On Sunday, Arsenal welcomed Leicester City for the 6th iteration of the Premier League fixtures. The game headlines were focusing on the narrow win of Arsenal in the Europa League, the relaxed 3-0 win of Leicester in the same competition and the absence of Vardy in the starting line up of the visitors.
Arsenal’s formation was (once again) different when attacking and when in defence.
In attacking transitioning, Tierney would go higher up on the left while Xhaka would drop deep, creating effectively a 3-at-the-back formation. Bellerin would cut inside, creating the underlapping on Aubameyang who would generally stay wide trying to stretch the very well drilled Leicester defence. Lacazette dropped in the space between deep midfielders and attack to support and Saka would have the creative freedom to drive forwards with the ball.
Leicester City decided to approach the game the same way they approached the Man City game; defend deep and narrow, press the ball distribution midfielders and attack with long diagonal balls to split the opposition defence. The formation would initially look like this.
Justin and Castagne were the main source of width in the team, Maddison was operating more like a number 10 while Barnes was starting from a really deep position (almost a False 9 position) and was making long sprints to get behind the defence. Fuchs was staying deep and low on the left giving support to Justin while Mendy often stayed in front of the opposition defence to try and split the opposition possession.
The game started with a good rhythm from both sides. First was Leicester who came close to scoring with a long effort by Maddison after a messy clearance from Leno in the 2nd minute. Then, in the 4th minute, a Lacazette goal was disallowed for offside distraction from Xhaka. After these two incidents, the rhythm and the tactical approach of the two sides were shown clearly. Arsenal had the majority of the possession in the first half while Leicester were defending with very deep front line creating a 2-3 formation in the middle.
Alongside that, there was a clear man-to-man marking in the midfield; Tielemans to Partey, Maddison to Ceballos, Praet to Xhaka, with Mendy covering the back 3 and Barnes pressing Gabriel. The decision to not press David Luiz, which is a great long ball distributor was strange but it seemed that Leicester wanted Arsenal to try long balls as they believed to be able to cope with it. On the 11th minute, a Luiz long ball found Bellerin on the edge of the box but could control the ball better to finish.
On the 15th minute, again a Luiz ball to Tierney who was open on the left.
This same happened again and again, but Arsenal failed to find a final pass or cross in the middle. In that sense, Leicester successfully neutralized Lacazette in the middle who is not likely to win a header from the Evans and Fofana double. The rest of the 1st half continued in the same pattern, Leicester would defend deep, allowing Arsenal long balls in the area which were cleared giving the opportunity to Leicester break on the counter attack with the pace of Justin and Barnes.
The second half started as the first half finished, Leicester waited for Arsenal to commit men forward and hit them on the break. From the formation point of view, Xhaka was now operating as a 3rd center back even when Arsenal was in possession.
This was protecting Arsenal as they could keep recycling the ball in the middle, but left Partey desperately alone in the midfield to keep track of 2 or 3 players at the time. And on the 48th minute, Arsenal got very unlucky. After a misplaced pass of Gabriel, Praet broke a counter attack which led for the back line to sprint back. In this effort, Luiz pulled a muscle and requested a substitution. The only available center back in Arsenal line up was Mustafi, who had just started training again after a long spell sidelined. Arsenal’s problems started at that point. That is not to say that this defeat is Mustafi’s fault (or at least not completely his fault). Having Mustafi at the back meant that Leicester now could press him more, as he is not technically as good as Luiz.
Since Leicester could press Arsenal’s main source of distribution of the first half, meant that the whole team approach changed. Now Leicester midfield and attack could actively engage in pressing the midfield and key passers of Arsenal and force them to be more defensive and rush passes forward.
Small adjustments like playing Aubameyang on the left for same spells or having Partey and Ceballos press their weak passers did not seem to work and Leicester was smelling the danger and started to press more and risk more. You could see the doubt on Arsenal’s players passes, lack of taking risks, lack of drive forward as they feared that if they lost the ball, the counter attack could be devastating. The only players in that period really trying to drive the ball forward was Saka (which is the shining light in this team) and – maybe controversially – Bellerin. Hector was making good underlapping runs between Justin and Fuchs, but the absence of Luiz and the fear of risky passes from Ceballos and Xhaka, made those runs useless. After that, the introduction of Jamie Vardy in the 60th minute, was the last indicator that Leicester were getting the game to Arsenal. Having a proper no.9 on the pitch allowed them to win meters higher up and posed a real danger in and around the box.
This change was the beginning of the end for the Gunners, who had lost all confidence in the game and now they had to deal with the pace of Vardy, playing against a tired Gabriel and unfit Mustafi. It was a calamity waiting to happen.
The introduction of Pepe meant that Aubameyang could play on the left but now Arsenal was on the back foot, chasing Leicester. Leicester’s plan on the other hand was very clear; give the ball to Tielemans or Maddison and run behind the defence.
And surely enough, they succeeded. 75th minute and Rodgers brings another attacking player with lots of pace in the game. On the 80th minute, Tielemans, while being aggressively pressed by Thomas, finds Under with a lovely pass.
Under, plays it to Vardy which scores a header to an almost open goal.
This was essentially game over. Gabriel was trying to keep up with the pacey Under, Leno was caught in between going to the ball and going back to the goalposts and Mustafi was caught bird watching while Vardy was charging towards the goal. The changes later Arteta made did not have an impact and Arsenal lost a crucial game.
Arsenal missed a chance to get into the top 4 or at least be in the conversation. However it is still early in the season, and this season there is no clear favorite for the title yet. Arsenal now is asked to perform and more importantly get a big win in the league against Man Utd, a team that is a ghost of its past self. Arteta surely has a lot of work to do, and a lot of things to change. Formation is still a questionable decision and there is pressure to play more expansive and attacking football. However we have seen teams who play attacking expansive football getting punished against teams that deploy the low block. Let’s not forget that after lockdown, Arteta’s Arsenal flourished when deploying a low block defence. It is important for Arteta to try and dominate games with possession. Now, with Partey, a complete box-to-box midfielder, it is feasible to play a 4-3-3 against weaker opposition.
Personally, I would love to see Arteta deploy the 4-2-3-1 he used in the first games as an Arsenal coach. We know that his style is affected by coaches like Guardiola, Bielsa, and it is similar with that school of football. Essentially, when attacking the opposition box, the formation is transformed to – the OG formation – of 2-3-5, like shown below.
I also personally think that formation could work at Arsenal, and help players that seem not to work right now. Pepe can stay on right, stretching opposition defenders and the right back can underlap on the open space and let opposition defenders to make a decision. This will alleviate some of the pressure of always attacking from the left, as Arsenal do at the moment.
It was a bad performance by Arsenal, no reason to hide that. But now there are players that are fighting for the manager and the project he has transmitted to the players. This was the real issue with Emery; lack of transparency and communication with the players. And the Wenger era was lost due to a toxic relation with the fanbase. We are far from that point now, and there is a manager on the top that can convince players to stay and convince them to come to Arsenal. And being an attractive destination for players is very important for the future. Look at the joke of a transfer season Man Utd had and the state that this once great club is now.
By Stelios Mouratidis