Willian the man
Before the game against Leicester Mikel Arteta’s praise of Willian’s cameo against Benfica was almost verging on obsessive.
Without being prompted in the presser after Arsenal’s comeback win in Greece on Thursday the Spaniard took time to praise the “game changing” performance of his Brazilian winger who provided an assist for Kieran Tierney’s equaliser on the night.
Then in his pre-match conference the charm offensive continued.
“He is a player who we all like,” he said of Willian. “His team-mates like him and we were expecting many more things from him since he joined but for many different reasons he hasn’t found his best performances.
“But hopefully Thursday’s performance is going to give him the platform and belief that he is a really important player – he is a player I really like and I did a lot to bring him in and hopefully he can still give us more.
“I was really pleased with Willian on Thursday and he totally deserves some credit because of the way he trains every day and he is trying.
“In games now you can see that he is starting to produce what we think he can do for the team so everyone has to step up and create big moments in games because the front players in the end have to be the ones that decide the game for us.”
Most people baulked at the affection delivered by Arteta to his summer signing.
Sure, his assist against Benfica had been decent enough, but it hardly seemed like the kind of sliding doors moment upon which individual careers are made or broken.
After nearly doubling his Premier League assist tally in the space of 90 minutes at the King Power it’s safe to say the approach worked and the Arsenal boss has been proved right.
In his limited time in North London it is has become clear for all to see that Willian is very much a confidence player.
There was a stage where the Brazilian genuinely didn’t look like he wanted to be on the pitch, with a missed chance against Manchester United really standing out as rock bottom in terms of his levels of self-belief.
It would have been easy to give up on him, but Arteta has persisted and and after many months of trying it seems to finally be working.
Of course the 32-year-old will need to keep this up for a prolonged period of time if he is to convince the Arsenal fan base that his free transfer from Chelsea was worth it, but performances like the one against Leicester are certainly a step in the right direction.
Xhaka the carrot and Pepe the stick
The Swiss midfielder had a shaky start and was undoubtedly at fault for Youri Tielemans‘ goal, but recovered incredibly to put in one of his standout displays in what has been a stellar recent run.
Xhaka finished the game with the most touches, the most passes, the most duels won, the most ball recoveries and the most tackles made.
Considering he has started all but one of the Gunners’ games since the Boxing Day victory over Chelsea the fact that he was able to be almost everywhere on the pitch was simply incredible.
Pepe meanwhile proved that being dropped for both Europa League matches with Benfica has done little to disrupt the groove of form he is currently in.
In the first half he was integral to the Arsenal attack managing 25 touches in the final third, being fouled five times and winning the penalty to put his side in front at the break.
Then in the second Pepe went one better, notching his fourth goal in his last seven Premier League starts.
In fact his performance drew the Leicester players to such frustration that when the ball was put out after the Ivorian winger went down injured, Kasper Schmeichel let out an exasperated “F*** off!” so loud that even a full King Power Stadium would have been able to hear it.
It’s interesting to compare the recent upward trajectories of both players’ form given that they have both been guilty of costing Arsenal points this season through moments of indiscipline.
The sentence handed out for their crimes by Mikel Arteta though was vastly different.
For Pepe’s red card at Leeds the Gunners boss labelled his actions as “unacceptable” and claimed he had let the team down. For Xhaka, on the other hand though, the post-match narrative was far softer following his dismissal against Burnley.
If the Swiss midfielder was given the carrot then his Ivorian teammate was well and truly given the stick, but it is a testament to Arteta’s man-management skills that both bespoke approaches ended up with the same quality of outcome.
Odegaard’s touch of class
Despite putting in a good performance against Benfica Martin Odegaard was strangely singled out for criticism by Martin Keown in the BT Sport studio ahead of the match.
“I think he’s almost another project, which we haven’t got time for now,” said the Invincible centre half.
“There’s no time to lose. You have to win games of football and he’s not ready yet, he’s demonstrated that.
“I think there’s a player there, somewhere, underneath all of that. He’s got flashes of real quality.
“But Smith-Rowe now is ready to burst into that position. So I’d simply put him back in that position.”
His wish was granted as Emile Smith Rowe was brought back into the number 10 role for the trip to Leicester, with Odegaard dropping to the bench.
Just 40 minutes into the match though, the Hale End graduate was forced off through injury to be replaced by none other than Odegaard himself.
As he was readied to come onto the pitch the BT commentator remarked on how the Norwegian’s debut at Real Madrid had been as a substitute for Cristiano Ronaldo, sparking an outlandish comparison from Keown.
“(Smith Rowe) isn’t that good yet,” he said. “But he might be in the future.”
As Odegaard strolled onto the pitch though, his impact on the match was more akin to another former Real Madrid player.
The 22-year-old’s flicked pass for Willian in the build up to Nicolas Pepe’s goal in the second half was reminiscent of Mesut Ozil at his best.
With three Leicester defenders closing in the Norwegian had the presence of mind to flick the ball leftwards and practically ensure a goal for Arsenal.
Speaking after the match, Mikel Arteta admitted he was worried about the severity of Smith Rowe’s injury that forced him off in the first half.
“Yeah I’m concerned because for Emile to come out and say I cannot continue playing it should be something,” he said.
“It’s something related to his hip, I don’t know how bad it is but he was in a good place after the game.”
Of course Arsenal will hope the 20-year-old is back as soon as possible, but if Odegaard is capable of showing further touches of class like that, then they should be able to get by in his absence.
Martinelli told what he must do to start
Other than Emile Smith Rowe’s injury possibly the only other dampener on the game was the fact that Gabriel Martinelli didn’t get on the pitch.
With Arsenal cruising towards the end and Leicester having surrendered after being forced to make their second injury substitution the stage seemed set surely to give the young Brazilian some time on the pitch.
Instead though it was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who was brought on for the final 15 minutes of the match.
Concern is now seriously starting to build around Martinelli’s lack of game time at Arsenal. Since the turn of the year he has played just 53 minutes in the Premier League.
Mikel Arteta was asked before the game and did little to quell the anxiety of Gooners around the world who are starting to fear over the stunted development of the youngster.
“Everybody has raised the level in recent weeks,” he said. “Since Christmas the front players have given us something different.
“Laca has given us some really good spells, Nicolas Pepe is the same. I was really pleased with Willian yesterday because of the way he trains and he is starting to produce in games.
“Everybody has to step up in games and create big moments because the front players at the end have to be the ones who decide it for us.”
After the match the topic was breached again in Arteta’s press conference and this time the Spaniard was a little more concrete in telling Martinelli what he needed to do to start for Arsenal.
“He needs to keep working and make things difficult for us,” he said. “He’s a player who is going to give us a lot but he needs some time and we need to find the right games for him, the right connections with him on the pitch to do what he can do best.”
To be fair to the Brazilian it is difficult to make it ‘difficult’ if he’s not being given any opportunities at all.
It is true that Willian, Pepe, Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette are all playing well now, but that hasn’t always been the case for Arsenal this season and yet Martinelli has still found himself overlooked.
The reality is though that at present it is difficult to see where his next minutes are going to come from. The 19-year-old is firmly down the pecking order.
All is not lost though and having just come back from a serious injury there is perhaps some wisdom in easing him back into first team surroundings particularly given the form of other members of the squad.
Arteta did imply that opportunities are going to be there for Martinelli.
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“The way he is and the way he trains every day he’s going to be a really important player for us,” he said.
“When you have many options sometimes it’s difficult when you look for certain qualities in certain games.”
With chances now becoming so few and far between though, the pressure is well and truly on the young forward to take them.