If anyone had dared to predict before the season started that Arsenal would be going for their tenth straight victory against Leicester in week 9 of the Premier League, their view likely would have been met with thinly veiled derision. And yet, as the Gunners took to the pitch on Monday night at the Emirates Stadium to face Leicester City, that is exactly the situation in which they found themselves. It took around 20 minutes for the Arsenal players to knock off the rust from the latest untimely international break, but after conceding the first goal of the match, they responded in a big way to seal that coveted tenth win in a row. The victory saw Arsenal move to level on points with Chelsea in 3rd place, just 2 points back from pace-setters Manchester City and Liverpool.
Puel Lands First Punch
The Emirates Stadium has not been a kind venue for Claude Puel’s Leicester team in recent seasons, but the former pupil of Arsenal legend (and recent birthday boy) Arsene Wenger appeared to arrive with a clear plan of attack, as he had in Leicester’s home victory over Arsenal last season against Unai Emery’s red-hot side. The Spaniard set the Gunners up to press high, utilising an extremely high line for much of the first half. Puel countered this approach with an athletic midfield and attack, with the talented young left-back Ben Chilwell stepping into midfield to augment their numbers and help prevent the Gunners from achieving numerical superiority in the centre of the park.
The pacey Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho were able to exploit the gaps left by the high positioning of Arsenal fullbacks Hector Bellerin and Stephan Lichtsteiner, who were left chasing play for much of the first half. Summer signing James Maddison added a creativity linking the midfield to attack in a way that Leicester have lacked in recent years, and the threat he presented starting counter attacks led to several lazy fouls by Arsenal players caught flat-footed in transition.
The Foxes had more energy than their hosts throughout much of the first half, and they deserved to take the lead when Ben Chilwell beat Bellerin to a dangerous ball in the box and forced the former Barcelona product to redirect the ball into his own net. The goal snapped the Gunners out of their funk as they managed to knot the score before the half, but Puel likely went into the dressing room feeling good about his player’s effort and urgency in the first 45 minutes.
Bellerin Rights His Wrong
For a time on Monday night, it looked like old habits were re-emerging for Hector Bellerin. Claude Puel’s decision to have strikers Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho shade to the outside of the Arsenal centre-backs forced Bellerin and Lichtsteiner to get back in a hurry, forcing them into uncomfortable defensive positions. Like many of his teammates, it took Bellerin a while to grow into the intensity of the match, and his difficult first half culminated in his ugly own goal off of a Ben Chilwell shot.
Fortunately, Bellerin and his teammates didn’t want to wait until the second half to respond, and their renewed energy and urgency was rewarded just before the half as Mesut Ozil surged into the Leicester final third before playing Bellerin wide on the overlap. The Spaniard quickly returned it to Ozil at pace, whose nonchalant redirect into the net belayed the difficulty of pulling off such a technique and knotted the score at 1 heading into the half.
Bellerin began the second half as he had ended the first, providing the bulk of the Arsenal width down the right flank. He showed much more strength and leverage in his defending, and after hitting the bar early in the second half, Leicester had about mustered all the could in the final third before Arsenal wrenched the game away from them. It was from Bellerin’s perfect cross that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang netted the second Arsenal goal of the night, and he was also involved in the buildup to the majestic third goal that ended Leicester’s hopes for good. After a difficult start to the match, Bellerin showed his resolve by putting his mistake behind him and becoming vital to the eventual victory.
The Best Number 10 In The World On His Day
He might not be there on a cold, rainy night against a mid-table side up north. He may come down with the sniffles if the dressing room thermostat is a bit off. Some supporters may go to the grave believing his recurrent “illnesses” and “back spasms” are of dubious origins. But many are willing to put up with all of that for nights like the one Mesut Ozil had on Monday at the Emirates Stadium.
Perhaps it should have been read in the tea leaves after the German playmaker’s Twitter account twice posted cryptic messages about motivation and doubters during the international break, but few could have imagined just how good Ozil would be against Leicester. With Aaron Ramsey starting on the bench in favour of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Ozil slotted back into his familiar number 10 role in behind Alexandre Lacazette, and he played like a man with little interest in giving it back to his teammate. He was involved in the action from the off, anticipating moves into space brilliantly while taking his first touches with confidence and an eye for turning up the pitch to create dangerous moments. It was he who lead the charge to level the score before half after Leicester’s pace and movement forced the defence into a mistake.
If possible, he only improved after the half. The Gunners came out after break intent on keeping the momentum they wrested from the visitors at the end of the first half. Ozil interchanged more fluidly with Alex Iwobi and Mkhitaryan in attack, creating mass confusion in the Leicester midfield and tearing holes in their shape to play through. Ozil was integral to the second Arsenal goal as it was his inch-perfect through-ball that played Bellerin in behind the Leicester defence where he picked out Aubameyang on the cross, but it was the third goal of the night that revealed the breadth of his brilliance. After knocking the ball down for Matteo Guendouzi at the centre circle, he immediately took off up the pitch, dummied Hector Bellerin’s cross on the edge of the area, received the return pass from Alexandre Lacazette, and chipped a cheeky pass over Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel into the the path of the onrushing Aubameyang who banged home his second of the night.
Despite strong performances by all, especially in the second half, there is little doubt that Mesut Ozil was deserving of Man of the Match honours. He made Unai Emery’s decision to hand him the captain’s armband for the match look a master stroke. After performances like this, many question why they aren’t treated to this engaged and dominant version of Ozil more often, but for today, it is fair to simply reflect in amazement on the simplicity and perfection of his performance.
Unai Wins the Day
Had Monday’s match ended at the half, with the score knotted at 1, it would have been fair to suggest that Claude Puel had gotten the better of Unai Emery. The extreme high line that Emery has favoured this season did not compress Leicester in their own end as intended, and the Foxes were able to get into the Arsenal half with little resistance. He appeared to underestimate the pace and movement of the Leicester attack, and only luck prevented the Gunners from having to claw back multiple goals after the first half.
His initial plan may have been effectively thwarted, but Emery wasted little time in the second half making aggressive changes to turn the match on its head. Just after the hour mark, Emery made the daring decision to withdraw Lichtsteiner and Mkhitaryan, ostensibly leaving Arsenal with only 3 defenders on the pitch (in actuality, Granit Xhaka dropped into the back line at left back when Arsenal was defending). This aggressive move added Guendouzi to the midfield and Aubameyang to the attack, creating a lopsided but lethal collection of talent on the pitch to try and break the deadlock. Emery’s gamble paid off almost immediately as Aubameyang scored the go-ahead goal just 2 minutes later and added the clincher only 3 minutes after that. By then, all of the sting had gone from Leicester, and there was little doubt about the result. Emery showed faith in his players to handle his quirky substitutions and take over the match, and he was rewarded in a big way.
Keeping the Streak Alive
The victory on Monday was the Gunners’ 10th straight in all competitions and their 7th Premier League win on the bounce. The excitement and belief is returning to a fan base that has long been divided and sceptical. Unai Emery has been achieving the results he wants from this Arsenal squad, but recently, he is starting to extract the winning performances as well. The defence is a long way from total rehabilitation, but there are signs of improvement in their structure and man marking technique. The addition of Lucas Torreira to the base of the midfield has been a large part of this renewed solidity, but he has been assisted by near across the board improvements by many players in the side and a focus on defending from the front.
As autumn continues on into winter and the festive period, the cluttered fixture list and heightened intensity will present a new challenge for Emery, who has yet to coach in a league without a holiday break. However, Arsenal won’t have to wait long to see the fixtures come thick and fast, as they are due in Lisbon, Portugal on a Thursday to face CP Sporting in a Europa League group stage match before turning out again on English shores against Crystal Palace next Sunday. The Gunners will continue on playing twice a week until 11 November, when another international break puts a temporary hold on proceedings. Emery’s ability to focus his players always on the next match will be tested along with the Gunners’ squad depth in the coming weeks. However, if Arsenal continue to take care of business and win the matches they should, it potentially sets up a massive contest with Liverpool on 3 November that could, shockingly, have real implications in the Premier League title race.