Leicester City came up against an Arsenal side looking to reinstate themselves as favourites in what has been a ‘topsy-turvy’ race for top four, after having lost their last two games against Crystal Palace and Wolves respectively.
Leicester set up in a 4-1-4-1 formation that have come accustom to since Brendan Rodgers’ arrival, with James Maddison in a withdrawn role on the left.
Arsenal set-up with what was a 4-4-2 when they were without the ball. Both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette started, but Arsenal were without both midfielders Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey.
Arsenal unwilling to press and Leicester dominate possession
Arsenal began the match with a intent on controlling their own half, allowing Leicester less space in midfield. This meant that the two centre-forwards, Aubameyang and Lacazette were quite deep and close to the midfield as Leicester were building-up from defence. This was perhaps to close down passing lanes into midfield, but the movement of Leicester’s midfield players made it difficult for Arsenal’s midfielders and defenders to mark runs and close down quickly.
Leicester’s centre-backs also had the option to play diagonal passes into the wide areas, as the full-backs pushed high up the pitch. Arsenal’s wide midfielders offered little threat in transitions, so the full-backs had the opportunity to move forward.
Arsenal’s almost static approach without the ball allowed Leicester to dominate possession, and the first 10 minutes oversaw a share of 78% to 22%. Arsenal also only completed 77 of a mere 125 passes in the first-half, showing a poor use of possession -when they had it. Leicester found general ease in progressing the ball from defence to midfield because of a mixture of movement to receive, a lack of will (or perhaps an inability if you argue fatigue and tiredness as factors) to press and the varying options the centre-backs had. This was also a result of an extra man in midfield.
Leicester were also quick to progress play on the counter-attack which tended to come from quickly regaining possession in midfield. Hamza Choudhury also dropped deeper when Leicester were without the ball to support Wilfred Ndidi and both won most of their tackles; the former 3/3 and the latter 6/7.
Arsenal themselves attacked on the counter, rather than dominating the ball and breaking down the block like Leicester. As Arsenal countered, both centre-forwards sometimes drifted wide, to stretch Leicester’s back line and make use of the space vacated by the home sides full-backs. There were some chances in transitions, notably a shot from Alex Iwobi following a great run, which was parried away by Kasper Schmeichel.
Attacks from the flanks
Many of Leicester’s attacks came from build-up out wide and long switches of play to and from the wide areas and evidence can be broken down into two corresponding sections;
When Leicester attacked down the left, left-back Ben Chilwell was often one-on-one with opposite right-back Anthony Maitland-Niles – a makeshift right-back who is far more adept as a wing-back, or even in midfield. Chilwell led one attack with a great dribble from the edge of the half-way line, and drifted past Maitland-Niles too easily. Chilwell was also on a few occasions a recipient of aforementioned diagonal passes from deeper areas. Because of how narrow Arsenal could be as Leicester approached the penalty-area, Chilwell had a lot of space to receive long passes and either cross or release to a teammate nearby.
Starting on the right-side of midfield, Marc Albrighton stayed wide to offer a viable option to cross and on the counter. Albrighton has an excellent delivery from out wide, and on two occasions combined with centre-forward Jamie Vardy to give Leicester two of their best chances of the first-half. The second account came just after 30 minutes, when from the right, Albrighton played a ball over the top of the defence to meet the run of Vardy who poked the ball over the top of goalkeeper Bernd Leno, but also just over the bar.
It must be noted just how good Vardy is at making runs through the channels and on the blindside of the defender. The Arsenal centre-forwards did not make similar types of runs often enough, and these types of runs were perhaps more aligned to how Arsenal approached this game.
Albrighton also tracked back to support the very attack-minded Ricardo Pereira as Arsenal ventured forward and helped close down Iwobi on Arsenal’s left, regaining the ball in one instance.
Whereas there were two maintaining the width on the right, Ben Chilwell was the sole provider of width on the left as James Maddison was given licence to move infield and overload the centre. This gave Arsenal’s midfield issues when trying to close down against Leicester’s build-up. The movement of Maddison gave Chilwell the room to overlap as well, meaning there were more numbers in attack for the home side.
Maddison has frequently started on the left-side (albeit on paper) since Brendan Rodgers’ arrival and the Leicester’s switch from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-1-4-1. With Maddison slighlty towards the left and then moving inside, it is harder to mark in comparison to when playing as an out and out no.10, as he has more freedom to move in and out of wide positions, and pretentiously its a bit like how Zinedine Zidane operated for France during Euro 2004. When Maddison arrived in central areas, he was key in finding runs of teammates with some very good passes.
Although struggling to contain Leicester in midfield, Arsenal were still in the game and had some chances to score, but the game went in the home side’s favour when a tackle from Maitland-Niles saw the full-back receive a second-yellow and a red card (unfairly?). Being left with 10 men 10 minutes before half-time meant that before the interval, Henrikh Mkhitaryan dropped from right-midfield to right-back, and Aubameyang was also forced to offer defensive support on the right in this time, as well.
The second-half did oversee some changes from the start; Ndidi was replaced by Harvey Barnes, a natural winger, which meant Maddison moved infield alongside Youri Tielemans and Choudhury dropped into the deepest midfield position. There was a further attacking impetus suggested by this substitute, aiming to take advantage of Arsenal’s 10-man disadvantage.
For Arsenal, Iwobi was replaced by Laurent Koscielny, which meant Shkodran Mustafi moved to right-back, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan moved into a three-man midfield. Arsenal’s midfield was now very narrow and this gave a lot of space to the wingers and overlapping full-backs.
Rather than the main duel on Leicester’s left being left-back (Chilwell) v right-back (Maitland-Niles), it was left-winger (Barnes) v centre now right-back (Mustafi). Barnes was very direct and posed a threat as he used the outside of the flank as well as cutting inside.
Leicester take the lead
Arsenal, now a man down were even more defensive than they were in the first-half, and that’s saying something. Arsenal were now more intent on defending the box, and because of this seemed more rigid and harder to break down than prior to the red card. But, in doing this Unai Emery’s side were offering even less on the counter-attack. Leicester had too much time on the ball and were consistently progressing into the final-third, before eventually after 58 minutes on the edge of the box, Maddison played a wonderful ball into Tielemans who made a well-timed run into the box before heading past Leno to put Leicester ahead.
Continuous flow of chances
Leicester only continued to attack, with various chances coming from Barnes who dribbled from the left-wing, and another chance for Tielemans – a loan move so far turning out nicely, before a double save from Leno was forced from Pereira who much like Chilwell was a constant attacking threat from full-back, and then Barnes. Leicester ended the match with having attempted 24 shots, whereas Arsenal only attempted 6.
Subs have little impact and two late goals
Arsenal made another defensive substitution by replacing Mkhitaryan with Matteo Guendouzi, and up front Lacazette was replaced with Eddie Nketiah who was lively in the latter stages. As for the home side, like for like substitutions were made as Demarai Gray was brought on for Albrighton, whilst Choudhury came off for Nampalys Mendy.
Each substitute did little to impact the game massively, but Leicester were not finished in terms of attacking, and Schmeichel from goal passes the ball over the top of the defence straight into the path of Vardy, who’s run was not matched by either of Arsenal’s centre-backs and although hitting the bar with his first attempt, Vardy was quicker than Sokratis to react and netted in the rebound.
And in stoppage time, Pereira made a quick run into the box past the defenders, and was unselfish to assist Vardy for a simple tap-in and his second goal of the match.
A very good performance from Leicester, and a very poor one of that from Arsenal. Arsenal chose to go with a set-up to obstruct the opposition, labelled as sometimes important by Emery, and in this case, it was the wrong choice. Although injuries and fatigue may be reasons causing a poor performance, the tactics did not go to plan. Constant rotation of system and players from Emery is a hindrance to consistency, too. Two weeks ago, you would have potentially argued that Emery had done a very good job in his first season, with Arsenal having look set to finish in the top four, but a large chunk of games some of which not taken advantage of have proven difficult and Arsenal may have to look to Europa League as the likeliest route into next season’s Champions League.