The Arsène Wenger celebration face at the end of it all was not as visceral or as liberating as the one he produced at Wembley on Sunday but the relief to snatch a win from the jaws of a dreary draw was still worth savouring. Wenger might have the FA Cup in his sightlines but he can also cling to the possibility of a 19th consecutive Champions League qualification thanks to a freakish late goal.
It felt like one of those days with which Arsenal are familiar against a dogged opponent, where the sideways passes can be soporific and the chances not taken. In the 86th minute the ball pinged around an increasingly anxious Arsenal attack only for a deflected cross to end up with Nacho Monreal, who swung a leg at it. The ball was flying off target only to be diverted in off Robert Huth’s chest.
With that stroke of fortune a Wembley hangover turned into an unexpected Emirates Stadium party. Somehow Arsenal have won three games on the trot and have moved to within four points of Manchester City, and six of Liverpool with two games in hand on the latter. After a dismal few weeks all is not quite dead.
Wenger chose his words pointedly on their chances of making up the remaining ground. “We have advantage of clarity; we have to win our games,” he said. “We cannot be happy with a 0-0. We have to gamble to win the game at any cost.”
Arsenal might have got lucky but, as their manager pointed out, they ended up with four attackers on the pitch plus a forward-minded midfielder in the shape of Aaron Ramsey. He felt that “initiative” was rewarded.
Still, it was hard to stomach for Craig Shakespeare, who had seen his team operate in full hard-to-beat mode before Huth’s accidental intervention. “We had to put blocks on. We had to defend,” he said. “To lose in the manner we did was very disappointing. It was a cruel deflection because it wasn’t even on target. We have to recover quickly. We have another tough away game on Saturday.”
Arsenal have their own tough assignment at the weekend, away to their nearest and not so dearest at White Hart Lane. With this rendezvous positioned between two emotionally charged occasions – the FA Cup semi-final and the north London derby at White Hart Lane on Sunday – Wenger made changes in every department of the team. Sticking to his shiny new formula based on a defensive trio, notably the attack was rejigged to allow Alexis Sánchez a central role.
It was the Chilean who took centre stage in a more theatrical way late on in the game as Leicester psyched themselves up to try to salvage something. As Christian Fuchs prepared to take a throw‑in, Sánchez infringed closer than the laws of the game allow to try to block the ball being launched into the danger zone. After a couple of false attempts, Fuchs hurled the ball at Sánchez’s shoulder and after a momentary pause the Arsenal attacker fell holding his face. He was booked.
Shakespeare did not wish to make too fine a point of it and Wenger was phlegmatic after the event, explaining: “I think he didn’t know he had to be further away. The referee didn’t tell him, so he thought he was in the right position. After that he got a yellow card because he didn’t respect the rules. On top of that Fuchs was lucky not to get a yellow card because he threw the ball at him on purpose.”
Sánchez later got a cut lip in a collision with Huth and Wenger thought Yohan Benaloune was on the lucky side to avoid more serious sanction when he aimed a high kick at Olivier Giroud’s back. It was one of those Wenger likes to call a dark orange.
It says a lot about the quality of the game that the fiery moments were more eye‑catching than much of the play. Leicester had a couple of chances in the first half and Arsenal tested Kasper Schmeichel on a few occasions before the fateful decider.
Once the contretemps blew over and the points belonged to Arsenal, Shakespeare implored his team to refocus as fast as possible. “We need to dust ourselves down very, very quickly,” he said. “We need some more points on the board, we are disappointed not to get them but we move on to West Brom on Saturday.”
And what of Sánchez’s reaction to it all? “If you know Alexis you don’t worry about what happened there,” Wenger said. “He will be the same tomorrow and the same on Sunday.”