This match was untidy and cagey for the first 65 to 70 minutes or so before turning untidy and open at the end. In both the more cautious and more open phases Arsenal didn’t do enough to create meaningful chances and in the end were fortunate not to concede a late penalty when Bellerin bundled over substitute Ahmed Musa after Musa had shown incredible pace to get around our right back.
Claudio Ranieri reverted to nearly the exact lineup he used throughout Leicester’s title winning last season with the exception of Nampalys Mendy alongside Danny Drinkwater in midfield for N’Golo Kante, the Frenchman having left this summer for Chelsea. Shinji Okazaki replaced Musa from last week’s lineup up front alongside Vardy. Marc Albrighton replaced Demarai Gray on the left wing and Robert Huth returned from suspension to partner Wes Morgan in the center of defense.
Arsene Wenger made four changes to the side beaten by Liverpool in the opener. Santi Cazorla played in the #10 role with Aaron Ramsey missing with the hamstring strain he suffered in the Liverpool defeat. New signing Granit Xhaka replaced Mohamed Elneny at the base of midfield alongside Francis Coquelin. Alex Iwobi was also out with a thigh injury suffered in the opener and was replaced at left midfield by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Laurent Koscielny returned to the squad to replace Calum Chambers at center back alongside Rob Holding.
Both sides cautious of opposition counter attacks
As expected this was far less of a swashbuckling affair than the 5-2 win at the King Power in the seventh game of last season. Leicester conceded 17 goals in their first 9 matches last season then went on to concede just 19 in their final 29 games. After starting the season with an open, free flowing style that often left the defense exposed on the break, Ranieri began setting up in deeper banks of four, pressing hard in midfield and playing on the counter.
Leicester struggled in a week one defeat to Hull City because they were forced to have a lot of the ball and build play patiently from the back. Arsenal are a side that likes to force the issue and maintain possession high up the pitch and were therefore a more conducive opponent to Leicester’s preferred style of play.
Leicester defended in two banks of four often with all 10 outfield players inside their own half. Their style is not a passive, park-the-bus one though. They’ll press and hurry you in midfield once you get within around 40 yards of their goal. The role Vardy and Okazaki play in this pressing is massively important.
Okazaki would drop deep into areas just in front of the center midfield duo of Drinkwater and Mendy and stay tight to Xhaka so that we didn’t have a constant easy drop pass to play to restart attacking moves and maintain possession. Vardy closed down our center backs, forcing them into quick decisions and not allowing them the time to pick their heads up and find a forward pass. Koscielny completed 41 of 44 passes (and was overall excellent) but nearly all of those were sideways. I thought Holding was solid defensively but he completed just 73.6% of his passes.
By using Okazaki to not allow simple passes into Xhaka, and closing Xhaka down quickly when he did receive the ball, Leicester were forcing our center backs to be the ones to act as our deep lying creators. Holding is still young and while Koscielny is hugely talented and probably underrated in terms of his technical ability, he is not Leandro Bonucci, capable of stepping out of the center of defense and providing passes that dissect a compact opposition defense.
Xhaka did complete the game’s second most passes but had a pass success rate of just 79.5%, not all that impressive a number for your deepest lying midfielder tasked with setting an offensive rhythm and maintaining possession.
Below is a screen grab of Leicester’s defensive shape. This was taken after Arsenal were in a great position to counter but Mahrez tracked back 40 or so yards to slow down Ox. Leicester are so compact there’s no easy pass on for Cazorla on the ball. Okazaki is denying any simple passes into Xhaka or Coquelin that would allow us to easily switch play to the left side of the pitch and unbalance their defense.
Again, in the shot below Leicester are deep and compact and Okazaki is denying Ox a simple drop to Xhaka to recycle possession.
Before the match I thought one of the keys to Arsenal having a successful defensive afternoon was how well we transitioned from attack to defense when we conceded possession and whether we could minimize Leicester’s opportunities to counter. Overall I thought we did a pretty decent job of that. There were some frightening moments at the end when the game had become stretched but on the whole we didn’t allow them too many favorable positions on the break where they can be so dangerous.
Much of that success had to do with the presence of Koscielny. His pace meant Vardy wasn’t up against a center back he could easily get in behind. But I thought the whole defensive shape was an improvement from last week. When Leicester won the ball back we got numbers behind the ball quickly and forced them to play slower than they would have liked.
However we do still have some frustrating problems when we do decide to press. In the 55th minute Cazorla, Walcott and Sanchez pressed high up the pitch but the midfield was 15 yards behind them (screen shot below). Huth was able to play a simple square pass to Morgan who then had plenty of time on the ball to pick a pass and get Leicester forward. Cazorla was left visibly frustrated. A move that could have resulted in Arsenal pinning the home side deep in their own half resulted in Arsenal stretching to get back in defense and committing a foul in a dangerous area for a Leicester free kick.
Sanchez not a lone striker
The first two weeks of the season have shown that Alexis probably isn’t suited to playing as a lone #9. It was little surprise he was at his most dangerous when Giroud came on and he was moved to the left wing.
But apart from being played out of position, he still doesn’t seem to be quite right. I was actually surprised to see he completed 49 of his 58 attempted passes, a high number of passes completed for a striker and very solid pass success rate of 84.5% for that position. But on the occasions he did give the ball away it was from really poor decisions on passes he didn’t need to attempt that often led to Leicester opportunities to counter.
I think one of the biggest issues with Alexis at the #9 is that he is so eager to get on the ball and make something happen for the team that he’s always coming into very deep positions to receive possession and act as a playmaker. That sort of “false 9” striker is fine when you have other players on the pitch that will make runs in behind the opposition defense to stretch them. Liverpool used Firmino as a false 9 excellently in their win over us last weekend but their success came because they had Wijnaldum, Lallana and Mane making vertical runs behind our defense. Walcott’s pace means he’s well-suited to tucking inside and making those vertical runs, which he did on occasion yesterday, but his finishing was poor and he’s too limited a player (compared to a Mane) to justify a position in the starting 11. With Ozil on the bench it makes sense Alexis was eager to come deep to link play forward but in doing so it meant our most dangerous goal scorer on the pitch was receiving the ball with his back to goal 40 yards from goal.
Arsenal inability to change approach
I know the “Wenger has no plan b” arguments become tiring to hear for Arsenal fans but in an opening two weeks that have seen us earn just a point, Chelsea have recovered three points from a drawing position and three points from a losing position in the second half of games against West Ham and Watford after Antonio Conte switched their shape from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2. Those brave changes helped alter the outcomes of those games. While Wenger made proactive personnel changes, introducing Ozil and Giroud, we never really change our approach to how we attack. We get it into the final third then pass from side to side just outside the box waiting for a gap to open up against deep, incredibly compact defenses before inevitably getting it intercepted. I realize just throwing on more strikers isn’t necessarily the best tactic when chasing a game. Replacing midfielders for strikers often leads to sides losing control of the midfield and creating fewer chances than when they had just one striker. But we never change the style in which we attack. We rarely try to hit it long early in behind the opposition center backs. Even the pacey Sanchez continued dropping back into midfield to get on the ball rather than trying to run in behind the Leicester defense and stretch them vertically. The opposition knows all our movement is going to happen in front of them. They’ll happily concede the channels because when we get it there we just drop it back inside (partially because there are rarely players running into the box to aim at). So they play deep, narrow and extremely compact. Any side, even one with as many tidy passers as Arsenal, will struggle to break that down by trying to pass through it.
Ozil's return will help. If we don't bring in new players we can look forward to him and Sanchez leaving next summer.