Gabriel Martinelli conquers pain barrier to keep Arsenal in control of title race
No pain, no gain. Gabriel Martinelli’s goal celebrations do not usually consist of lying on the turf in apparent agony, surrounded by concerned teammates. Yet the decisive element was not when Wilfred Ndidi, in an attempt to stop his shot, planted his studs in Martinelli’s knee but when, with more accuracy, the Brazilian had angled his effort past Danny Ward.
It was, as the song that long greeted George Graham’s sides went, 1-0 to the Arsenal and their fans duly revived the chant. Like two of Graham’s teams, Mikel Arteta’s class of 2023 may become champions. As Leicester City were beaten, Martinelli was able to continue and Arsenal, too, are back on their feet. After the midwinter slump that brought a solitary point from three games, Arsenal now have six from successive away matches.
Martinelli may have rediscovered his mojo in the Midlands. He had gone eight games without a goal before an injury-time strike against Aston Villa, aided by the absence of a goalkeeper. Seven days later, he beat one and the sense he was back in form was underlined when, albeit fractionally offside, he made a direct dart in behind the Leicester defence to supply Bukayo Saka for a tap-in that was duly ruled out. His could be a timely return to form. A week that contains their game in hand, against Everton, and meetings with three bottom-half teams offers Arsenal the chance to take a decisive step towards glory.
If so, Arteta’s words and deeds at Leicester will assume a greater importance. His half-time team talk seemed to pay dividends when his side struck within a minute of the restart. Leandro Trossard nutmegged Harry Souttar with his pass from the left wing. Martinelli, who had nominally occupied that position, instead made a surging run inside him and steered his shot past Ward.
The choice of Trossard was justified, too. Arteta has shown a fondness for unchanged teams this season but he was rewarded for altering and giving the attack a different dynamic. A minor knock and a three-game week were the official reasons why Eddie Nketiah was demoted to the bench though a five-game barren run felt more of a factor.
Replacing a predator with a winger presented Leicester’s giant centre-backs with a problem. At times, they had no one to mark. Trossard displayed an elusiveness. He was more false nine that genuine No. 9 and Arteta may have borrowed a trick from his mentor Pep Guardiola’s playbook. Arsenal invariably had a man free in midfield: sometimes it was Trossard, the deep-lying forward, sometimes Oleksandr Zinchenko, the roving left-back.
The goal was not Trossard’s first classy touch. In swift succession, each side had a first-half goal disallowed. There was an exquisite finish from the Belgian, curling a shot in from the edge of the area after an unconvincing punch by Ward and Granit Xhaka laid the ball back to Trossard. It had initially passed unnoticed that Ward’s other arm was trapped, held back by Ben White who jumped for a corner with him. It was the sort of goal that would have been given five years ago: now, following a VAR review, it was chalked off.
With the naked eye, it was altogether easier to spot Kelechi Iheanacho offside as he ran on to Tete’s pass and dinked a shot over Aaron Ramsdale. But, though Arsenal were aggrieved when Saka was nudged over in the box by Souttar, it was not another day when they needed to blame the officials.
Instead, they could savour the confident display of a team who showed few signs of cracking under the pressure. Arsenal have the best away record, Leicester the second poorest at home. If the statistics suggested it should be a formality, it felt a sizeable win for Arteta’s side as well as a comfortable one. They could enjoy a comparison with their neighbours. Tottenham lost 4-1 to Leicester a couple of weeks ago. While Manchester United beat City 3-0, it was only after Brendan Rodgers’ side had nine shots in the first 21 minutes. Leicester posed the leaders no such menace.
They were missing the injured James Maddison, one of Tottenham’s tormentors, with Dennis Praet a less potent alternative as a No. 10. Arsenal had not rushed Thomas Partey back, instead using him as a late substitute, but the absence of Maddison meant they did not need to.
The disallowed goal apart, Leicester failed to even muster a shot on target. Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall curled a second-half effort just wide but that was as close as they game. Rodgers sent for Jamie Vardy, formerly the scourge of Arsenal, and Youri Tielemans, two talismen who are now only substitutes. Neither made much of a difference.
And Arsenal’s day, which began with a gesture of love and respect to Zinchenko, affording him the captaincy to mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of his native Ukraine, ended with a different kind of statement from a team with designs on the title.