There was a moment on the Sky Sports commentary when, after Martin Odegaard had created perhaps 3 or 4 of the 5 first half chances that he made, Martin Tyler said, “We haven’t seen a lot of James Maddison so far”, and I had genuinely forgotten he was even playing.
This isn’t an Odegaard v Maddison ‘told you so’ kinda thing, but a testament to how good the Norwegian was. The Leicester man had more influence in the final 15-20 minutes of the first period when we struggled to exert any control, but Odegaard was sensational early on, and even better in the second half.
We can all see the talent, the vision, the craft, the deftness of his touch, and his ability to see and execute things we can’t (that sweeping pass to Saka when it looked like he was set for a shot, for example), but he couples all of that with the kind of work-rate and commitment to his off the ball work that must swell the heart of Mikel Arteta and make him as much a joy to work with as he is to watch.
It’s quite something to think that when we played Leicester earlier in the season, he started on the bench. There were questions about how he was going to get into the team ahead of Alexandre Lacazette, but even on that day, he helped changed the second half momentum when the home side tried in vain to overturn the two goal deficit they were facing. Now, Odegaard is indispensable to this side, the fulcrum of so much that we do – and not simply from an attacking perspective. As Arsene Wenger once said about Robert Pires, he is the oil in our engine, and there are times in games when we need someone just to help us keep the ball moving for a few seconds and he’s almost always there to do that.
I think it was fitting that Thomas Partey was on the scoresheet yesterday, because he too exerted his own powerful influence on the game. His role as the deepest lying midfielder is one that he’s now extremely comfortable with, not just because he has players ahead of him, but behind him there is the right platform with Ben White and Gabriel. His near post header might have exposed some weaknesses in Leicester’s defending, but it was a fine finish. He might have had a second, curling a shot onto the bar, but his contribution went far beyond what he offered in attack.
It’s very rare that you don’t face some danger in a Premier League game, and even without Jamie Vardy, Leicester have some threat. Harvey Barnes is a very smart player down that left hand side, and he forced Aaron Ramsdale into a superb save from a header which had Brendan Rodgers celebrating then ‘wow’-ing at its quality. It was reminiscent of Vardy celebrating Maddison’s free kick before Ramsdale’s save in the away game. They must be sick of the sight of him.
Ben White made an equally important tackle in the box a few minutes earlier, but it’s worth taking note of Gabriel Martinelli in this passage of play too. He tracked his man into the box and got a touch on the ball which helped White’s intervention, but as we got it clear and broke up field, the Brazilian was the the man on the end of our attacking move, his shot from inside their box just a few seconds later blocked away. It’s the perfect example of how Arteta has his players switched on and contributing at both ends of the pitch.
After the break we were better again, more in control, and dangerous again. Martinelli threatened, Lacazette had a shot blocked, Schmeichel saved from Saka, and then something amazing happened: Arsenal were awarded a penalty. Caglar Soyuncu instinctively reached out for the ball as it was going beyond him, and while the touch might have been tiny, there’s no doubt he got fingertips on it before it was cleared off the line. VAR checked and checked and checked, then asked Anthony Taylor to go look at it – at which point I thought our chances were zero – but he pointed to the spot and handed the Leicester man a booking.
I think Lacazette is a very good penalty taker, but when a striker hasn’t scored in almost three months, it’s hard to be 100% confident. Nevertheless, he gave the keeper no chance with a great finish into the top corner. Schmeichel went berserk for some reason, complaining about the stuttered run up but maybe it was misdirected given he’d stepped forward off his line by a couple of yards and still couldn’t save it. Turn that rage inwards, Kasper, you not so friendly ghost.
After that, the way we managed the game was particularly pleasing. There were still times we had to be switched on, Tierney made one fantastic clearance in the box, but Partey continued to pull the midfield strings as Odegaard added glitter to them. Saka got kicked around as he always does with almost no protection from the officials, and we saw out the game with late subs and the confidence of a team that knows as a collective it is going places and making very obvious progress.
Afterwards, Mikel Arteta spoke about the togetherness in his side when asked about the camaraderie on Sky Sports:
You know, you can sense it, you can feel it. They’re really having a good time together. And I think that transmits on the pitch.
And had words for man of the match Martin Odegaard:
He was terrific again today in every aspect of the game, what he had to do in defending, when we were high, when we were deep, in build-up phases, in the final third, the way he understands and manages the game when needed. I think he’s come a long way since his arrival, he’s showing great maturity and responsibility on the pitch and he makes the other players better I think.
It feels almost too obvious to talk more about him and Partey, but even if they were the outstanding performers on the day in my opinion, there was so much to like about this as a team performance too. Sometimes an individual can shine because they are head and shoulders above everyone else, but Odegaard and Partey sticking in 9 out of 10 performances while everyone else was doing 7s and 8s is really encouraging.
It’s now five wins from five and we’re back into the top four, and there was a graphic on Sky showing the latest form table and we’re right up there too. The mantra from the manager and the players remains ‘game by game’, which I fully understand and absolutely support. That is the right mindset for them, not just because it prevents anyone looking too far forward, but it will be useful as and when things don’t go well – which is bound to happen between now and May. It will feel bad, but if it’s just one game, it’s easier to cope with.
The most exciting aspect of what we’re doing isn’t the obvious progress, or how clearly you can see the elements of our game which have taken steps or even leaps forward, it’s how – if we can maintain this – the summer transfer market could kick it on another level. That’s not to disrespect any of the players who did such a good job yesterday, but thinking medium-term about where we go is part and parcel of the experience too.
Coming back to the short-term though, results + attractive, exciting, fun football is a very tasty combination and there’s a lot of credit to go around, from players to manager to staff. It feels like something is brewing and it’s a lot of fun to watch. Obviously the next fixture is going to be a significant challenge, and perhaps a measuring stick to where we think we are, but this morning we should take time to enjoy what we’re doing because it is very good.