Matchday 36 took Arsenal to the King Power Stadium to take another spin on the roulette wheel that is their season. With an average of only 1.22 points on the road, Arsenal desperately needed a performance to maintain their fight for a top-four finish. However, when the chips were down, Arsenal came up short, slumping to a 3-0 defeat. In this tactical analysis, we review how Leicester punished a dismal away performance and use statistics to analyse how they made their man advantage count.
Leicester came into the game a rejuvenated side under Brendan Rogers. The Foxes have notched up an impressive five wins in eight games under Rogers, scoring 17 in the process. Jamie Vardy has noticeably benefitted from the change in personnel, scoring nine in 10 coming into the match. Everything but history pointed towards a victory for Leicester, who have been unable to beat Arsenal in their previous 24 attempts.
The home side started the match in a familiar 4-1-4-1, a formation Rogers has preferred to use on home soil. The Foxes achieve an xG90 of 2.26 in this shape, which they surpassed in this match hitting a high of 3.86. Leicester’s starting back five, including Schmeichel in goal, remained unchanged, as it has done for much of the season. Rogers opted for Ndidi as the midfield anchor, positioning Choudhury and Tielemans slightly more advanced in the centre of midfield. Talisman Vardy led the front line on his own.
Unai Emery continued to wrestle with his team selection, in a desperate attempt to instil some stability into a struggling away side. Emery opted for a flat 4-4-2 preferring an industrial midfield of Torreira and Xhaka over creative talent. A starting centre back pairing of Mustafi and Sokratis was deployed to protect Leno in goal. The dangerous Lacazette and Aubameyang started upfront, the pair have scored 32 league goals between them. Mesut Özil was the squad’s noticeable absentee.
Leicester started the game positively, dominating the ball with a slow tempo build-up through the phases. Through this, Leicester created several opportunities, including a Ndidi header which forced Leno to make a good save. Two soft yellows for Maitland-Niles saw his afternoon end after just 36 minutes. The game dynamics didn’t change after the dismissal, as Leicester continued to dominate the London club. The away side were restricted to 20 passes in the first 20 minutes and ended the half with an xG of 0.54.
The second half demanded a reshuffle from Emery who had lost his starting right-back. Arsenal’s system moved to a 4-3-2, which allowed Leicester to continue to dominate possession, particularly in the lateral areas. The home side remained patient, racking up 616 passes before the final whistle blew. A Tieleman’s header eventually broke the deadlock. He guided a header passed Leno after his run went untracked into the Arsenal penalty area. Ten minutes from time Vardy cemented the three points from a trademark run in behind. Vardy then added to his tally with seconds to spare, condemning Arsenal to a 3-0 defeat.
Problems with the system
Arsenal’s approach to the game was passive and negative. They chose stability over offensive creativity and it cost them possession, averaging a mere 37.3% throughout the match.
The Foxes had plenty of time on the ball as Arsenal opted for a deep 4-4-2 shape in a bid to reduce space in behind.
Outnumbering the middle
Leicester remained patient and worked the ball from left to right to pull the Arsenal shape out of position. Once Leicester had manipulated the ball beyond Lacazette and Aubameyang, opportunities arose. Leicester’s additional midfielder occupied the space between the Arsenal attack and midfield. Xhaka moved to close the ball down which left Torreira isolated. Leicester then made easy passes through an outnumbered midfield.
The knock-on effect
By cutting through Arsenal’s midfield, Leicester exposed Arsenal’s defensive frailties. Xkhaka was caught beyond the ball, which left Torreira with too much ground to cover. Sokratis moved forward to cover the space left by the empty midfield. This left a gap for Vardy to run into for a goal-scoring opportunity.
By working the ball beyond Arsenal’s front two, Leicester increased the distance between Torreira and Xhaka, which they exploited constantly. Below is another example of how Leceister cut through an under-resourced Arsenal midfield.
By introducing a 4-1-2-3 system with a holding midfielder, Arsenal could have nullified this threat. Using two midfielders to press underpinned by a holding midfielder would have prevented the overload and recovered possession higher up the pitch.
A secondary element to Arsenal’s defeat was their weakness from set-pieces, which we look at below.
Arsenal were guilty of poor marking and confusion when defending set-pieces in the match, leading to multiple Leicester chances.
Arsenal implemented a hybrid of man-to-man and zonal marking. The front post is protected by zonal marking, with the back post operating a man-to-man system. The starting gap is too large between Mustafi and Sokratis, which Ndidi identifies. Sokratis doesn’t react when Mkhitaryan – who is supposed to be man-marking – passes Ndidi onto him. At this point, Sokratis should deal with the man and get touch tight. Instead, he decides to stick to his zonal positioning, allowing Ndidi a free header at goal.
Arsenal adopt a fairly high line in an attempt to catch Leicester attackers offside. Mustafi doesn’t trust his pace and drops early to give himself a yard headstart. The Leicester attackers anticipate the early movement and find themselves onside with a goal-scoring opportunity.
The majority of free-kicks Leicester won in the Arsenal half were set up for balls into the box. The home side had clearly done their homework and identified this as an area they could exploit, particularly with free-kick specialist James Maddison.
Emery and his men will spend another Monday morning briefing discussing the pitfalls in their tactical approach. With the last spot in the top four still available; a defeat in this manner is simply unacceptable. Arsenal now find themselves at a crucial juncture in their season, with the final games deciding who bears the media’s crosshairs.
Leicester fans will be delighted with the result and on a grander scale the turnaround at the club. Since Rogers’ arrival, a sense of normality has washed over Leicester City and for the first time in a long while, expectations and reality are perfectly aligned. Recent years filled with unprecedented highs and life-altering lows are now being steadied with an important period of consistency.
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