1) These teams have almost swapped identities over the past few weeks. Leicester’s downturn began as far back as December and the gradual effect has been to tarnish the image of a bright young team that will only get better. At the same time, following a run of form which extended to four games unbeaten ahead of kick-off and has depended on the influence of another batch of emerging players, Arsenal have begun to encroach on that same spotlight.
2) There was no James Maddison and, as a result, no useful measure of his influence on this type of stage. Maddison’s a gifted player, with that there’s no argument, but the world is still waiting for a properly authoritative performance in a game of real significance. This might have been a chance to do that, too, with Arsenal’s back three a disparate group of flawed defenders and their central midfield two of Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka looking more viable with the ball than without it.
For Maddison, see Leicester as a team: the debate around their big-game credentials has been chuntering away all season and without both their full-backs and one of their main creative threats, this wasn’t as intriguing a game as it might have been.
3) On that Arsenal midfield, though. Ceballos’s loan may well be extended, but Real Madrid presumably aren’t willing to let him go permanently. On the basis that Lucas Toreira’s chance has been and gone and Matteo Guendouzi won’t be returning from the naughty step, it’s incredibly important that the club is able to complete that deal for Thomas Partey.
At this point, he looks key to the entire Arteta project. It’s also worth stressing that players of his calibre don’t become available very often, and if Arsenal were to hesitate with this negotiation or allow themselves to be gazumped by a rival in need, then that would rate as a significant opportunity missed.
It sounds like Mikel Arteta has had about enough of Matteo Guendouzi. He wouldn’t be the first manager to have lost patience with a player he has inherited.https://t.co/CpuhnwOUcq
— Football365 (@F365) July 7, 2020
4) One of the tasty side dishes of the Bernd Leno incident has been the form of Emi Martinez, who has been quietly excellent since coming into the side. His handling has been dependable and while not required to do anything spectacular, his saves are beginning to accumulate – with that early denial of Wilfred Ndidi now added to the pile.
Still, it was a chance that Ndidi should never have had, with Arsenal being opened up by exactly the same corner routine that befuddled them at Brighton. Did it demonstrate anything that was pertinent to the rest of the game? Probably not, because the match ultimately hinged on the sending-off, but it was a strange little moment which didn’t speak highly of the general organisation at set-pieces.
5) Two points to make on the first goal, the positive first.
Whatever Dani Ceballos’ limitations may be without the ball, the touch he took around Youri Tielemans and the knifing pass he played through the Leicester midfield were both an absolute delight. Well played Bukayo Saka too, for sitting Jonny Evans down and then timing his own pass well for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to score.
There’s been a little bit of an overreaction to that final ball, because it’s one he’d probably be criticised for not playing, but his assist was still a deserved reward for an excellent first half.
Yes, to be fair, Saka has probably been underrated by some of us…
Some really slick stuff from Arsenal in that final 25 minutes. Auba, Lacazette and Saka linking up so well, Ceballos puling the strings behind. Some really exciting combinations. Other than it only being 1-0, Arteta will be delighted with what he saw from his side.
— Charles Watts (@charles_watts) July 7, 2020
6) But, but, but… what has happened to Caglar Soyuncu? The composed central defender of Autumn has steadily become a rash and impulsive mess over the months since, and this was another minor comedy from a player who increasingly looks to have suffered a debilitating trauma.
In the first instance, let’s credit the pass and the run. But had he dropped off Saka, giving himself some margin for error, Soyuncu would have had the security of Evans covering behind. As it was, he took himself out of the game with that rash lunge, exposing his centre-back partner completely and, ultimately, leaving them both to look silly.
It’s bizarre how little attention this seems to have attracted in general. Come the end of the season, there will still be those who insist that he should be in the team of the year and yet this run of poor form has lasted six months. It’s not a permanent state, it is just a question of a good player suffering through a difficult time, but he does need to fix this and recover.
7) Martin Tyler mentioned Kasper Schmeichel’s strong wrists in commentary and he was right to do so. When a goalkeeper makes the kind of save he did from Alexandre Lacazette – low, from a shot of real force – you’d expect the ball to deflect away and behind. With Schmeichel, though, it’s telling how forceful his purchase on the ball often is. He’s almost the aggressor.
As he did in this case, he impacts the shot rather than allowing it to impact him. Aesthetically that makes his goalkeeping look very aggressive – defiant, even – and that’s quite rare.
Whether it’s important or technically correct is another matter, but it’s like having Mortal Kombat’s Jaxx in goal.
8) Ball of the first half? That driven cross from Hector Bellerin, which Lacazette headed straight at Schmeichel.
Arsenal very obviously need reinforcements in a few areas. The centre of midfield is covered above and, as and when an agreement can be reached with St Etienne, William Saliba promises to make a difference to the centre of defence. But if Hector Bellerin were to recover his pre-injury form, then that would also be hugely significant. He provides invaluable thrust down the right-hand side, but he’s also a playmaker of sorts, and part of his side’s creative armoury down that flank.
Bellerin has looked like a fragile player since his comeback. At times, both in the way he’s carried the ball and in his physical reticence, he’s looked like he doesn’t trust his own body. He’s been timid. On Tuesday night, though, he was a less inhibited player.
9) There’s an authority to Martinez’s goalkeeping. Leno is probably the better shot-stopper, but he won’t regain his place in this side by default. He shouldn’t do, at least, not if it’s a decision based on performance.
There are a couple of things to really like about the Argentinian. Firstly, he catches everything, which is a trait all defenders benefit from. Secondly, though, he’s incredibly positive at set-pieces and in response to crosses. Compare his work under the high ball to that of Chelsea’s Kepa, for instance, who seems to back towards his goalline by habit.
At 27, this was just the 16th top-flight (Premier League and LaLiga) appearance of his career and there’s presumably a reason why he’s never been a full-time starter, but he looks more than competent.
10) It’s not really an established part of their game, but surely Arsenal have to find a way of capitalising on Kieran Tierney’s delivery? Defensively he looks like an improvement on what came before, but his crossing is absolutely superb.
11) No arguments at all with the red card. It was an accident and nobody could argue any intent, but that isn’t the law anymore. Catching an opponent that high and with the studs instead of the boot will always result in a red card, especially in the VAR age, when a referee can see James Justin’s leg buckle like that in slow motion.
It’s a sending-off. All day, every day.
12) No, the Vardy-Mustafi tangle in the first half wasn’t a sending-off. That too was an accident and, yes, it also ended with dangerous contact, but it was a completely different sort of incident.
The law is admittedly vague, but the guide is in the past precedents: we know from how it has been refereed before that the Nketiah tackle was worthy of dismissal, whereas Vardy’s flailing leg is – not always, but more often than not – the kind of contact just accepted as an accident and not even deemed a booking.
Some will see a double standard there, but that would feel disingenuous; they were different and they deserved to be punished as such.
13) The equaliser: Demarai Gray was trying to feed Ayoze Perez with his ball into the box, but he inadvertently produced the kind of pass that predatory, offside-teasing forwards like Jamie Vardy dream of. It would have produced a chance for either player, though, so Gray is due some credit at least for his vision.
Nevertheless, would Shkodran Mustafi have cut that cross out had he attacked it with his left foot, instead of trying to hook it away with his right? Perhaps somebody with a coaching badge wants to correct me, but surely that’s not the right technique?
How can it be – the best possible outcome would probably have been Mustafi hooking it against the onrushing Vardy and the ball ending up in the net by different means.
Interesting thread on the Vardy goal VAR decision. The camera angle where he appears offside is misleading, Mustafi’s foot plays him on.
The area for debate is whether Perez touched the ball. Personally I don’t think he did, but it’s very very difficult to say. https://t.co/IKAhyJLC1b
— gunnerblog (@gunnerblog) July 7, 2020
14) That really wasn’t good VAR, either. That situation is admittedly rare, because it’s not often that there are two contentious points within the same offside decision, but it’s really important that Stockley Park make it clear what’s happening to those (normally) inside the ground or watching on television.
That didn’t happen in this case. Was Vardy onside from the original pass, with Perez deemed not to have made contact. Or was Vardy onside because of Perez’s touch, having originally been off?
A line here, a line there. Measure this, measure that. It’s actually getting worse.
15) It’s only fair to praise Soyuncu for that late, one-on-one tackle on Joe Willock. All the criticism remains valid, because he really has had some ugly moments since the turn of the year, but that arguably made that intervention even more important.
At 1-1, with his team fortunate to be level despite not playing well, and away from home in deteriorating conditions and on a very wet pitch, that was the sort of situation which seemed destined to end in calamity. Not so; an excellent, clean tackle and a reminder of what a good defender he is at his best.
16) This isn’t the night to criticise Arsenal. It’s a bad result and a chastening experience, particularly for Eddie Nketiah, but game management is probably one of the last attributes a developing team acquires. These are early days.
In addition to which, in these unusual circumstances and with so many games in quick succession, fatigue and lapses in concentration are easy to rationalise. Unfortunately, Nketiah’s bad luck was punished by a percentage ball that found the perfect area, and was then converted by a veteran centre-forward who just happens to have run into form at precisely the wrong time. Sometimes it really is just the break of the ball.
Yes, had that game continued for another ten minutes then Arsenal would probably have lost, but after his disappointment fades Mikel Arteta will reflect on his side’s growing attacking potency, the performances of Ceballos, Saka, Bellerin and Tierney, and reason that this slightly clumsy stride was still a move in the right direction.
Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter
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