Arsenal host Leicester City on Sunday in a match that could have severe implications for the Premier League title race. If the Gunners lose, they’ll be eight points off the pace with 12 games to go; to overcome that would be a borderline herculean task.
Arsene Wenger’s men have not been in great form of late, winning just two of their last six games in the league. The victory over AFC Bournemouth last time out restored some confidence, but they’d only be human if there were concerns heading into this one—especially given the way Leicester tore Manchester City apart at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday.
But there is a tried-and-tested route to success in this game available for Arsenal to use—should they choose to do it. It would involve a compromise in principles—something Wenger rarely stomachs—but this might be a situation in which that is truly a necessity.
January 18, 2015: Manchester City 0-2 Arsenal, Etihad Stadium
Heading into Arsenal’s clash with Manchester City at the Etihad last year, Sky Sports pundit Graham Souness labelled the Gunners a “team of son-in-laws,” per the Daily Star.
The intent behind the barb was, in essence, to call them too nice and too polite on the pitch. Since Patrick Vieira's departure in 2005, many have lamented Arsenal’s lack of steel, bite and leadership in the middle; it’s become a kind of lazy, go-to reason to explain away their lack of (trophy-based) success over the last 10 years.
Arsenal’s soft centre was the reason they were likely going to lose the game, according to Souness, and you’d have been hard-pressed to find many fans who disagreed. Wenger’s tendency to try to impose his style regardless of the occasion, mixed with that aforementioned lack of bite, had often led to his team losing the big games against the most talented opposition.
But on January 18, a minor miracle occurred: Wenger played a reactive, counter-attacking 4-3-3 with an anchor midfielder in the form of Francis Coquelin. They accrued just 35 per cent possession, per BBC Sport, and most of their attacks were sourced from deep surges and dribbles rather than complex, final-third passing moves.
Coquelin protected the defensive line and did an outstanding job tracking runners between the lines. After an early scare or two, Santi Cazorla did his best to fill in and do the same, while Aaron Ramsey put in his typical shift, concentrating hard on ensuring his third of the pitch was secured.
Cazorla, Ramsey and Alexis Sanchez were the key outlets for attack, flattening out when not in possession, then embarking on weaving dribbles from deep once the ball was won. Cazorla, in particular, put in a stunning display that was capped by a goal, consistently slaloming forward and creating clear-cut chances despite the fact Arsenal were light on numbers for every attack.
The goals both came from set pieces—one via the penalty spot and the other from a header from a corner—but make no mistake, tactically speaking, Arsenal controlled the space on the pitch and the flow of the game, forming the basis for the win.
It was the perfect rebuttal to Souness’ criticism, and it served as a springboard for some remarkable performances in 2015. Coquelin became a key component in holding midfield, Cazorla dropped deeper on a permanent basis and Olivier Giroud’s link play became all the more important in serving the team dynamic.
“Top” Premier League teams are still playing against Leicester City wrongly; they’re not giving them the respect they deserve or working hard to blunt their threat. It’s amazing, really, since Claudio Ranieri’s game plan has been the same all season long.
Leicester’s last five Premier League games have garnered four wins and one draw. The wins came against Tottenham Hotspur (1-0), Liverpool (2-0), Manchester City (3-1) and Stoke City (3-0); the draw, notably, came against bottom-placed Aston Villa—the only team of the five to defend the counter properly and play a reactive game themselves.
Villa still gave up chances—you can’t stop Jamie Vardy entirely, merely limit him—by asking their quickest centre-back, Jores Okore, to track his runs in behind when the line was pushed forward. The Englishman got in twice in 90 minutes—a paltry number given his broad success over the season.
For spells of the game, Villa sat in and defended, forcing Leicester to creep forward and break them down. The Foxes are lethal playing in space but aren’t anywhere near as effective against deep-set teams.
The average distance of Leicester’s forward passes is far higher than any other Premier League team's, and statistics collected by Soccermatics show that, on occasion, they need just three or four passes to carve out a scoring chance. If you let them sit in, tackle and counter, you’re asking to be beaten.
This is what Wenger must be aware of, and he must be willing to adapt. He did it just over a year ago against Manchester City, defying the critics and procuring a clean-sheet victory, and he must do it again here.
Fans will point to the Gunners’ early-season 5-2 win over Leicester to suggest the Londoners have got their number, but they face an entirely different beast here. Ranieri’s men trust themselves and their game plan; Wenger must swipe out that trust at the knee to overcome them.