On a mild, peppy, boisterous afternoon at the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal made it five Premier League wins in a row to reclaim fourth spot from Manchester United, a one-point advantage underwritten by three games in hand.
Thomas Partey was assertive in central midfield, Martin Ødegaard a classy presence ahead of him, and Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli hugely impressive as the wide players in that press-and-move attack.
It is a mark of Arsenal’s progress since the turn of the year that there were times during this 2-0 defeat of an understrength Leicester City when they almost seemed to be having too much fun, trying to dance the ball into the net in that grand old modern-day Arsenal tradition. This is, after all, the youngest squad in the Premier League. They probably deserve to have a little fun.
“That is the way it should be,” Mikel Arteta said. “They have the joy and the privilege to be football players or otherwise what is the point? They are enjoying playing football, they have this freedom and they can express themselves.”
That quality that has been key to Arsenal’s fine recent run, the sense that Arteta has created a clear tactical system and, more important, a vibe, a feeling of something juiced up with its own youthful energy. The past no longer lingers around this place. Or at least, not while the team continue to win.
This was the start of what could be a defining period in the slog through spring. Arsenal have benefited from the combination of a stripped-back schedule and a young, biddable squad. One game a week. Time to groove and drill. People under the age of 25 who actually listen to you. What more could a furiously meticulous details-manager want?
That smooth ride has now ramped up into an intense triple-header, with Liverpool to come at the Emirates on Wednesday and a trip to Aston Villa three days after that. Liverpool will provide a true mark of their progress. “It’s a different level,” Arteta said. “We have to take our game to a new standard. We have to believe we can beat them.”
Here Leicester were largely compliant opponents. Defeat ended a run of four straight wins, but Brendan Rodgers rested Youri Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi from the start before Thursday’s game at Rennes. And Leicester’s midfield always seemed stretched by Arsenal’s great strength, the depth and variety of the attacking midfield.
Arteta went with an Ødegaard-Martinelli-Saka tripod behind Alexandre Lacazette. And before long those attacking patterns began to assert themselves against opponents who sat deep. With nine minutes gone Saka produced a stunning piece of skill, pulling a long diagonal pass out of the sky with the tip of his toe, then sniping back inside and forcing a corner. Martinelli’s kick was hard and flat – and headed straight in at the near post by Partey.