On Sunday, Leicester City welcomed Arsenal for the 26th iteration of the Premier League fixtures. The game headlines were focusing on the narrow win of Arsenal in the Europa League against Benfica and the much rotated side Mikel Arteta chose as his starting 11. Despite that, Arsenal managed to dominate against a theoretically fresh Leicester City and get the 3 crucial points.
Let’s see how the two teams lined up for the game.
Leicester City decided to approach the game the same way they approached the previous game against Arsenal; sit deep and narrow, press the ball distribution midfielders and attack with long diagonal balls to split the opposition defence. Due to many injuries, Brendan Rodgers opted to play both Vardy and Iheanacho up top, with Iheanacho to drop deep to connect the midfield to the attack.
On the other side the Gunners lined up a rotated side with main players like Aubameyang, Saka and Odegaard starting on the bench. The double midfield pivot of Elneny and Xhaka was tasked mainly to give some cover to the Gunners center backs.
Really early in the game, in the 5th minute, Iheanacho’s press on Xhaka forced him to make a loose pass to Willian, Tielemans got the ball and ran unopposed until the box where he scored after a nicely placed shot.
There are two main mistakes that led to the goal. The first one is the mistake of Xhaka who lost ball possession really easily. The second one is originating from the misjudgment of Elneny and his positioning awareness.
In my opinion, Mari recognises the threat that Vardy can cause moving on an unbalanced defence, rushes to cover a possible Vardy move while leaving the task of covering his space to the two defensive midfielders. Ideally, either Xhaka or Elneny should be able to cover the yellow square as shown above. Since Xhaka is already behind Tielemans, Elneny should have stepped out to cover the space.
It’s refreshing to see Arsenal scoring from a well drilled set piece. Some months ago, Arsenal hired a set piece specialist and it seems that initially the focus was to work on defending set pieces rather than attacking set pieces. But in this case, we saw a very well drilled set piece.
David Luiz was lurking on the far post and made a quick sprint to the penalty spot and with a nice header equalised for the gunners.
There is a small detail that may go unnoticed to the naked eye, but have a look on the “screens” that Xhaka and Lacazette do to keep the path of David Luiz open and pin some defenders on them.
Speaking of refreshing changes, VAR for once showed its usefulness by awarding a clear handball from Ndidi. One interesting point to talk about this goal is the counter attack Arsenal launched. Willian got away from the press of 3 Leicester City players and found Odegaard in the middle.
Odegaard brought the ball forward before opening on the right to Pepe. At that point, Cedric started to overlap, something that gave Pepe the time and space to cut inside and shoot. Ndidi had his arm extended, and the penalty was given after a VAR involvement.
Another pattern that we noticed throughout the whole game was the overload of attackers stepping into the box. And there is no better example from the 3rd goal of Arsenal. Lacazette held the ball as a pivot, Xhaka progressed the ball forward to Pepe, and after a quick interplay between Odegaard and Wilian, Pepe taped the ball into the open goal.
In the home game against Leicester City the Gunners were constantly recycling the possession without pushing forward the ball quickly to find the opponents defence unbalanced. Also, in that game Arsenal left a lot of spaces in the back in their search of a goal. These mistakes were avoided and despite the rotated squad, Arteta managed to get 3 vital points.
Arteta utilised the ball possession and progression capabilities of Xhaka and Willian. More specifically, we can see the passing tendency of Xhaka to find Willian in the half spaces between the lines and the same play happening on the right side between Cedric and Pepe.
Pepe was instrumental in the game, not only by scoring but by making the game he was brought to do; draw defenders near him, drawing fouls, forcing defenders to make decisions instead of sitting deep. His stats card says it all:
Let me apologise for the pun but I couldn’t resist the temptation; you see it’s not often that Xhaka has received almost universal praise for his performances. He has 16 complete 90 mins in the last 2 and a half months, his work ethic and importance to the side is immeasurable. Last night, he registered: most touches (85), most passes (70), most duels won (9), most ball recoveries (6), most tackles made (3), 2nd-most fouls won (4) and 2nd-most interceptions (2).
I am not sure if there are a lot of things to play for in the league but either way it is very important to keep the winning streak going towards the end of the season. In this crazy season with no pre-season and a lot of injury issues, it is nice to get some consistency and observe the patterns of play that the team has been working on.
By Stelios Mouratidis