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

Barney Ronay at the King Power Stadium
·4-min read

On a crisp, sunny day at the King Power Stadium it was Arsenal’s Europa League travellers who looked to have been touched by the breath of spring. Behind after six minutes, Arsenal dominated possession and were good value for a 3-1 win against a depleted Leicester City team.

Leicester will point to absences here, most notably their best midfielder and best centre half, James Maddison and Wesley Fofana, plus an injury to Harvey Barnes’s knee after half-time that will require an operation.

Related: Chelsea v Manchester United: Premier League – live!

But for Arsenal this felt like a significant turn, reward for one of their best away performances of the season. “The team is improving, it’s taking a direction I like,” Mikel Arteta said afterwards. “Attitude-wise, the way we are playing within our model is much closer to what we want.”

Much of the buildup to this game had focused on status. Is there such a thing as “the big six”, and if so how do we measure it? Finance? Expectation? Actual league positions?

At kick-off Leicester were 15 points and eight places clear of their visitors. By full time there was a clear sense of Arsenal’s greater squad depth. The quality of the replacements, most notably Nicolas Pépé, was simply too much for Leicester’s own weakened team. “We were down to the bare bones,” Rodgers lamented at full-time.

Arteta made six changes, including bringing in Willian, Pépé and Alexandre Lacazette. Bukayo Saka was given a much-needed rest. Pépé seized his chance brilliantly, with a performance of such conviction that by the 55th minute he had been involved in two Arsenal penalty awards, won a free-kick that led to their opening goal and forced the substitution of Leicester’s 19-year-old left-back Luke Thomas, who struggled with Pépé’s movement and dribbling ability.

Leicester switched to a 4-4-2, with Kelechi Iheanacho playing close to Jamie Vardy, a nudge that failed to draw any obvious response. Vardy is 34, has played constantly for the past six years and seemed bothered by his groin. He was a ghost for most of the game.

Arsenal started well enough, 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. Youri Tielemans made a clever run outside, glided away from Kieran Tierney’s lunge, and just kept on going, reaching the edge of the area unimpeded by David Luiz and Pablo Marí.

The shot on the run was low hard past Bernd Leno’s right hand. There is something 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 (presumably) by Arteta’s constant barking and yelping from the touchline. This is a manager who loves to “call” 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. The VAR overruled the penalty decision. Wilfred Ndidi had made contact just outside the area.

Arsenal found inroads on the left. Willian switched flanks for a while, and began to influence the game. “He was really good,” Arteta said. “We’ve seen that in training, he’s revealing himself.”

Seven minutes before half-time Pépé was fouled for the fourth time, drawing a booking for Thomas. Willian whipped in a flat free-kick and David Luiz scored with a wonderful header, running across the front of a static Leicester defence and glancing the ball into the corner.

Emile Smith Rowe left the field with a hip injury. But Arsenal still 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. Lacazette hammered the ball into the corner. Arsenal deserved nothing less, having driven the game single-handedly since Leicester’s goal.

Brendan Rodgers reacted at half time, taking off Thomas and bringing on Mark Albrighton. But Arsenal went 3-1 up on 52 minutes with a goal made and scored by Pépé himself. This time he dribbled inside, saw the ball trickle into the six-yard box as Willian evaded a joint-challenge from Kasper Schmeichel and Timothy Castagne, and was there to tap it in.

Leicester kept running, but never really looked like hauling it back. There has been something hugely impressive about their ability to function through the absence of key players. Here they looked tired and low on quality.

For Arsenal, victory was a timely reminder of Arteta’s own playing resources ahead of a tough run of games that will decide the eventual tone of this strange in-out season.