The sun was shining, brand new boots had been released from their bags, and football players from around England’s divisions took to the field once again. On Friday night, the focus was at the Emirates Stadium where Arsenal, the disappointment of missing out on Champions League football still fresh in the minds of players and fans alike, entertained Leicester City.
After the acquisition of Alexandre Lacazette, it’s fair to say there was fresh optimism all around the red half of North London and Friday provided the perfect opportunity to show they were ready for a title fight. For those of you still oblivious to the score and hoping to catch the highlights saved on your TV, now’s the time to click away. For those of us who enjoyed the thrills, the 4-3 result was entertaining, frantic, and a welcome return to Premier League football after the summer break.
However, the game didn’t end with the optimism that filled the air before 19:45. Instead, this had been replaced with nerves and a general feeling of not knowing quite how to react. At times, Arsenal played football that was reminiscent of the greats. Other times, they looked average and today I want to break down how Leicester approached the game and how it actually worked successfully despite the result.
For Arsenal, they lined up in the formation that served them so well towards the end of last season and why wouldn’t they? With their third FA Cup trophy and yet another Community Shield under their belts, we all knew this would be the way Arsenal lined up...and this includes Leicester.
At first, this looks like the typical 4-4-2 that won Leicester the title two seasons ago. Therefore, many were quick to judge the ‘outdated’ approach by suggesting they should try something different (me included). However, the game started and their gameplan was clear to see within minutes. Sure, Arsenal took the lead very early but Leicester weren’t deterred because they trusted the system.
Of course, the formations we see above are only applicable to the formation being played for a very small percentage of the game. If we look at the Arsenal formation with the ball (as they were in this state for most of the game) alongside the Leicester formation without the ball, we get a truer picture of what was occurring.
Arsenal Formation (With Ball)
For Arsenal, the idea was to push the wingbacks up alongside one of the centre midfielders. With the security of having three central defenders, this gave license to Bellerin and Oxlade-Chamberlain to roam the widths of the pitch. In the middle, Granit Xhaka could push forward while Mohamed Elneny sat a little deeper. In theory, this provides great attacking promise; especially with the likes of Ozil, Lacazette, and Welbeck as the front three.
Leicester Formation (Without Ball)
With Leicester, they saw the Arsenal attack and decided to defend with two banks of four. However, the midfield four was extremely narrow which caused Arsenal all sorts of problems. Why? Suddenly, the middle of the pitch was overloaded with no room for creativity. What’s more, they were relying on one wide player alone as opposed to the two you might get with a 4-2-3-1. Below, you can see how crowded the middle of the park was;
With this in mind, Arsenal were forced wide which put tremendous amounts of pressure on Bellerin and Oxlade-Chamberlain. As a result, the two wider forwards were forced outside to help on the wings which led to the following;
With the narrow Leicester midfield, the two teams were evenly matched right across the pitch. In fact, the only area where Arsenal had more players was in defence and even Vardy managed to exploit this. Despite Arsenal being the only team to beat Leicester twice during their title-winning campaign, Arsenal came out playing a relatively high defensive line which must have put a smile on Vardy’s face almost immediately. Whenever Leicester won the ball, Vardy was on the move and causing havoc for the three centre-backs (alongside Okazaki).
Finally, Vardy’s attacking runs meant that Xhaka and Elneny, the two central midfielders, were getting deeper and deeper as the game went on. While they eventually managed to get ahold of their defensive duties, this came at the price of many attacks. Often, Arsenal would be on the attack with a huge space in the central areas.
Although the Leicester players have been moved forward slightly to exaggerate the gap on a small screen, it was still existent and left Arsenal passing across the pitch rather than between the lines. Granted, they did manage to sneak a few balls through to the forward line but this was made much tougher by the gaps in the creative areas. Of course, these areas are so commonly filled by the likes of Santi Cazorla and even Jack Wilshere but fate has prevented them from playing a regular role in an Arsenal shirt.
‘But Arsenal won’; you’re absolutely right but it could have been very different. In the end, Arsenal showed enough character to win the three points (and Aaron Ramsey came on to fill the gaps discussed). With Ramsey, he quickly became the middleman between midfield and attack; exactly what was missing. Although Lacazette (who made some fantastic runs throughout the game) did come short often, his presence was needed on the front line.
In summary, the game was fascinating from a tactical point of view and it showed how anything can happen in the Premier League. In the weeks ahead, we’re sure to have more intense battles and it’ll be interesting to see whether other teams can cancel out the attack of Arsenal quite so effectively; I realize the irony of this considering Arsenal scored four goals. Above all else, teams like Leicester, Monaco, and Atletico Madrid are proving there’s still life in the 4-4-2 yet!