Arsenal's matchweek 6 scouting report: Chelsea

This match should provide an indicator of where we’re at as a squad. Despite having not lost since the opening day of the season, the Watford match was the only one where we looked convincing. We struggled to create chances in the 0-0 draw at champions Leicester, won late at home against a struggling Southampton side courtesy of a controversial last minute penalty, were played off the park in Paris and owed our draw to poor finishing from Edinson Cavani and endured a nervy few second half minutes last weekend against Hull when we allowed them back into the game despite being 2-0 up with a man advantage.

There are certainly positives to draw from those results. Traditionally we haven’t been great at scraping out results when we’re not at our best and we showed some strong character in each of those matches. However it’s difficult to imagine us getting anything from Chelsea if we don’t improve the level of performance. We haven’t beaten Chelsea in the league since the thrilling 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge when they were coached by Andre Villas-Boas and we haven’t scored in our last six league meetings.

Like Arsenal, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea have only looked really convincing in one match this season, their 3-0 win over Burnley. In their first two matches, 2-1 wins over West Ham and Watford, they required late winners from Diego Costa. The combative striker was extremely fortunate to have escaped a sending off in both matches prior to getting the winners. Their luck with officials seemed to run out in a 2-2 draw against Swansea. Leroy Fer went through the back of Gary Cahill and ended up scoring to put Swansea in the lead. Costa would again provide the heroics with a late equalizer. Last Friday Conte’s side was made to look toothless and rigid against a dynamic Liverpool side in a 2-1 home defeat to Jurgen Klopp’s charges.

The Blues will be desperate to avoid going three league matches without a win and falling further behind pace setters Manchester City. Does the added motivation of getting the season back on track after a mini-run of poor results win out over the dip in confidence brought about by poor form?

Lineup

Antonio Conte has started games with a 4-3-3 formation so far this season. David Luiz started alongside Gary Hill in the center of defense against Liverpool with John Terry sidelined with an ankle injury. The Chelsea captain could regain fitness in time to start this weekend however. Cesar Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanovic will almost certainly take up the fullback positions. N’Golo Kante shields the back four at the base of midfield with Nemanja Matic in a slightly more advanced shuttling role to his left and Oscar to his right. Eden Hazard will be on the left wing, Willian on the right wing. The in-form Costa will be up top.

Ball winning midfielders

With a midfield trio of Kante, Matic and Oscar, Chelsea have three players whose strongest qualities are their tackling ability and willingness to contribute energy defensively. British commentators this season have lazily suggested Oscar has just developed a defensive work rate under Conte, that attitude coming solely on the basis that he’s Brazilian and played in advanced positions throughout his career, mainly as a #10 at Chelsea but also in a wider role at times with Brazil. However, his energy in pressing the opposition and winning the ball back high up the pitch has always been one of his biggest attributes. During the first half of the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons Jose Mourinho heaped praise on the Brazilian for the energy he displayed pressing high up the pitch. He fell off in the second half of those seasons, likely due in large part to the fact he hadn’t had a summer break in years after being involved with the Brazil 2012 Olympic team, the 2013 Confederations Cup team and the 2014 World Cup team, but his playing style has always involved defensive discipline and hard work. He currently leads all Chelsea players with an average of 3.6 tackles per game, a touch more than even Kante at 3.4. 

Chelsea defend with a midfield block of five with Oscar dropping in alongside Matic and Kante rather than defending higher up the pitch with Costa as he tended to do under Mourinho. Against three mobile and physical center midfielders we’ll need to move the ball quickly and find gaps between their back four and midfield bank of five. Liverpool had success when their two wide attackers Coutinho and Sadio Mane tucked inside from the channels in the space between the Chelsea fullbacks and Kante. This movement forced Chelsea into difficult decisions defensively. If the fullbacks drifted inside to pick up Mane and Coutinho it left too much space in the channels for the Liverpool fullbacks to overlap into (image 1).

If Cahill or David Luiz stepped forward to pick them up it left a gap in the Chelsea back four and space for Liverpool to run into behind the Chelsea defense (image 2).

If the center midfielders dropped off to get tight to them Chelsea would have been defending too deep and allowing Liverpool’s three center midfielders Henderson, Lallana and Wijnaldum too much time and space on the ball (image 3).

If they did nothing it allowed opportunities for Mane and Coutinho to receive passes between the lines and run at the back four where both are quite dangerous (image 4).

If we can similarly force Chelsea's fullbacks into deciding whether to drift inside to track our wide attackers towards the center of the pitch and open the channels to overlapping fullbacks or to stay put and leave space between the lines we should enjoy some success.

Chelsea counter

The ball-winning capabilities of Chelsea’s midfield three mean we’ll have to be really diligent in possession in midfield. If we allow them to make interceptions or win tackles off us cheaply it’ll create counter-attacking opportunities for them. In Willian and Hazard the Blues have two players that are excellent in transition. There are few players better at dribbling past opposition defenders in space than Hazard and after enduring a poor campaign last season he is getting back to his best. He has completed more successful dribbles than any player in the Premier League with 4.8 per game and has already found the net twice after scoring just 4 in the league last season. On the opposite channel Willian has completed 4.3 key passes per game, tied with Dimitri Payet for most in the league. I've included Alexis's successful take ons and key pass stats in the graphic below for comparison.

In Diego Costa they have a striker returning to form and capable of putting away chances created by Hazard and Willian. He’s averaging a goal per game and isn’t a player we’ve particularly enjoyed playing in the past(insert Squawka comparison here). Few Arsenal fans will forget our two meetings last season when he got Gabriel sent off in September and forced Mertesacker into a last ditch tackle in January that resulted in a red card. We went on to lose both of those matches. Maintaining our discipline will therefore be key. You can count on Costa to look to wind us up into doing something stupid. Mertesacker and Gabriel are of course out through injury this time around but I worry about Mustafi in what I believe will be his first meeting against Costa (he arrived in Spain at Valencia just as Costa was leaving Atletico Madrid for Chelsea). Mustafi has only been sent off twice in his career and hopefully Wenger will be reminding the players this week of the importance of keeping 11 men on the pitch.

Midfield balance

Following the draw at Swansea and defeat to Liverpool some Chelsea fans are suggesting Conte doesn’t have the midfield balance right. I’ve seen some suggest Matic should be playing at the base of midfield, with Kante in more of the box-to-box role and either Oscar or Cesc Fabregas in the #10 role. Swapping Kante and Matic is an interesting one because when you look at their statistics both have performed quite well in the roles given to them by Conte. Kante has the highest pass success rate of any player in the league at 94.1% and has done fine circulating possession in an Arteta-like role when Chelsea have the ball. Matic already has two assists in the more advanced box-to-box role.

However, I can see where Chelsea fans are coming from. Their midfield did look a bit static and toothless against Liverpool. In Matic, Kante and Oscar they have three active, disciplined players but none offer a consistently expansive range of passing. Fabregas certainly does (and can offer a goal threat as well as he scored two in the League Cup Tuesday) and Conte has options for getting him on the pitch. I think the issue Conte sees with the Spanish midfielder is that his presence in the squad compromises the really strong spine he likes from his sides.

At Juventus he was happy playing Andrea Pirlo in a regista deep lying creator role because he was playing with three brilliant center backs behind him and two extremely physical, athletic ball winners either side of him in Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal. At Chelsea he’s playing with only two center backs so replacing one of the current center midfielders with the much slower, less physical Fabregas means compromising some defensive solidity.

I’m curious if the signing of David Luiz means Conte may at some point in the near future switch to the 3-5-2 he preferred at Juventus. This shape would more easily allow for Fabregas’s inclusion in the starting eleven. He could then operate in his best deep lying creator position with two of Kante, Oscar or Matic in the box-to-box roles. Alternatively if Conte felt he was needed higher up the pitch they could flip the triangle and play two of Kante, Matic or Oscar as a double pivot with Fabregas higher up the pitch in a #10 role.

I don’t envision Conte throwing his side out in a 3-5-2 for the first time in a game of this magnitude but you never know.

Conte not afraid to change approach

Conte is celebrated for his tactical acumen- his performance with an underwhelming group of Italian players in the Euros this summer was as impressive a display as any player- and has shown early this season he isn’t afraid to alter his approach in-game when chasing a result. In both the Watford and West Ham games his side scored game winners after bringing on Michy Batshuayi and switching to a more direct 4-4-2 with crosses coming into the box from the channels.

Batshuayi provided a cushioned headed knock down from a 50 yard Matic long ball for Costa to collect and shoot past Adrian for the winner against West Ham. The following weekend he provided the leveler against Watford before fellow second half substitute Fabregas played a perfectly weighted through ball to Costa for the winner.

Where Wenger is reluctant to make anything but like-for-like substitutions, Conte takes a more proactive approach in looking to influence the game from the technical area. It was strange then that against Liverpool he waited until the 84th minute before making a triple change that included Victor Moses for Willian, who I thought had been Chelsea’s best player up to that point. Wenger will have to be alert to any in-game changes Conte makes over the course of the 90 minutes and react to those changes with moves of our own if necessary.

Slow defense

Chelsea don’t have the quickest defense, especially if they go with a Terry-Cahill combo at center back and leave David Luiz on the bench. If Wenger does anticipate a Terry-Cahill partnership it might be a decent game to give Lucas Perez the nod at striker. He offers more pace and mobility than Giroud and Cahill and Terry are generally pretty comfortable against physical, less pacey strikers like Giroud.

I’d definitely like to see Wenger play Alexis on the left. Ivanovic has struggled mightily defending 1 v. 1 in the channels over the last two seasons against quicker players. There are few players that aren’t quicker than the Serbian right back these days- Alexis should have his way if we get him in space to run at Ivanovic.

(Update: Conte has announced Terry has not regained fitness and will not play tomorrow)

Arsenal's matchweek 5 scouting report: Hull City

Hull City have been the surprise outfit in the Premier League thus far. After a disastrous summer that saw Steve Bruce leave the club over a lack of transfer activity, Hull were almost universally pegged by pundits and journalists to get relegated. Mike Phelan took over a squad with only 14 fit senior players on an interim basis and summarily knocked off league champions Leicester in the season opener then beat Swansea away. Only a 92nd Marcus Rashford winner kept Hull from nicking a point from Manchester United and they drew their last match away to Burnley.  That’s 7 points, equal with Arsenal and level on goal difference.

 Lineup

Phelan has opted for a 4-1-4-1. With both Michael Dawson and Alex Bruce out long term with injuries, Jake Livermore has filled in admirably as a makeshift center back alongside Curtis Davies. Davies has been heroic. He has the highest player rating in the Premier League at whoscored.com. He leads Europe’s top five leagues in interceptions, blocks and clearances and has a pass success rate of 87.9%. Ahmed Elmohamady plays right back and will look to push forward. Andrew Robertson plays left back. Sam Clucas shields the back four at the base of midfield. The 25 year-old has played in the Conference, League Two, League One, the Championship and the Premier League in five successive seasons. David Meyler and Tom Huddlestone operate in slightly more advanced central midfield positions either side of Clucas. New club record signing Ryan Mason made his Hull debut as a substitute against Burnley and may slot into one of the three central midfield positions. Robert Snodgrass plays wide on the right. The Scottish international has been excellent, netting the winner against Leicester and scoring a brilliant equalizer from a free kick last week at Burnley. Adama Diomande plays wide on the left and offers some pace going forward, Abel Hernandez plays striker.

Hull defense

I focused the bulk of my attention on how Hull set up in their home defeat to Manchester United as that match will likely offer a better clue of their approach than the Leicester, Swansea and Burnley matches. You’d expect Arsenal to have more of the ball, just as Manchester United did in their visit to the KC Stadium when they had 62% possession. Against Leicester Hull had 50% possession and against Burnley they had 61%. I don’t foresee them reaching totals that high.

Defensively Hull set out in a deep 4-1-4-1 against Jose Mourinho’s side. There was a midfield block of four in front of a defensive block of four. Sam Clucas sat in the space between the two banks to deny space between the lines. The deep, compact defensive shape succeeded in frustrating United. With Clucas denying space between the lines, Wayne Rooney had to come deeper and wider from his #10 position to get on the ball than perhaps he would have liked (graphic of his received passes versus Hull below). He ended up providing the vital assist for Marcus Rashford’s winner but wasn’t particularly effective during the majority of the 90 minutes.

Hull defend deep against Manchester United

Hull defend deep against Manchester United

It’ll therefore be interesting to see how Ozil performs with limited space between the lines where he tends to thrive. Ozil is a positionally more intelligent player than Rooney and a better passer but he wasn’t at his best last weekend against Southampton, who were also defending with a compact midfield block of five.

As I mentioned above Curtis Davies has been excellent at center back. However I did see some areas of his game I think we can exploit. There’s a reason he leads Europe in interceptions. When the opposition striker drops in deeper areas to receive a wall pass he loves to be ultra aggressive and try to step in front of the intended recipient to intercept. He did this multiple times when Ibrahimovic tried to drop in to receive passes from midfielders and his timing was immaculate. However, every time he is aggressive in stepping out of the back four line he’s leaving space in behind him that we can exploit if we have players intelligent enough to make diagonal runs into that space.

In Caulker Davies has an inexperienced center back partner who may not be as alert to the danger that occurs to his left when Davies leaves his position and steps forward to try to intercept. If Caulker doesn’t tuck inside a bit when Davies pushes out, it’ll leave a big gap between him and left back Robertson where our midfield runners can push on into if they’re alert. The graphic below shows an example of movement Arsenal can do to exploit this aggression from Davies. Here Ozil is in possession in midfield with Giroud in a central striker position. Giroud makes a run back towards Ozil to give him a passing option. Davies steps forward anticipating the pass into Giroud and looking to intercept. This opens up space behind Davies that he’s just vacated. Sanchez makes a diagonal run from his position on the inside left into that vacated space to receive a pass from Ozil.

Those vertical runs in behind the opposition back four are ones that our midfielders are too often reluctant to make. Alexis loves to come deep to get on the ball when he plays on the left but at times we need those vertical runs to stretch the opposition defense.

The wide midfielders Diomande and Snodgrass work hard to provide cover for their two fullbacks Robertson and Elmohamady. This is important as neither fullback is particularly good at defending 1 v. 1. Elmohamady was easily beaten by Rooney for United’s winner and Robertson was beaten to the endline down the right side on more than one occasion. When we do get in positions to run at the fullbacks in 1 v. 1 situations we should certainly take advantage.

Hull attack

When Hull get on the ball they’re tidier in possession than I maybe would have expected. Huddlestone has an excellent range of passes and brings a calm assuredness to their possession.

They aren’t an especially pacey side so they need to be competent moving the ball in midfield. Without a ton of speed they can’t hit you with the direct vertical counter attacking play we saw from Leicester last season. Along with a lack of pace, their defensive shape makes it difficult for them to counter. Because they defend with a midfield block of five, Hernandez can become isolate up front when they win the ball back. Since they don’t have a second player up front with him the way you would when you defend in blocks of four with two up front, Hernandez is the only outlet and is tasked with holding the ball up long enough to give other players the time to push forward.

Depending on how we’re feeling physically after the PSG encounter I’d be tempted to press high up the pitch immediately when we lose possession. This should force Hull into knocking long hopeful balls towards Hernandez who will be on his own. As good as Davies has been he’s anxious in possession and will simply clear aimlessly the instant he’s put under pressure. Likewise, Robertson was really poor when United finally started to press in the second half.

Diomande seems to be their quickest, most explosive attacking threat. In possession he’ll tuck inside from his starting position on the left into more of a withdrawn striker role just behind Hernandez. There were two occasions when he received passes between the United lines that lead to half chances for Hull. In the 23rd minute he collected a pass from Huddlestone between the lines and forced Fellaini into fouling in a dangerous area. Snodgrass put the ensuing free kick just wide. In the 47th minute he again received a pass in a similar position between the United lines and slipped Hernandez through on goal but Daley Blind did well to cover. We’ll need to be cautious of where he is.

Arsenal approach

I think Hull will allow us to control possession. Since they don’t pose any huge threat on the counter I would be tempted to use two ball playing holding midfielders in Cazorla and Xhaka as we did in our best performance of the season, the 3-0 win over Watford. Against a deep defending side this is probably a game for Giroud up top since he poses a physical threat and there won’t be space in behind for a quicker striker to exploit. Hopefully Giroud reserves his poor decision-making for Champions League fixtures.

Final Thoughts

We have our difficulties breaking down compact, deep defending opposition so it’ll be interesting to see how we cope with a side that’s been pretty well organized this season. They’ll get a boost from a home crowd that has been left pleasantly surprised at the positive start their team has shown so I think we’ll need to come into the game quickly as Hull will look for a fast start. The talent gap between the sides is significant. That should be enough to see Arsenal through but if we don’t improve on the performances of our last two matches we could be in for a frustrating day.

Arsenal's matchweek 3 scouting report: Watford

Arsenal will head to Watford in matchweek 3. The Hornets have one point from two difficult opening fixtures. They drew 1-1 at Southampton on the opening day before giving away a one-goal lead in the second half home to Chelsea last week in a 2-1 home defeat.

In Walter Mazzarri Watford have an experienced manager with Champions League experience but this is his first job outside Italy as either a player or manager. How quickly he adapts to the less tactical, more chaotic Premier League will go a long way in determining what kind of season Watford have.

Lineup

Mazzarri has opted for an Italian-style 3-5-2 to start the season. He’s used the same starting 11 in their first two fixtures. Sebastian Prödl plays in the middle of the back three with Craig Cathcart to his right and Miguel Britos to his left. Valon Behrami plays in the middle of midfield with Adlène Guédioura to his right and Etienne Capoue to his left in the shuttling midfield roles. Nordin Amrabat plays right wing back, José Holebas is the left wing back. Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney partner up front.

Watford general approach

I’m sure Mazzarri, whose previous management jobs include a successful spell at Napoli and a less successful spell at Inter, wouldn’t appreciate the comparison but Watford are built a bit like the old Tony Pulis Stoke sides that caused us so much difficulty over the years. Like those Stoke sides, the most striking feature of this Watford side is their physical stature. In their opening two games against Chelsea and Southampton 8 of their 10 outfield starters were 6 feet or taller and they had an average height of 6’1”. By contrast Arsenal had just two starting outfield players 6 feet or taller against Leicester, Holding and Koscielny, and averaged just 5’10”. Watford’s average weight was 172 lbs., 10 lbs. more than Arsenal’s average of 162 lbs.

Therefore I expect Mazzarri’s side to continue to look to take advantage of their size advantage by bullying Arsenal in physical battles, just as they attempted against Southampton and Chelsea. They’ll hope to take advantage of set pieces and look to get the ball wide to the wing backs and hit crosses into the box towards Deeney and Ighalo.

We’ll need to be cautious about not conceding free kicks in areas where they can get their giant center backs Cathcart, Britos and Prödl into the box. Tracking the runs of Ighalo, Deeney and Capoue from midfield (if he’s available after Diego Costa smashed his outstretched leg) when the ball goes wide will be important.

Watford are more concerned with controlling territory than controlling possession. Only Sunderland and Burnley have lower average possession than Watford’s 40.4% after the first two matches.  Only Crystal Palace, Sunderland, Burnley and West Brom have a lower pass success rate than Watford’s 72.5%.

Watford attack

They are pretty short on ideas in the attacking phase of the game. Remarkably they’ve scored 2 goals in the opening 2 matches from just 3 shots on target. While 2 goals from 3 shots on target indicates an impressive conversion rate it is not sustainable. They’ll need to find more creativity to have a successful season.

Their main form of attack seems to be to get the ball wide to Amrabat and Guedioura in the right channel and hit crosses in towards the back post. This means Holding and the diminutive Bellerin will have to be alert to back post runs and Monreal and Alexis will have to close down Amrabat to prevent him from picking out dangerous crosses. Both of Watford’s goals this season have come from crosses on the right towards the back post. Against Southampton in the opener Amrabat found Deeney at the back post. From there Deeney cushioned a header for Capoue to smack in. Against Chelsea Guedioura crossed from the right towards Deeney at the penalty spot. Deeney couldn’t get anything on the header but his leap put Branislav Ivanovic off enough that that he couldn’t get a touch either and the ball fell for Capoue to volley in at the back post.

They’re not at all reluctant to knock it long from deep inside their own half towards the powerful Deeney to flick on for Ighalo. The graphic below shows Deeney’s received passes against Southampton and Chelsea, a number of them coming from long balls.

They completed just 39 of 76 attempted passes in the attacking third of the pitch against Chelsea for a pass completion rate of 51.3% and were. They weren’t much tidier against Southampton where they completed 52 of 96 attacking third passes for a 52.4% pass success rate. Many of those attempted attacking third passes were longer balls from deeper positions.

Their attacks are vertical and direct. They won’t look to tap it patiently around midfield waiting for an opening in the opposition defense but instead will get it wide to the wing backs as quickly as possible then crash the box for crosses coming in from the channels.

Watford defense

Defensively, Watford start in a 3-5-2 when the opposition has the ball in their own half and they’ll apply some pressure in midfield. When the opposition advances the ball into their own half the wing backs will drop off and join the three center backs in a defensive bank of five. Against Chelsea Ighalo and Deeney would work back to prevent easy entry passes into N’Golo Kante so Xhaka may have to work to find space.

I thought in the opening half Watford did well to press Chelsea when the Blues won the ball back, preventing Conte’s side from getting out on the counter. However, when Watford are defending higher up the pitch in a 3-5-2 there are pockets of space between the wing backs, center midfielders and wider center backs that I think Alexis in particular will be able to exploit.

The screen shot below shows Chelsea with possession inside their own half. John Terry is receiving a pass from Kante. Amrabat pushes up the pitch to apply pressure to Chelsea left back Azpilicueta. Guedioura is tight to Matic in midfield. Behind them and out of screen are the Watford back three. There is space behind Guedioura and Amrabat and in front of Cathcart, the right-sided center back, for a player like Alexis to drift into and get on the ball. If he receives possession in those pockets of space Cathcart will have to pull wide and do a lot of 1 v. 1 defending against Sanchez in wider areas. Cathcart can play right back so isn’t entirely uncomfortable defending in the channels but it is a matchup you’d favor Alexis to win at least a few times. Also, Ozil will be quick to drift to wide areas to provide overloads when Cathcart and Britos are forced to defend in wider positions than they’d like.

Chelsea also occasionally had success playing long cross field diagonals into Hazard behind Amrabat, allowing him to get on the ball in space and run at Cathcart. Xhaka was wayward with his long passing last weekend at Leicester (the graphic below shows his long passing in that match) but he showed the ability at Mönchengladbach to accurately hit those long diagonal balls. With accurate long diagonals we should get Alexis isolated against Cathcart in the channel.

Width from our fullbacks key

Finally I think getting width from the fullbacks will be important. Southampton played an extremely narrow diamond 4-4-2 which played right in to Watford’s strengths. With their 3-5-2 Mazzarri’s side have 8 players taking up central positions then the two wing backs in wide areas. They’re well equipped to deal with narrow attacks. Space will come from overloading them in the channels. Therefore expect Bellerin and Monreal to play an important role in advancing the ball up the pitch.

Final Thoughts

Watford are strong and powerful but an extremely limited side technically. My biggest concern is they get an early lift from the home crowd and batter us with an aerial assault and maybe nick a goal. If we deal with any early onslaught without conceding we should grow into the game and dominate. The return of Giroud and particularly Ozil to the starting lineup should provide a massive boost. While I don’t currently have a huge amount of faith in Wenger to prepare the team tactically, I’m hoping the gap in quality will be too much for Mazzarri’s side to overcome.

Arsenal's matchweek 2 scouting report: Leicester City

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.

image via  Squawka

image via Squawka

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.

Finals Thoughts

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.