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Partey and Lacazette punish Leicester to lift Arsenal back into fourth | Premier League

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.

It looked a little too easy. Partey took the space and refused to be shifted. And his influence has been profound in the current run. Here he started in a deep midfield double-bolt with Granit Xhaka. And for a while Arsenal pinned Leicester back, pinging those neat, zingy triangles just in front of the back four.

Arsenal’s Thomas Partey jumps for joy after scoring the first against Leicester. Photograph: Ian Walton/AP

With 17 minutes gone Partey hit the post with a high-craft curling shot dug out of a tight spot. Moments later Saka slalomed through the entire left side of the Leicester defence and put Martinelli in for a shot. This Arsenal attack has been so well drilled in winning the ball back in that band of grass 40 yards or so from goal, and they did it repeatedly here, hunting in carefully tessellated packs.

It took 23 minutes for Leicester to construct a genuine attack, Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall measuring a lovely pass over the top for Harvey Barnes, whose stab at goal was smothered by Aaron Ramsdale.

Six minutes later Ramsdale produced something spectacular, leaping to claw away a close range header from Barnes with his left hand, a wonderful, cinematic save. Rodgers could be seen saying “wow” on the touchline. “For me he’s the best English keeper at the moment,” he said afterwards.

This was Leicester’s best spell as James Maddison began to bring his influence to bear, working cleverly with Nampalys Mendy to wrest some control in those central areas.

But Arsenal emerged re-energised after the break, with both wide attackers cutting inside to make a tight, aggressive front five. And just before the hour mark there was an extended VAR drama as Kasper Schmeichel saved well from Ben White – the ball bounced out to Partey and his header was blocked on the line.

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After much zooming and rewinding the cameras detected a fine deflection off the fingertips of Caglar Soyuncu. Rodgers wasn’t happy. “It was harsh. It was a functional movement. It certainly wasn’t intentional.”

Lacazette slowed in his run-up, then smashed the kick into the top corner to make it 2-0. At that point Arsenal had taken 15 shots at goal to Leicester’s three, and from there Arsenal spent the rest of the second half looking like a team playing with something in reserve. The next week could tell us exactly how much.

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