Leicester’s story is now well-known. Nearly relegated into the Championship last season, the Midlands team hired veteran manager Claudio Ranieri and have rampaged through the league campaign to date. Thanks partly to a relatively clean injury record—Leicester have lost fewer player weeks to injury than all but one other team—and to a style that suits their personnel perfectly, the Foxes sit five points clear of Tottenham and Arsenal.
They visit London just after an impressive 3-1 away victory at Manchester City, and for Arsenal to reduce the five-point difference in the standings and energize their own push for the title, the Gunners must find a way to stop the Leicester juggernaut.
When the two sides met in September, Arsenal produced a swashbuckling 5-2 win. But a game plan that relies on outracing Leicester might not be wise here. For one thing, Arsenal haven’t been efficient recently, having failed to score in three straight league matches before notching two first-half goals against Bournemouth on Saturday. Leicester are also less generous than they were in September, with five clean sheets in their last seven matches.
There are several other approaches that could position Arsenal for victory on Sunday. Some are restrained; others, radical. This article examines some of the options available to manager Arsène Wenger and his team.
Let Leicester have the ball
Leicester have shown a preference for playing without possession. In 25 league matches, the Foxes have had more of the ball—that is, made more passes—than their opponents only twice, according to the FourFourTwo StatsZone app. One of those occasions was against a Bournemouth side reduced to 10 men by a 57th-minute red card.
This tactical choice plays to Leicester’s strengths. The Foxes have a skillful distributor in N’Golo Kanté, quick attackers in Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, and Shinji Okazaki, and a killer instinct in front of goal. That last attribute has given the team the best results in converting shots within the penalty area. (See 7AM Kickoff’s "Leicester are winning the league through superior finishing” for an analysis.)
One way, then, for Arsenal to mitigate Leicester’s strengths would be to relinquish possession to the visitors. This would need to happen in a controlled way with Arsenal’s players organized, coordinated, and positioned behind the ball.
Although such an approach would mark a departure from Arsenal’s overall playing philosophy, there’s considerable precedent for it. In important matches against accomplished opponents, such as Bayern Munich and Manchester City, the Gunners have sacrificed possession for the sake of controlling dangerous spaces.
Granted, Bayern and Man City are possession-based sides and were more than happy to take Arsenal up on the offer. It’s not clear how a possession-averse side like Leicester would respond.
Still, last season Arsenal went to West Ham, managed by defense-and-long-ball aficionado Sam Allardyce, compiled just 42 percent possession, and came away 2-1 winners. A similar approach and result would be welcome on Sunday.
Make Leicester’s defense move
In September, Arsenal succeeded in unsettling Leicester’s back line. They’re less susceptible to speed now because they’re less adventurous and better protected by Kanté and Danny Drinkwater. That certainly showed in last week’s win over Man City, when Sergio Aguero, David Silva, and Raheem Sterling failed to make a telling mark despite their quickness.
But, as Adrian Clarke points out on the Official Arsenal Weekly Podcast, Leicester center backs Wes Morgan and Robert Huth are not the fleetest afoot and might not cover a midfield run from Aaron Ramsey or Mesut Özil if Arsenal center forward Olivier Giroud can occupy both of them for an instant.
Similarly, the Leicester fullbacks, Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs, are not all that fast by the standards of the Premier League. They rely on sound positioning and organization to control wide attackers. Counterattacks at speed by Alexis Sanchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or the kind of direct play Tim Stillman described on this week's Arsenal Vision Post-Match Podcast could stake Arsenal to an advantage.
Double up Riyad Mahrez
Mahrez is the Foxes’ creative genius and, with Vardy, their one-two goal combination. Keeping him quiet will go a long way, though not all the way, to squelching Leicester’s attack.
Arsenal largely succeeded at this task in September by skillful defending on its left. Fullback Nacho Monreal had an excellent day and received consistent support from midfielder Santi Cazorla. The two didn’t allow Mahrez to surge into attack, and they limited the space through which he could dribble. Mahrez began to work the other flank in response.
Cazorla’s absence complicates Arsenal’s effort to reprise this performance. Ramsey is capable of the diligence required, as he showed against Bournemouth last weekend and in prior seasons as Mikel Arteta’s midfield partner. But his work will have to be in synch with Monreal’s and with that of either Mathieu Flamini or Francis Coquelin. Flamini, who started alongside Cazorla at Leicester, hasn’t developed the most seamless partnership with Ramsey, while Coquelin has hardly played with the Welshman.
Defending against the threat posed by Mahrez will therefore be a real test.
Match Leicester’s formation
This would be a radical and unlikely choice.
Leicester’s setup is described as a 4-4-2, but it’s more of a 4-4-1-1 or even a 4-5-1. Okazaki plays behind Vardy and serves as both a second striker and as an additional midfielder. His energy and ability in the tackle permit him to execute these dual roles.
Arsenal could send out a mirror image of this formation, which would give the Gunners more security to relinquish the ball (as in the option above). It would also put Arsenal players in better position to pressure Leicester’s long passes from midfield.
Those are both reasonable objectives, but committing to this structure would involve several major personnel changes. First, to match not only Leicester’s formation but its energy, Arsenal would most likely position Ramsey further forward. He’d be the best equipped to execute the Okazaki role, as he does for the Welsh national side.
With Ramsey in a more advanced role than normal, Arsenal would need a different partnership in central midfield, some mix of Flamini, Coquelin, and Mohammed Elneny. Playmaker Mesut Özil would shift to one flank with Alexis on the other. Giroud could still lead the line in this setup, but the attack would be more static than is customary.
I don’t think we’ll see this structure or lineup on Sunday. It would take Arsenal away from its strengths, disrupt the flow, and dislodge the team’s best player this season. Wenger isn’t likely to take such a gamble in this crucial encounter.
There are other, more tested, ways of making the most of Arsenal’s advantages while minimizing Leicester’s considerable threats. No doubt as Sunday’s critical encounter approaches, Wenger and his staff are weighing these options with more experience and wisdom than Arsenal bloggers and twitterati would.