Surprises everywhere

After the narrow midweek win and short, tiring turnaround flying back from Greece, to win in such a dominant manner with a heavily rotated side wasn’t something I saw coming, especially given the six changes Arteta made to the side that faced Benfica. I also didn’t expect such a poor showing from Leicester, knocked out on Thursday by a team they should have breezed past but it didn’t stop them for accepting our customary gift in the 6th minute.

As is so often the case, it wasn’t any single mistake that led to Leicester’s opener but a combination of concentration and inaction from several Arsenal players that paved the way. I’m sure if you lined them all up, these early goals we continue to ship would have a variety of different culprits and combinations, which points to something systemic. It’s also exacerbated by teams no doubt being abundantly aware of this by now and trying to capitalise on this issue more than they would against other opposition as a result. Thankfully, our defensive record in the second half is only bettered by Man City’s, so Arteta’s talks are still doing something right but life would be so much easier for us fans if they got their act together from the first whistle instead. It continues to be a problem, regardless of opposition or lineup and my message to this season’s scriptwriters is, “it’s getting boring”. They’d obviously expended their creative juices on Thursday for the Benfica game because after Leicester went ahead, it was plain sailing from then on in, with a near-faultless response from Arsenal.

Bukayo Saka wasn’t even called upon and earned some much needed rest, and the man stepping into his shoes terrorised Leicester’s left back in equal manner. There’s no doubt Pépé’s work rate and decision-making in the final third has improved but above all, the team’s balance that was so absent for so much of the season looks to have liberated him. Similarly to Saka, he was too often expected to produce something out of nothing when we needed a player to rescue a match. He managed it on a few occasions but he was also just as guilty of trying to do too much, too often; dribbling past one too many players or holding onto the ball too long and missing a key pass. This time, he found the balance and was rewarded with a goal and an assist, and missed out on another penalty by a matter of inches. There’s also a case to be made that his most common full back pairing in Hector Bellerín hasn’t been a complementary fit, but with Kieran Tierney back in action and Saka taking ownership of the right wing, there’s a chance for Pépé to form an understanding elsewhere.

I’m especially happy that we’re finally getting some consistency out of him, even when he finds himself dropping in and out of the starting lineup because having quality players on rotation is key to breaking back into the Top Four and beyond. The sizeable outlay is always going to linger in the background of discussion around him but I’ve always believed there was a player there. His book of trickery is a real page-turner if his capacity to put defenders on their arse is anything to go by, and on this occasion, he even forced Leicester to substitute Thomas just as Saka did to Alioski against Leicester. Getting in a player or team’s head – essentially a fear factor – is a really important attribute for such flair players to have because it’s that unpredictability that forces teams into mistakes and they didn’t know how to deal with him. There was also a lot to like in the flexibility to his play; no longer rooted to the touchline, expectantly waiting for the ball but running in-field and combining more which is how he found himself heavily involved in the build-up to Arsenal’s third before rounding the move off.

And speaking of having quality players on rotation, I thought Willian producing a performance like that was less likely than the second coming of Jesus based on the rest of his Arsenal career. It was his best in an Arsenal shirt and it was a well-deserved Man of The Match award. What I’m struggling to understand is where it’s come from. His assist and general contribution on Thursday was overstated for me, but he was a different player against Leicester and finally looked like the player we thought we’d signed. The freekick routine to set up Luiz was one thing (which was a brilliantly directed, brave header) but there was commitment and quality to his play. Actually sprinting to give players an option like Smith Rowe does so well, BREEZING PAST MULTIPLE PLAYERS like he did in the build-up leading to the penalty. Where has this man been hiding? I’ve questioned his attitude plenty of times this season because I’ve so often seen a player who didn’t seem to care but I’d love to know the catalyst for whatever caused that yesterday. Here’s to hoping we haven’t seen the last of it, but consistency, as with the team in general, has been his biggest issue this season.

The quality in rotation also extends itself to Lacazette, as he still continues to quietly and effectively go about his business. It’s probably safe to say he doesn’t find himself in the same positions Aubameyang does for either of the two goals he scored against Benfica and that’s okay because they’re different players. Unlike Aubameyang, he’s never missed a penalty for us, especially not one with such importance as the miss in the North London derby. We may be past the point of fielding them together, save for a particular strategic approach Arteta has in mind because Aubameyang shouldn’t be asked to carry out the responsibilities you’d normally associate with a left winger but I would also be disappointed to see him leave in the summer because of his contract situation. It was a predictably involved performance from him, holding the ball up well and being a massive nuisance at all times which is what you want in a classic No. 9. He did well to turn and find Pépé in the lead up to him being fouled for our first and was even jostling with three Leicester players on his own before the ball broke loose for Xhaka to snatch in starting the move for our third. I don’t think he’s ever going to be a 20+ goal a season striker like his price tag may have initially suggested but I think there’s a real case to be made for a contract extension because there’s no guarantee we would find an upgrade, and we least know what we’ve got with Lacazette.

There was also a timely but unfortunate reminder as to the perils of overplaying youngsters, as a muscular injury forced Smith Rowe off which was beginning to feel like a case of “when”, not “if”. It’s hopefully not as serious as some of his other problems but should at least be a wake-up call to give them some protection.

What surprised me most, even more than Willian’s rebirth, was how comfortable Arsenal looked (after the goal and Leno’s attempt to give Vardy his standard goal against Arsenal). There was a strange sense of calm and sensibility, knowing when and where the ascendancy was and taking full advantage in that time. Seeing players breaking forward in numbers; Willian combining well in the first half and shooting just wide with a swiveled shot, five players in Leicester’s area to witness Pépé’s tap-in. The cohesion was replicated at the other end, with Luiz and Mari having a surprisingly quiet afternoon, with Xhaka having another understated and measured performance ahead of them. Going forward, this performance should be the reference point for inspiration and a textbook case of game management.

There are green shoots of promise threatening to poke their heads above ground and the only danger now is consistency. There’s clearly some resilience because they’ve become annoyingly accustomed to coming from behind, the hard part now is to get results – without fuss – on a regular basis against teams they should be beating. There’s a week to rest now before facing Burnley next Saturday, who will no doubt be completely different to the team that rolled over so pathetically against Spurs. Seeing Sean Dyche angry makes me happy and we’ve been lucky enough to see him lose his mind on a few occasions since their promotion with several last-minute winners courtesy of Alexis Sanchez et al. I hope they don’t leave it that late and it’s as routine a win as the noisy neighbours managed, not least because we’re now hot on their heels again and they have a real propensity to bottle even the un-bottle-able. As the great Chiellini once said, “it is the history of the Tottenham”, and we should strive to be in a position to leapfrog them when the inevitable strikes.

Until then.


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