It was a bittersweet evening at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday as Arsenal failed to capitalise on a dominant first half as they were held to a 1-1 draw with Leicester City.
After a rocky start, the Gunners found their rhythm with Dani Ceballos pulling the strings in midfield.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a shot blocked before neat exchanges between Héctor Bellerín and Bukayo Saka almost created another opportunity. A long-range piledriver from Kieran Tierney almost caught out Kasper Schmeichel before the Gunners took the lead. Ceballos’ pass to Saka was glorious and the youngster’s delivery meant it was a simple finish for Aubameyang.
That saw Arsenal click into gear with Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette both setting up Saka before a double save from Schmeichel denied Lacazette and Bellerín.
The Danish goalkeeper was in the way again as Bellerín picked out Lacazette with a lofted cross but the Frenchman directed his header straight down the throat of Schmeichel.
Half time came at the wrong time for Arsenal and they struggled to replicate their earlier dominance after the break as Leicester upped the ante, although Emiliano Martínez was equal to everything they could muster.
But the game swung in Leicester’s favour on 75 minutes when Eddie Nketiah, who had replaced Lacazette just minutes earlier, was shown a red card – following a lengthy VAR review, for a challenge on James Justin.
The Foxes poured forward from that moment on and inevitably found the equaliser through Jamie Vardy.
Plenty of optimism and frustration in equal measure but what can we take from the game?
Ceballos makes his mark
Ceballos had arguably his best game in an Arsenal shirt. He was aggressive without the ball, tidy on it and always forward thinking. He had that focus that saw him come out on top in 50/50s and his sharpness allowed him to nick the ball back countless times.
His pass to Saka for the goal was brilliant and he is starting to convince people that he is worth keeping beyond the season.
He hasn’t really made much of an impression on me this season but he seems to have really bought into Arteta’s plans since Project Restart and is producing a good level of consistency as well as an effective partnership with Granit Xhaka. Arteta confirmed the club was in contact with Real Madrid regarding Ceballos’ future and if the player can continue his recent form then I hope an agreement can be reached.
Central midfield is a problem area for Arsenal so there is definitely a space for Ceballos to make his own.
Step in the right direction
There is no question that Mikel Arteta has improved Arsenal defensively but there has been criticism about creativity and consistency in the final third. While there will no doubt still be questions asked about the failure to take chances it was still a positive performance in the first half.
Some of the link-up play was breath-taking and the fact we were able to dominant a team as good as Leicester shows that the players are starting to represent Arteta’s vision. The first half was an absolute delight and the game should have been put to bed before the break with three or four goals. Had we taken the chances we created we would be purring over such a good performance.
However, in previous performances there have been concerns over the inability to create chances so the fact we are starting to find our feet in attack is a huge positive, particularly with the North London Derby coming up this weekend followed by Liverpool and Manchester City.
The fact we failed to keep going after the break is an obvious disappointment and there are clearly still things to work on but most of us are viewing that as two points dropped rather than a point gained and that in itself is a good sign.
I have said it before and I’ll say it again, the referees in England are some of the worst in the world. Now I am not blaming the officials for the defeat. Had we taken the chances we created in the first half; the points would have been secured by the break. However, I think it is worth analysing the performance of the officials.
The big talking point was the Eddie Nketiah red card. I felt it was harsh but could understand why it was given and if it was a Leicester player doing that to a man in red, I would have been asking for the same outcome so there are no real complaints on that.
The issues come in the consistency of refereeing across the league with several players getting away with similar, or worse, fouls on our players with little to no punishment – Aaron Cresswell on Nicolas Pépé comes to mind.
It always seems to go against us because if Nketiah had been on the end of that tackle rather than James Justin, would the result have been the same. Had Lacazette studded Jonny Evans in the face, would it have been investigated further? I understand it’s hard to prove if Vardy’s actions were deliberate or accidental but the way his leg stretches across doesn’t seem like a natural movement to me, it was at least worth a review.
A quick look at the stats show Leicester made 14 fouls to Arsenal’s 10, yet the Gunners picked up a booking and a red card while the Foxes were unpunished. It was a similar story in the Brighton defeat with Bissouma making six fouls without reprimand. I think referees allow things to go against Arsenal as the Gunners ‘are soft’ and ‘don’t like physicality’. It is tiresome and dangerous and needs to change.
Then there is VAR. Twice it worked to perfection to correctly chalk off goals for Vardy and Lacazette but ruled Vardy wasn’t offside for his equaliser. A tight call that has gone against attacking teams this season but not this time around. It wasn’t clear or obvious but the issue centres around consistency in the league. It shouldn’t be offside in one game and not in another, it shouldn’t be a red card with this referee and not that one.
Big chance for Lacazette
What the red card means is that Nketiah will be suspended for three games and unfortunately the youngster will now miss games against rivals Spurs and Premier League champions Liverpool as well as a FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City. Those are games that you want to be playing in.
His absence means Lacazette is likely to get an extended run in the side. He has had to share striking duties with Nketiah since January with both players scoring four times since then. Nketiah has seemingly moved above Lacazette in the pecking order but the Frenchman will now get the chance to prove he should be the main man.
With big games against big opposition, this would be the perfect time for Lacazette to find some form. He was guilty of, arguably, the worst miss when he glanced his header straight at Schmeichel with the goal at his mercy and Arsenal cannot afford to waste opportunities.
It will be interesting to see how Arteta rotates as well. Lacazette has not played 90 minutes since the extra-time defeat to Olympiacos in February and with no Nketiah or Gabriel Martinelli, will he use Aubameyang or Pépé centrally or promote a youngster from the academy?
Three is the magic number
The back three is something that seems here to stay, for the time being at least. Arteta never seemed to be a manager particularly wedded to the idea of a back three so it was a surprise to see him opt for it against Southampton a fortnight ago.
We won that game and the back three has stayed ever since. The draw against Leicester was the first game Arsenal have dropped points in that system under Arteta but as mentioned before it was the most encouraging performance of the season.
The defenders we have at our disposal seem more comfortable in a back three and we also have plenty of options in the wing back role as well. Having the extra man in defence means we have more options when playing out from the back, are not as vulnerable on the counter and the players in the centre are able to play progressive balls forward.
The back three under Unai Emery seemed too negative with the Spaniard favouring protection over penetration but Arteta has gradually increased our threat in the final third after solidifying the defence using this system.
There is something in me that prefers a back four and I think his vision for the future will see Arsenal revert back to a more traditional backline next season but if the team can be as effective as they were against Leicester, I will welcome the back thee for the remainder of the current campaign.