Claudio Ranieri’s side started its title defense with a shock 2-1 defeat away to Hull. Hull have had a nightmarishly disruptive summer. Steve Bruce quit in frustration at a lack of summer signings and they were without first team regulars Allan McGregor, Michael Dawson, Alex Bruce and Moses Odubajo through injury. Caretaker manager Mike Phelan set his side out in a reasonably well-organized 4-3-3 and succeeded in frustrating Leicester and taking advantage of set pieces and crosses from wide areas. Leicester were perhaps a bit unlucky however. They carved out some really decent chances that Vardy failed to convert. Losing against a club in disarray, and one with only 13 available senior players, is certainly concerning but I didn’t think the performance itself was disastrous.
Ranieri used the same 4-4-2 Leicester rode to the title last season with a few personnel changes. After starting 34 games on the left wing last season, Marc Albrighton found himself on the substitutes bench with the 20 year-old Demarai Gray taking his place. After N’Golo Kante’s summer move to Chelsea, Andy King started in the middle of midfield alongside Danny Drinkwater. Summer signing Ahmed Mussa got the nod up front alongside Vardy in place of Shinji Okazaki. Robert Huth was serving a suspension carried over from the end of last season and was replaced by summer signing Luis Hernandez in the center of defense. Otherwise it was a familiar Leicester lineup.
Hull set out in a 4-3-3 that turned into a 4-1-4-1 when Leicester were in possession with Sam Clucas sitting just in front of the back four.
Arsenal’s approach to this weekend’s match will certainly be more proactive than Hull’s but there are a few key features of their win we should be paying attention to for this weekend’s meeting:
1). Leicester’s discomfort at having to keep possession and patiently break down a deeper defense
2). Leicester’s surprising inability to defend set pieces, especially corners
3). Leicester’s eagerness to take quick goal kicks long to Vardy and Musa in the channels- if they aren’t given the opportunity to break quickly in the run of play they’ll try to from set pieces.
Leicester struggle when denied ability to play quickly and vertically
Towards the end of last season and over the summer much was made about whether Leicester would be able to win matches once opposition sides had figured out their counter attacking style and forced them to patiently build attacks from the back against compact defenses.
Remarkably Leicester ended last season with the second lowest pass success rate in the division at 70.5% and the third lowest average possession with 44.8%. They defended in compact banks of four then looked to break forward as quickly as possible. Vardy’s incredible pace meant he was deadly when afforded space to run into behind the opposition center backs.
Hull defended deep in a 4-1-4-1 shape with Sam Clucas sitting in the gap between the back four and a midfield bank of four of Diomande, Meyler, Huddlestone and Snodgrass. Their 4-1-4-1 shape meant they had a 3 v. 2 advantage in the middle of midfield against Danny Drinkwater and King. That advantage allowed David Meyler and Tom Huddlestone to get relatively tight to King and Drinkwater while Sam Clucas had a freer role behind them and could pick up any Leicester attacker looking to drift into the gaps between the Hull defense and midfield.
Outnumbered in midfield and without space in behind the Hull defense to play longer balls over the top, Leicester struggled to move the ball from defense to midfield to attack. They often passed sideways from center back to fullback or from Drinkwater to the fullbacks. Leicester’s top pass combination was Drinkwater to left back Christian Fuchs (20). They had a 76.9% pass success rate and 50.2% possession, higher than they averaged last season, but they are a team built to play quick and direct. Denied the opportunity to do so they at times had difficulty finding the creativity to generate attacking moves.
Drinkwater completed more passes than any other player on the pitch but the vast majority were in front of the Hull City midfield and didn’t penetrate their lines. He completed just 10 of 17 passes into the final third and every one of those was into the channels. All of his attempts to play through the middle of the Hull midfield were unsuccessful. The graphic on the left shows all of Drinkwater’s passes, the graphic on the right shows his final third passes.
The series of screen shots below shows a sequence in the 13th minute that illustrates Leicester’s difficulty building from the back. In the first image Meyler is tight to King and Huddlestone is tight to Drinkwater so Mahrez has had to come deep from his attacking right midfield position to offer a passing option. In the next few seconds Mahrez plays square to Drinkwater, who plays square to Fuchs, who drops it back to Morgan.
Morgan then plays square to Hernandez who drives forward (second image below). Again, Meyler and Huddlestone are tight to King and Drinkwater so there is no forward passing option. Behind them Clucas is denying space between the lines. Hernandez plays it square to Simpson who plays a hopeful ball down the touchline that Hull easily cut out to regain possession.
While Arsenal will certainly play more proactively than Hull and in all likelihood outpossess Leicester, Wenger will have noted Leicester’s difficulties when forced to maintain possession. In the last two seasons the Gunners have been more content to drop into a compact defensive shape and allow the opposition to pass around the back rather than pressing higher up the pitch (though that certainly wasn’t the approach we took in loss to Liverpool). If we can successfully recover into a solid defensive shape, that’ll limit Leicester’s chances of countering quickly and having space to run behind the back four.
Leicester struggle defending set pieces
Perhaps it had to do with the suspension of Robert Huth who will be back to face us but Leicester looked shaky defending nearly every Hull City set piece. Hull took the lead in first half stoppage time when Curtis Davies flicked a Snodgrass corner to the back post for Adama Diomande to volley home. Prior to that Davies had gone close from a corner in the 6th minute. In the 60th Snodgrass again whipped a delicious corner that dropped right at the six that neither side got a touch to.
Although we aren’t known traditionally for being especially proficient from corners or set pieces from wide areas, Arsenal had a respectable 13 goals from set pieces last season, good for 7th in the Premier League. The potential return of Giroud and Koscielny should provide an added aerial boost from corners. If our delivery can match the quality of Snodgrass’s, we could pose a threat from dead balls.
Must stay switched on during Leicester goal kicks
Arsenal will need to keep their concentration levels sharp during stoppages of play. Twice in the first half Kasper Schmeichel looked to play long balls over the top to his forwards from dead ball situations deep in Leicester’s own half. The first time he found Musa on the left channel. Hull were caught off guard and Musa got close to the end line and cut back for Vardy in a dangerous position- fortunately for Hull he got the strike badly wrong. The second was from a goal kick and went just beyond the reach of Vardy. Hopefully by this time Arsenal will be using a more experienced center back pairing and their concentration levels won’t dip.
Leicester can also be threatening through Christian Fuchs’s long throws. Again, it’ll help to have a more experienced center back pairing otherwise we may see Leicester trying to exploit this channel and get balls into the box to contest us in the air.
Kante’s departure means there’s a big opportunity to overwhelm Leicester in midfield
Arsenal won this fixture last season in a memorable 5-2 match in late September, handing Leicester their first loss of the season. However that was only the 7th game of the season and came at a time when Leicester were conceding goals regularly. They let in 17 goals in their first 9 matches for an average of 1.89 goals against per game and had no clean sheets. They would go one to concede 19 in the final 29 matches for an average of 0.66 goals against and had 15 clean sheets.
That change in defensive form came about as a result of Ranieri making the side less open than they’d been in those opening nine matches. Their defensive compactness improved immensely as they dropped into deep banks of four and played on the break.
Much of that defensive success is no doubt attributable to the relentless effort of the tireless Kante in the engine room of midfield. Kante is irreplaceable. He led the Premier League in both tackles (4.7 per game) and interceptions (4.2 per game). By contrast Coquelin and Santi Cazorla, our double pivot partnership for the beginning of last season, averaged 2.8 and 1.9 tackles per game respectively (for a total of 4.7 per game between the pair) and 3.0 and 1.7 interceptions per game (4.7 between the pair). In effect Kante was doing the defensive work of two midfielders.
With King now partnering Drinkwater, Leicester have a very different type of midfield partnership. King is more attack minded and likes to make late runs into the box to finish off chances, somewhat in the mold of Frank Lampard. That means Drinkwater is left to do the heavy lifting defensively in midfield. Drinkwater isn’t a bad defender by any means but he doesn’t have the mobility of Kante to cover the width of the pitch and break up play.
Without Kante patrolling the midfield, Arsenal should look to transition quickly from defense to offense when we win the ball back, forcing Drinkwater into situations where he’s responsible for slowing our counter attacks. If we can force him into making a yellow card challenge early, he’ll have to play cautiously which should give us further advantage in the center of the pitch.
I think there’s a real possibility Ranieri opts for Daniel Amartey over King alongside Drinkwater to provide more defensive solidity in the midfield. Amartey is a holding midfielder by trade and can also play center back and right back so brings more defensive quality into the squad. I also wouldn’t be shocked to see Ranieri go with Okazaki up front with Vardy, pushing Musa wide to the left and dropping Grey. Okazaki works incredibly hard on both sides of the ball and along with Vardy sets the tone for the energy Leicester defend with from front to back. Alternatively Ranieri could play all three of Drinkwater, Amartey and King in a 4-3-3 with Mahrez wide right and Musa wide left if he’s concerned about getting overrun in the middle of the pitch.
We’ll be without Aaron Ramsey and in all likelihood Iwobi. In his press conference following the defeat to Liverpool Wenger was noncommittal about the availability of Koscielny, Ozil and Giroud. I initially figured the three would play but following the injury to Ramsey, which Wenger blamed on the Welshmen being rushed back, I’m less confident. Surely we’ll at least see Koscielny after conceding four.
Given that our early pressing caused us to tire and capitulate in the second half against Liverpool, and since Leicester had a difficult time breaking down a deeper defensive block, I’d be tempted to get behind the ball in banks of four when we do concede possession. If we can get a couple of chances to play on the break I think we could cause some real problems for Drinkwater.
This was a ridiculously open contest last season. Leicester will want to be more compact but without Kante I imagine our midfield can boss this game through the center of the pitch. Whether or not we can turn possession into goals and our ability to either defend against or altogether prevent counter attacks should decide this one.