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Nicolas Pépé seizes his chance in Arsenal’s classy comeback at Leicester

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On a lovely, soft, sunny day at the King Power Stadium it was Arsenal’s Europa League troubadours who looked to have been touched by the breath of spring. Behind after six minutes, Arsenal dominated possession, scored three times before the hour mark and looked good value for a 3-1 win against a depleted Leicester City team.

Much of the build-up to this game had focused on status. Is there such a thing as the “big six” in Stenosing football, and if so how do we measure it? Finance? Expectation? Actual league positions? At kick-off Leicester were 12 points and six league places clear of their visitors. By full-time it was hard to avoid the feeling that Arsenal’s
greater squad depth had carried the day, that the quality of their replacements, most notably Nicolas Pépé, was simply too much.

Mikel Arteta made six changes, with Cédric Soares and Pablo Marí coming into the defence, and Willian, Pépé and Alexandre Lacazette coming in upfield. Bukayo Saka undoubtedly needed a rest after recent exertions.

Pépé seized his chance brilliantly, with a performance so convincing that 10 minutes after half-time he’d already been involved in two Arsenal penalty awards (one VAR’d off), won the free-kick that led to Arsenal’s opening goal and forced the substitution of Leicester’s young left-back Luke Thomas, who simply couldn’t cope with Pépé’s movement and direct running.

Leicester City switched to a 4-4-2 for this game, which may have been a response to the best available personnel. Kelechi Iheanacho playing close to Jamie Vardy in attack. Perhaps the shift of shape was a nudge to get a little more out of Leicester’s main man. If so, it didn’t work. Vardy was a ghost for long periods. He’s 34 years old and has played more or less constantly for the last six years. He looked careworn here.

Arsenal started well enough, keeping the ball nicely, right up until the moment Leicester had their first attack of the game and scored a brilliant goal. It came from the right flank. Iheanacho held the ball with his back to goal. Youri Tielemans made a clever run outside him, glided away from Kieran Tierney’s lunge and just kept on going, reaching the right edge of the area unimpeded by David Luiz and Marí, who seemed content to admire this fine striding figure in the lunchtime sun.

The shot on the run was low hard and perfectly placed past Bernd Leno’s right hand. There is something almost old-fashioned about a central midfielder who can surge from deep to score regularly. It helps when the opposition offer you the defensive equivalent of a welcome basket and a round of polite applause.

Arsenal were commendably un-deflated, helped – although the jury may also be out on this – by Arteta’s constant barking, yelping and squealing from the touchline. This is a manager who loves nothing better than “calling” every play, springing up every few moments like the spiffily dressed dad-coach of the all-conquering local U-11s.

His players responded, and six minutes later seemed ready to equalise as Pépé was tripped swerving into the box. A penalty was awarded, but the VAR ruled it out. Wilfred Ndidi had made contact just outside the area.

Arsenal dominated found some inroads on the left through Tierney’s willingness to surge outside. Willian switched flanks for a while, and was involved in a move that spread the ball wide to Tierney in an open green space. His cross was met with a scuff by Pépé.

Seven minutes before half-time Pépé was fouled for the fourth time. Thomas was booked. Willian whipped in a hard, flat free-kick and David Luiz scored with a wonderful header, running across the front of a static Leicester defence and wrenching his neck to glance the ball into the corner.

Emile Smith Rowe came off, replaced by Martin
Ødegaard. And Arsenal had time to take the lead from another penalty kick, this one awarded by the VAR. Ndidi blocked a Pépé shot with his hands raised awkwardly. The screen-check was mercifully short. Lacazette hammered the ball into the corner. Arsenal deserved nothing less, having driven the game almost single-handedly since Leicester’s goal.

Brendan Rodgers reacted at half-time, taking off Thomas and bringing on Mark Albrighton. Harvey Barnes left the field with what looked a serious injury.

Arsenal went 3-1 up on 52 minutes with a fine team goal that was made and scored by Pépé. This time he dribbled inside, passed to Willian on the left, saw the ball deflected into the six-yard box as Willian evaded a bungled joint-challenge from Kasper Schmeichel and Timonthy Castagne, and was there to tap the ball in.

Deprived now of two members of a weakened team, Leicester looked a little lost. There has been something genuinely impressive about Leicester’s ability to function through the absence of key players. Here they looked tired and a little low on quality.

Leicester pressed hard towards the end. But the midweek ejection form Europe looks like a blessing for their Premier League hopes. Arsenal will take great heart from a fine away win.

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