Arsenal’s new stars took centre stage, but it would fall to old faithful, Olivier Giroud, to score the late goal in a 4-3 comeback win vs. Leicester. Here are three quick thoughts from the Emirates …
1. The Premier League returns in style
It’s good to have the Premier League back, eh?
Sometimes opening-day fixtures can be cagey and tedious, almost as if the players are still in preseason mode. But there was nothing of the sort here: it was truly end-to-end stuff with plenty of chances, a quick tempo, four first-half goals, three second-half goals and a brilliant Friday night atmosphere at the Emirates.
Entertainment aside, this was a far from convincing performance from Arsenal, who defended poorly, conceded possession easily in dangerous positions and twice went behind to a Leicester City side all too eager to exploit the Gunners’ lack of natural defenders. But ultimately this was a fine way to start the campaign for the home supporters as Arsenal put on a ludicrous demonstration of gung-ho football throughout the second half before Giroud’s winner.
In a week’s time, the Premier League marks its 25th anniversary and this was a perfect reminder of precisely what the division brings. The best defending? No. The best technical quality? No. The most astute tactics? No. But the best entertainment? Almost certainly.
2. Arsenal signings start well but old face wins the day
A club-record signing always needs an early goal to get up and running, with Arsenal centre-forward Alexandre Lacazette wasting absolutely no time in proving his goal-scoring ability. The game was barely two minutes old when Mohamed Elneny dinked in a cross from an inside-right position onto the head of Lacazette, who casually but firmly nodded the ball into the far corner beyond Kasper Schmeichel’s despairing dive.
The French international’s celebration was priceless: he stood with his arms wide apart and a Thierry Henry-esque nonchalant expression on his face as if to say, “what’s all the fuss about?”
That Lacazette scored on his debut shouldn’t come as a particular surprise as his scoring rate in Ligue 1 was outstanding, but this was a somewhat atypical goal for a player more renowned for running into the channels and showing quick feet on the deck. On Friday night, his goal was more befitting of his No. 9 shirt; it was also the type of goal for which Arsene Wenger probably thought he’d have to turn to substitute Giroud.
All in all, it was an excellent debut from Lacazette and not simply for his goal. His movement into deeper positions was excellent, constantly pulling Harry Maguire into uncomfortable positions — the Leicester debutant was fortunate not to be cautioned for a clumsy foul when the Arsenal forward turned quickly in the midfield zone.
It was also notable that Lacazette twice battled back to counter-press and win possession quickly, denying Leicester one of their famous counter-attacks and setting up a quick Arsenal attack at the same time. Both incidents prompted cheers from across the Emirates.
Another man noticeably keen to press on his debut was Sead Kolasinac, starting on the left of a back three. A formidable physical presence, the Bosnia international constantly pushed up and dispossessed opponents quickly; he was also notably keen to storm forward whenever Arsenal had possession. Indeed, he teed up Danny Welbeck for Arsenal’s equaliser on the stroke of half-time, albeit with a slightly awkward close-range pass that rather suggested he’d picked up that old Arsenal habit of “trying to walk the ball into the goal” already.
Incidentally, Kolasinac ended the game pirouetting away from an opposition challenge deep under pressure inside his own half. It was a confident debut.
At 3-2 down in the second half, Wenger made dramatic changes. Aaron Ramsey replacing Elneny made sense, and the Welsh midfielder nearly nodded in a left-wing Lacazette cross with his first touch. A bolder move was bringing on Giroud for Rob Holding and Arsenal essentially playing a 4-2-1-3 formation with the quiet Mesut Ozil tucked in behind Lacazette, Giroud and Welbeck.
Bizarrely, this change also involved Hector Bellerin switching from right-sided wing-back to left-back and Oxlade-Chamberlain switching from left-sided wing-back to right-back, the two essentially swapping flanks.
Arsenal rallied without creating too much in the way of chances before Ramsey popped up again in the penalty box with a late chance in the aftermath of a set piece, this time keeping his cool to drill the ball into the far corner. 3-3. Five minutes to go.
The momentum was with Arsenal and more attacks came. Lacazette had another chance and had a shot deflected over; then, from the resulting corner, Giroud — who is surely the best supersub in the Premier League — ignored the fact his shirt was being tugged off his back, somehow reached the corner and nodded it in off the bar.
4-3, Arsenal are top of the league and this game might not be topped in the 379 Premier League games that are to follow this season.
3. “Old-school” Leicester fall just short
Leicester City started this game in disastrous circumstances by conceding Lacazette’s goal, but to their credit, they battled back into the game quickly and immediately put pressure upon Arsenal.
First Riyad Mahrez volleyed a shot narrowly wide before their equaliser after just five minutes. A short corner from the left flank caught Arsenal napping, the ball was swung to the far post, where Maguire provided another crucial header from a debutant. However, instead of going for goal like Lacazette, he nodded it back into the goalmouth for Shinji Okazaki to head home, the type of close-range finish the Japan forward only ever seems to score. 2017-18 had started with a bang.
After that initial spell of pressure, Leicester reverted to being the Leicester we’ve come to expect: two deep banks of four, Okazaki and Jamie Vardy dropping back tight to keep the side compact with those two and Mahrez trying to launch quick counter-attacks through the centre of the pitch with neat combination play. There were some searching balls into the opposition’s right-back zone for Vardy, too.
Maguire showed he’s up to speed with the Foxes’ plan shortly before half-time when he turned down two short passing options to casually knock the ball along the left-hand touchline into 30 yards of space. Vardy charged across from the centre and shoulder-barged Rob Holding out of play, winning a throw in the process. It was old-school Leicester.
Indeed, their left-flank throws caused Arsenal problems: Christian Fuchs’ deliveries were so powerful they were clearing the near post and Petr Cech was forced to awkwardly palm one ball away from his goal-line when it might have been heading in (although it wouldn’t have actually counted as a goal).
But it was a more traditional left-wing cross that produced Leicester’s second. A quick turnover in Arsenal’s half found Marc Albrighton breaking down the wing and his devilish curled delivery was half-volleyed high into the net by Vardy, the man who turned down Arsenal just over a year ago.
Vardy then had Leicester’s first chance of the second half, characteristically chasing a booming long ball and forcing Cech to sweep well outside his penalty box, but then came a very atypical Vardy goal. He rose highest to flick in a right-wing, near-post corner from Mahrez to put Leicester 3-2 ahead.
Arsenal’s set-piece defending was repeatedly poor, probably related to the fact they essentially started this game without any commanding centre-backs and Nacho Monreal of all people deployed in the middle of their back three. But Leicester were guilty of sitting too deep late on, inviting plenty of pressure their defenders couldn’t entirely deal with.
As such, the visitors ended the game just as they’d started it, conceding a headed goal by a French striker.