Whew! That was close! In this case however, I am not talking about last night’s match between Arsenal and Leicester City, but rather my new shirt. I am somewhat of a superstitious person, and had the team lost, my first wearing my 2016/2017 third kit shirt, it would have quickly been relegated to a life on the wall – hardly ideal when one has recently parted with a hard earned £60. But that’s me sorted.
The match. Well, to start, let us be clear about one thing; there was a time this season that Arsenal would have lost a match like this. Midweek, at home, after a physically and emotionally draining (for me as well) FA Cup battle with Manchester City in which a few players emerged with knocks, it had all the makings of a trap game. With a North London Derby this weekend against Tottenham, one might have been forgiven for thinking that this particular Arsenal side would come out a touch flat.
Arsene Wenger also seemed to select his side with the Tottenham match in the back of his mind. Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both had a very industrious 120 minutes against Manchester City, and given both players’ history with muscular injuries, Wenger may have dropped them to the bench to assure they are fresh for the weekend and their cross-town showdown with Tottenham.
One thing is for certain. Something has changed in the coaching at London Conley recently. “Pragmatism”, once almost a dirty word at Arsenal signifying the inability to impose your will as a team and the negative tactics of an insolent Portuguese manager, it has seeped into the minds of the Arsenal coaching staff. Whether it is Arsene finally deciding to focus his prodigious football studies on the art of defence, the board or someone else forcing a tactical shift, or whether Steve Bould has been allowed to finally coach the defense he wants to coach, or even that Steve Bould has been forced to change his approach to compliment shift tactics, it would have been fascinating to have been a fly on the wall in the coaches’ offices these last couple weeks.
Getting on to the players, we start with the hero of the match, Nacho Monreal. Ok well, I guess Robert Huth and his unfortunate deflection of Monreal’s pass was our hero today, but Monreal had a good match. Huth very nearly allowed Arsenal to extend their lead, or at least close out in more comfort when he lost his cool at the end, flirting with a red card. When the team sheets were released, I was dismayed to see he had replaced Rob Holding in the back 3, but he certainly helped keep the match relatively stress free at the back. You will excuse me if I don’t exactly shout in disappointment when he is replaced in the starting XI this summer, but our favourite footballer named after a snack food escapes my ire today.
Nothing like an absurd braid job to make people happy to just see the long hair again, eh Hector? I know, I get it.”Long hair, don’t care” and all. But to hear some of the supporters go on about it, you would assume that his hair was like a permanently deployed parachute, putting the brakes on his potential and pace. I subscribe more to the theory that he is a young man that has played an awful lot of matches the last two years, and has yet to recover from a pretty significant ankle injury mid-season. After looking like his place was in danger in the starting XI with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain being the best Arsenal player on the pitch these last two matches, Bellerin made an emphatic return to the lineup. His final ball is truly a weakness, but he is becoming more decisive and varied in his forward runs up the right flank, sometimes even cutting inside and attempting to dribble at a defender. Bellerin does not seem like a player whose motivation needs to be called into question, but it seems that watching the emphatic way that the Ox patrolled the right wing back spot against Manchester City and Middlesbrough stirred the beast within the young Spaniard.
Coquelin has clearly been reading the internet. It is almost as if he made a checklist of things he wanted to do to silence his detractors in this match, and wasted little time to attempt them all. Though he played with a good amount of energy, he was frequently outmuscled by the very physical Leicester midfield, especially Danny Drinkwater. For a player that offers so little going forward, especially in a team like Arsenal, this is not ideal. This didn’t stop him from trying the kind of passes that only Alexis would believe were open. He even tried a couple shots that weren’t even that bad. Smart money is hip
Coquelin has been a different player this year than last. The eye test shows a player that has made massive strides from a technical standpoint, but still lacks the decisive passing ability to be a threat in the final third. If his defensive contribution doesn’t return to previous levels, it might be time to give Ramsey an extended run next to a Xhaka- at least he has scored goals for the club in the past.
Alexis had perhaps one of his shakiest performances of the season against Leicester. I cannot figure out whether he really enjoys (and buys into) the narrative that he is carrying this Arsenal team almost by himself, or if he is really that confident in every pass he attempts, but I find myself losing patience with his very public frustration directed at his teammates on a weekly basis.
Now look, I understand that many people think this sort of behaviour shows that Alexis cares about winning more than his teammates, but if you watch the first half, Alexis wanted no part of doing the jobs that a centre forward is supposed to do in order to make life easier on his teammates. Too often his desire for the ball means he drops too deep into the midfield, and by the time the ball is played into the penalty area, there is no red shirt to get on the other end of it. Understanding, again, that rotation probably played a role in Wenger’s team selection, going small and quick up front was nullified by Leicester’s deep back line, leaving me calling for a forward to occupy the central defenders almost from the off.
It was a busy day for Ye Merry Arsenal Acting Troupe, with Alexis again showing up in this assessment, along with fellow usual culprit, Olivier Giroud. That challenge from Benalouane, with studs raked down the Frenchman’s back, was probably a red card offence, but most referees could be forgiven for not necessarily believing Giroud and his expressive reactions to most comings together. Giroud probably was not given the benefit of the doubt due to how soon after Alexis’ theatrics were exposed.
The theatrics I speak of in this case or of course the series of events that unfolded from a Leicester City throw down the right sideline. Engaging in a bit of gamesmanship, Alexis decided to guard the throw from Christian Fuchs directly in front of the Foxes’ fullback. Having apparently not been warned that this was not a correct position to take up in a throw in, Alexis stayed there as Fuchs decided to ping the ball off the Chilean in frustration. Though it appeared to hit his shoulder, Alexis decided he needed to sell the incident a bit more, he clutched his face after an embarrassingly delayed reaction and hit the turf as if he had just been strafed by a Spitfire, earning a booking for either simulation or his throw in antics. Arsene Wenger had a typically paradoxical view of the incident in which he saw Fuchs commit a foul in his estimation, while somehow missing the Sanchez dive. After another four minutes or so of every spare moment showing an agitated Alexis trying desperately to coax blood from his mouth, with his sleeve on the outside and, one imagines, his teeth on the inside. Oh, the lengths we will go for a booking on our opponents…
Not to get too bogged down in the bizarre, Gabriel had himself another extremely solid match. Like Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain and others, he seems to be a player to which confidence is essential. His quickness is also an asset to Arsenal’s new back three, as he was often able to drive forward with the ball to change his angle on a return pass into the midfield or out to the flank. It is also interesting to note that for a time after switching back to four at the back, Bellerin moved more central than Gabriel, presumably to better cover the pace of Jamie Vardy on the counter. By the end of the match he was back home in his familiar centre back spot, and had been one of the stand out players for Arsenal in the match. Poor Shkodran Mustafi really needs to get back before one of these young defenders takes his spot for good.
Granit Xhaka is starting to really look like a Premier League player. His toughness in this match and in the FA Cup Semi against Manchester City was invaluable to closing out the matches. He is moving his feet much more while tackling and not taking as many stupid whistles lately. His passing range and accuracy is essential to Arsenal trying to play more direct, and he is only going to get better in the next few seasons at the club.
Kieran Gibbs returned at last from the wilderness to starting line up, coming in at left wing back. He looked very quick down the flank, and wants to get forward as much as Bellerin does. He suffers from terrible indecision in and around the box with the ball, and several attacks petered out allowing the Leicester defence to set. Nacho Monreal has not been the most confidence inspiring fullback, but his two recent goals and improved defensive contributions make it difficult for Wenger to justify replacing him with Gibbs going forward.
And last but not least, what a difference a month makes, right? Mesut Ozil is starting to look like himself again. He is moving all over the midfield and making himself available much nearer to his own goal for the pass. On defence, he has been retreating into formation, going after loose balls, and occasionally even making a tackle. I know, it shocked me too. It is my estimation that only two conclusions can be drawn from this uptick in form: 1: that Ozil actually does care about the club, the manager, the fans, and his teammates and is really working hard to show everyone as much or 2. He is being scouted by another Euro Giant, and is now working hard to earn his transfer out of London. I know which I would prefer, and I think he does truly want to be here and with Arsene Wenger as his manager.