, or not at all. Monreal in particular had to be careful, with Mahrez operating from the right wing.

Arsenal’s full-backs did not over-commit much in the first half, but the first time Monreal was caught out of position, Coquelin was the natural fall guy: Yellow card. 

 

* Before we get to the penalty incident itself, let’s sort out a few things:

1) Morgan fouled Mesut Ozil. The defender tried to win the ball in the air, climbed all over his opponent (who was not backing in) and didn’t make contact with it. Referee Martin Atkinson did not play advantage but instead ruled it was a fair challenge. That was incorrect.

2) That foul was not the reason that Arsenal conceded. The ball was 100 yards from goal when the incident occurred, and Arsenal actually touched the ball again in Leicester’s half. They were undone by failing to react quickly enough to the counter-attack that ensued, with three Leicester players streaming forward, and some awful defending.

3) The foul from Laurent Koscielny – and subsequent fall from Kante – was almost cartoon-esque. Koscielny earns a standing ovation for the most obvious cynical foul possible, yet still managing not to break up the counter-attack.

 

* See now this is why refereeing is hard:

Now for my turn: I don’t think it is a penalty. I get that there is no law which says a striker must not evade the leg of a defender, but neither is there a law which says a striker should generate contact. I believe that Vardy did exactly that.

That said, it was still very poor defending from Monreal to commit himself in the area. All together now: You made the referee make a decision.

It’s also worth pointing out, via the lovely Opta, that Vardy has now won more penalties this season than every other Premier League team. Coincidence? Maybe.

 

* Danny Simpson may well consider himself unfortunate to be sent off – and the “the ref’s just evening things up” conspiracy claims begin, but you have to be pretty dim to pull back the shirt of an opposition striker when you’ve just been booked. I have very little patience for dimness.

Also, this is completely unacceptable: 

 

* The sending-off gave Arsenal ample time to turn the scoreline around. With half an hour left they didn’t need to panic, but instead make the most of the advantage with quick passing and overlapping runs. Yet panic was exactly what Wenger’s side did. Rather than exploit space, they dived into tackles and crossed the ball into the box from deep as if there were five minutes remaining.

It was Leicester that needed to change to a Plan B, not Arsenal. It led to Coquelin’s eventual substitution, with the Frenchman close to getting himself sent off. Those calls for a new central midfielder in the summer aren’t going to go away. And no, I haven’t forgotten about Mohamed Elneny.

 

* When the equaliser finally came, it was via Coquelin’s replacement Theo Walcott. Giroud, who had until that point cut his customary big-game frustrated figure, found Walcott with a delightful header in the area. He swept home with ease.

It’s not nice to dwell on mistakes, but Leicester substitute Demarai Gray played his own part in the goal. The youngster was flat-footed in the area as his man ran in unchecked to equalise. It’s hard to criticise a 19-year-old new signing for making an error so soon after coming on, but one wonders why Ranieri chose to remove Shinji Okazaki, such a hard-working player, in Gray’s stead.

 

* Having been reduced to ten men, Leicester were incredibly fortunate not to have Danny Drinkwater sent off 15 minutes later for a horrendous challenge on Aaron Ramsey. Fortunately the Welshman was not badly hurt, but his fervent appeals to referee Atkinson were understandable given his injury history. Drinkwater’s tackle was wild and lunging, and connected with Ramsey’s leg above the shinpad.

Leicester’s midfielder could be in line for further punishment, given that the tackle was not even punished at all. There might be an unwelcome letter landing on the mat at the King Power Stadium in the coming days.

 

* It might be hyper-critical, and if Leicester had held out for a point then this would have fallen on deaf ears, but it was both surprising and disappointing to see Ranieri take off Riyad Mahrez so soon after the red card.

Mahrez might not be the hardest worker in Leicester’s team, but he is their outlet. The Algerian is capable of travelling 50 yards with the ball and buying his team time. After his withdrawal, the ball was sent long to a willing but isolated Vardy, allowing Arsenal to lay siege.

The substitution looked more odd after Okazaki was taken off for Gray, the youngster far closer in style to Mahrez than the Japanese. In that case, why not just leave things as they were?

 

* Then, just as Arsenal supporters were losing their faith, up popped Welbeck to do his thing. As the ball hit the net, I was typing something about broken records, clinical strikers and Arsenal walking this title race. Welbeck may not be that forward, but he took his opportunity when it mattered most.

Until then, it looked like another Monaco-esque show from Arsenal in the final third, misplaced shots and a ‘just not quite’ afternoon for Giroud. He had seven shots, but only one produced a save of note from Schmeichel.

Elsewhere, Ramsey’s shooting continues to frustrate, with neither Ozil nor Sanchez on song. It was Walcott and Welbeck, Arsenal’s English ‘double U’ double act, who changed the game. One was direct and dangerous, the other finished his big chance.

Don’t underestimate how impressive it is for Welbeck to have entered such frantic fray on his return to first-team action after ten months out of the game. Rather than the final stages passing him by in a blur, he made himself the centre of attention. For those who eternally doubt Welbeck, that’s why Roy Hodgson is a fan. It’s Valentine’s Day and we’re still in love.

 

* We must beware hyperbole. Arsenal’s next five away assignments are Manchester United, Tottenham, Barcelona, Everton and West Ham. It will be during those matches that their season may well be defined. But, crucially, they still have a chance.

At 1.30pm, Arsenal were third in the Premier League, as close in points to West Ham in seventh as Leicester at the top. Now they are two points from the summit, and the new title favourites. There will be twists and turns ahead, but Arsenal fans still have more hope than disappointment.

For Leicester, only thoughts of what could have been. Ranieri’s players will be given a week off without FA Cup duties next weekend, while he will go to Rome. The perfect time for recuperation, reflection and re-energisation before a run of ‘gentler’ fixtures. Six points from Liverpool, City and Arsenal? It’s hardly a disaster.

 

Daniel Storey

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