This was essentially a meeting between two shadow sides and its turning point was a slapstick Leicester own goal by Christian Fuchs but it provided further evidence, nonetheless, that Arsenal are growing into a serious unit under Mikel Arteta.
Following success in the FA Cup and Community Shield, the Spaniard oversaw progress in the Carabao Cup with a fast-becoming familiar performance rigour and hunger, with a dollop of good fortune. Eddie Nketiah’s scrappy late goal from close range put a cherry on top for Arsenal.
The contest was not exactly decorated with flamboyant play but the basic ingredients Arteta demands, and that Arsenal often lacked before his arrival, were apparent. Arsenal are a team who know their jobs in the team and are fully committed to the mission; and the display from young players on the fringes, such as Nketiah, Bukayo Saka, and Reiss Nelson, gave the club’s outlook a brighter glow.
Arteta gave an indication of how he sees Mesut Özil and Matteo Guendouzi’s futures, meanwhile, by leaving both out of the squad for the trip to the King Power while fielding a starting lineup with seven changes from their last Premier League outing.
When asked about Özil’s absence afterwards, the manager tried to deflect the obvious question. “I’m really happy with the performance of the players here,” he said. Pressed, he added: “The team is evolving. You can see the level they are achieving … We are picking the players we believe are the best for each game.
You can see the players that we are changing and using. It is very difficult for some players, not just Mesut, to make the squad. It’s difficult for others who haven’t been involved. We have a squad of 26 or 27 players at the moment. I have to do my job as fair as possible and I have to try to select the players who in my opinion are in better condition.”
Leicester fielded an entirely different lineup to the one that started Sunday’s league victory over Burnley, with Daniel Amartey impressing on his first appearance since breaking a leg against West Ham nearly two years ago.
That happy development was offset by Brendan Rodgers’ revelation after the match that Leicester’s influential midfielder Wilfred Ndidi will be out for at least six weeks with a groin injury suffered against Burnley. “It will be at least 12 if he needs an operation,” added Rodgers.
Leicester started brightly, with Kelechi Iheanacho going close twice in the first five minutes. On the second of those occasions Bernd Leno denied him, rushing off the line to make a good save with his feet. In between those efforts Nelson, who has been linked with a loan move away from Arsenal, showed his promise by cutting in from the left and firing just over the bar.
Arsenal gained control after, advancing with moves of impressive fluidity and geometry. And in Saka, they had a player apt to glide past several opponents at any moment. When he did so in the 20th minute, starting from his left wingback position, he sent a pass across the face of goal that a teammate should have anticipated.
But Leicester came closest to scoring in the first half when James Maddison, making his first start of the season, curled an exquisite shot over Leno from the edge of the box. The goalkeeper’s luck was in, as the ball bounced back off the post and into his arms.
Maddison should have threatened again just after the break but ballooned a shot from 20 yards after clever service by Demarai Gray. Both sides were popping the ball around pretty well but neither looked sharp in the box. It took a blunder and good fortune to bring a breakthrough. First, Fuchs misjudged a bouncing ball, allowing it to run to Nketiah, who fed Nicolas Pépé. Danny Ward dived in to cut out the Ivorian’s pass across the face of goal but inadvertently sent it back to Pépé, whose instant shot from an acute angle struck the near post and ricocheted into the net off the dumbfounded Fuchs.
Nketiah nearly doubled Arsenal’s lead with a nifty lob over Ward, but Wes Morgan recovered to clear off the line. Ayoze Pérez, on as a substitute, should have drawn Leicester level in the 81st minute but headed wide from close range after a lovely free-kick by Albrighton.
Then another substitute, Héctor Bellerín, helped Arsenal seal victory by dancing into the box and flashing the ball across goal to Nketiah. The striker, summing up the qualities Arteta has instilled, showed greater alertness and determination to poke the breaking ball over the line as Ward seemed to dawdle. “Im really happy with the performance, first of all with the attitude,” said Arteta. “I could see the players came here to win the game.”