Arsenal provide Arsène Wenger with reasons to feel like a king
Timing is everything. Shortly after a match in which his Arsenal side produced a counter-attacking performance of such skill, pace and vision that even the opposition supporters were moved to applause, seemed as good a moment as any to ask Arsène Wenger whether, as José Mourinho had implied a day or so earlier, he really was the manager who gets away with everything.
“I didn’t realise that, I must say,” responded the Frenchman, with the merest hint of a smile, and no, he said, he did not “feel like a king”.
“Look, I feel I have just done my job with the team today: for our fans, that’s what you want,” he said. “Honestly, I’m not too much concerned about the rest. It’s 30 years in football now, and I know what’s important is to play well. What you want is to manage a team that enjoys to play together, and gets better every week.”
There will, no doubt, be some who suggest Wenger got away with something here, in that Leicester’s frenetic football might have been specifically designed for Wenger’s quicksilver Arsenal to exploit. The City manager, Claudio Ranieri, all but admitted as much after the game, and indeed during it, replacing his second striker, Shinji Okazaki, with a midfielder in Andy King after a first half in which the play flashed from end to end with bewildering frequency, and which could have ended 6-3 to the visitors.
“When you play against these kind of teams, with a lot of quality, who play one, two touches, it’s difficult to press,” acknowledged the Italian. “The first half was good, we close all the space, but of course Arsenal is very dangerous in counter-attacking transition.
“ I was very, very worried about it and spoke with my players before the match to be careful, when we want to go on counter-attack don’t lose the ball, because they get the ball and two seconds later, they are in our box. And that’s it.”
Exposed though Leicester might ultimately have been, however, they made a hugely positive contribution to a wonderful game, played out in front of a full and raucous house on a splendidly sunny afternoon. The quality, both individual and collective, of some of the football was breathtaking, and without a single incidence of the miserable play-acting that blights the modern game, the occasion was a joyful reminder that this can still be a beautiful game.
Moments stand out, amongst many. The exquisite touch shown by Alexis Sánchez to confound the excellent N’Golo Kanté – an early candidate for signing of the season – before unleashing a drive as powerful as it was accurate to complete his hat-trick. The chipped pass from Mesut Özil to set up the Chilean’s second. The assured certainty with which Jamie Vardy scored both his goals. The list is a long one, though: the game had 42 attempts on goal.
The return to his considerable best of Sánchez aside, what must surely give Wenger genuine pleasure is the growing indication that Theo Walcott’s future really does lie in the centre rather than on the wing.
The 26-year-old will never be able to do anything about his lack of height, but not unlike Sánchez, he has acquired the strength to ensure the toughest of defenders cannot bully him. The Leicester centre-halves Robert Huth and Wes Morgan are solidly muscular citizens, but both bounced off Walcott at least once, while his pace remains deadly. “He gave them plenty of problems, I think he is improving game by game,” said Wenger.
“The more times I get the opportunity to play up front I’m going to get better and improve and learn the position,” said Walcott, who has now scored 12 goals in his last 13 starts for the Gunners. “I’ve always said I want to play up front and the manager is keeping faith in me. I want to repay that faith.”
Video Leicester City vs Arsenal 2015
It was interesting, however, that his fulsome earlier praise notwithstanding, when Ranieri was asked whether he considered Arsenal were now definitely title-challengers, he sounded unsure.
“I can’t say this. I can say they are building for to win the title – then to win the title you need also a little luck, but the players, the squad is very good,” he replied.
As Wenger pointed out though, the race looks rather more open than it did not so long ago. “Two weeks ago you could say Man City will run away with it, but now it’s tight again. You have to be consistent, and that’s what we focus on. I think the quality of our game is getting better week by week, and overall we find our level back that we have shown at the end of [last] season.”
Man of the match Alexis Sánchez (Arsenal)