It seemed rather fanciful, during lockdown, when Arsenal’s directors offered a bonus for Champions League qualification in return for wage cuts. And, sadly, no Arsenal player should be leafing through Ferrari catalogues just yet.
The reason could be found here, in a game Arsenal should have won, but contrived to give away in the final 20 minutes. They were leading, not exactly cruising, but certainly on top when Mikel Arteta made a double substitution. Three minutes later, Arsenal were down to 10 men; 10 minutes after that Leicester were level.
It’s a myth that it is often harder to play against 10 men. It isn’t. Losing a man is a curse. But it doesn’t have to be a goal conceded, either. There are plenty of teams that, reduced, can regroup in two defensive banks, congest the key areas and hold out. Arsenal, however, are not one of those teams. Not with this defence at least. So Leicester pressed and because they are a good team with a wonderful goalscorer as spearhead, they found a way through.
Demarai Gray – on as a second-half substitute the moment Arsenal went down to 10, a smart, offensive move from manager Brendan Rodgers – whipped in a low cross, Ayoze Perez stretched for it but couldn’t get there. Jamie Vardy, however, could.
He prodded the ball home at the far post as Shkodran Mustafi failed to cover his run. VAR had a good look at it – was Perez off, did he touch the ball, did Vardy time his run right – but Stuart Atwell was eventually satisfied.
It was a big point for Leicester, given they had surrendered third place to Chelsea earlier. This was not enough to retake it, but it at least keeps their noses in front of Manchester United, who will stay fifth even if they win at Aston Villa on Thursday.
As for Arsenal, the big pay-out is slightly closer than it looked several months ago, but they probably have too much to do – even if the Court of Arbitration uphold Manchester City’s European ban and Champions League qualification goes down to fifth.
This was a genuine chance to reel in ailing Leicester and they blew it. Indeed, for long spells the most likely outcome – three points for Arsenal – showed the differing directions of these teams. Arsenal were in the ascendency, Leicester fighting an increasingly desperate battle to hold on to what they had before football went into mothballs.
It was not to be. Arsenal could not secure what would have been their fourth consecutive clean sheet in the league and a scoreline that used to be celebrated in these parts will always be a tall order without a defensive upgrade. Yes, that Arsenal played with 10 men for the last 16 minutes plus eight of additional time, was not the fault of the back line. But the dismal late cameo of substitute Eddie Nketiah did not necessarily have to change the game.
He is young and will learn, but it was a harsh lesson. Introduced for Bukayo Saka after 71 minutes, Nketiah was shown a red card after 75, with most of the interim period spent deliberating over whether he should be on the field at all.
The ball ran loose in the centre of the pitch and Nketiah went after it – and Leicester defender James Justin. He was high, he was late and his studs were up, it was a red card all day long.
Referee Kavanagh, however, brandished only yellow; at which point VAR Atwell rightly intervened. It was a sensible interruption, too, clearly advising Kavanagh to consult the pitchside monitor to see if he wished to alter his initial call. Kavanagh trotted across, saw what the rest of the stadium had already witnessed on their little screens, and immediately arrived at the correct decision. Nketiah was gone, without protest. He probably didn’t even get a touch of the ball.
It will have been a hugely frustrating evening for Arteta, undermining the fillip of a very creditable win at Wolves last weekend.
Leicester had the best of the first 15 minutes, and scrapped well to get back into the game after half-time, but Arsenal were on top longer. The All Blacks famously had a ‘no d***heads’ policy and, undoubtedly, Arsenal have been better since Arteta implemented one of his own.
The highest paid player at the club; a young midfielder who appeared to have overplayed his hand early during Project Restart, Arteta has dispensed with them both, and benefited. Obviously, it helps to have Norwich in any run of fixtures right now, but some of the places Arsenal have won of late – Wolverhampton, Sheffield, Southampton – have been tricky for even the best teams this season.
After a slow start, they dominated Leicester for long periods, took a deserved lead and could have had several more goals with better finishing. They looked like a team capable of being shaped by Arteta, if funds are provided for improvements in key areas.
Kasper Schmeichel had an outstanding game, but was entirely powerless as Arsenal went ahead. The excellent Saka was the architect here. He has been a revelation this season and left the normally reliable Caglar Soyuncu on his backside, as he sped towards goal.
The cross was simplicity, as was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s finish, a tap in with Leicester’s defensive line stretched to breaking point, his 20th league goal of the season. Arsenal had a spell running riot from that point.
Saka, Lacazette and Hector Bellerin all drew excellent saves from Schmeichel, and in the 39th minute Lacazette should really have done more with a diving header from close range, instead delivering it neatly into the arms of the Leicester goalkeeper.
As for Leicester, their best chance came after 12 minutes when a ball cut back by Marc Albrighton fell to Kelechi Iheanacho. His shot was low and fierce but was kept out by stand-in Emiliano Martinez’s feet and his brilliant reactions.
After half-time a close range shot from Justin struck David Luiz, producing a hearty shout for handball and a penalty, but referee Kavanagh was having none of it. He was right, too. Replays showed it had struck the defender flush in the face.
Ultimately, then, this was a momentum result for Leicester after their win over Crystal Palace at the weekend. A point at Arsenal is never to be sniffed at, even Arsenal in transition. Leicester last won away in these parts in 1973 – they didn’t even get a point here the year they won the league – so this was a reasonable result in a bogey fixture.
Arteta claimed Vardy could have got a red card, too, for a tussle in which his boot struck Mustafi’s face, but it looked entirely accidental to these eyes. Arsenal cost Arsenal; nobody else.
To relive the minute-by-minute action, scroll down to read Sportsmail’s live coverage of the match.
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