Leicester City hosted Arsenal last weekend in an important early-season game for both of these sides’ potential top-four hopes. At the beginning of the season, many fans and pundits questioned who, if anyone, outside of England’s ‘top six’, could compete for a Champions League place.
Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City have quickly emerged as that side this season. After their impressive start, The Foxes currently sit in second place in the Premier League, trailing just Liverpool.
It is important to remember that it is still early days in the Premier League season, after just 12 games. However, Leicester took a big step towards their Champions League hopes last Saturday, securing a 2-0 win versus Arsenal. This tactical analysis will show you how Leicester pulled off a big victory over one of their top-four rivals.
Lineups and formations
Leicester City set up in their regular 4-1-4-1 shape for this game. The analysis shows that this has been an effective shape for them and their possession-based style under Rodgers. Rodgers also had a full-strength side at his disposal for Saturday’s game. Only Leicester’s two wingers, Harvey Barnes and Ayoze Pérez had started fewer than at least nine of Leicester’s previous 11 Premier League games this season, going into this game.
Rodgers didn’t pull any surprises as far as team selection goes for this important game. He clearly would have felt no need to change a single ingredient to the winning formula of his team. However, this was especially clear as it pertained to Leicester’s defence.
All of Leicester’s back four and goalkeeper, except for Ben Chilwell, have started all 12 of Leicester’s Premier League games. They have been good enough to give Leicester the Premier League’s best defensive record up to this point.
Arsenal lined up in a 3-4-1-2 shape for this game. Calum Chambers had been deputising at right-back for Arsenal in recent weeks in the absence of Héctor Bellerín. He moved to the right centre-back position as Bellerín made his first Premier League appearance of the season.
Chambers was joined by another player making his first Premier League appearance of the season in Rob Holding. The English pairing were played either side of David Luiz, making up Arsenal’s back three.
Mattéo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira played at the base of Arsenal’s midfield behind Mesut Özil in the ‘10’ position. Özil operated quite high in this game, often in line with Arsenal’s forward duo of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Arsenal’s man-oriented pressing cutting off Leicester’s midfield
It was clear that Unai Emery’s midfield was set up in a way to effectively neutralise Leicester’s central trio. The two holding midfielders operating at the base of Arsenal’s midfield both marked one of Leicester’s two advanced ‘8’s’. Meanwhile, Özil held the defensive responsibility of cutting off access to Leicester’s holding midfielder, Wilfred Ndidi.
Arsenal’s two forwards were both split very wide in their defensive shape. This is because both men were required to cut off the easy passing lane to Leicester’s full-backs in the build-up. Arsenal usually didn’t press either of Leicester’s two centre-backs when playing out of the back. Instead, they essentially opted to sit tightly on all of the two centre-backs’ short passing options. This made it difficult for Jonny Evans and Çağlar Söyüncü to begin attacks.
Preventing Leicester’s three midfielders from having the chance to receive the ball and play towards goal was Arsenal’s primary objective. Their defensive shape was effective in cutting off Leicester’s midfield, from the build-up. This forced Leicester to play the ball long on multiple occasions in the first half. This was effective in regaining possession for the Gunners.
Arsenal’s defensive shape also created a cage of sorts around Leicester’s two 8’s. On occasions when one of Leicester’s 8’s would receive the ball in their advanced position, both of Arsenal’s central midfielders, as well as Özil and the near wide forward would close him down quickly.
In the above image, we can see an instance of Arsenal’s press in action. James Maddison received the ball in his advanced no.8 position. Torreira, as the player primarily responsible for him, is quick to close him down. While Maddison is holding Torreira off, he is closed down by Lacazette, Özil, and Guendouzi.
All three of the men offering support to Torreira in closing down Maddison also keep their respective men in their cover shadow to prevent an easy passing option becoming available.
Arsenal’s man-oriented press in the midfield was effective for the entirety of the first half. Leicester enjoyed plenty of ball possession during this period, accumulating 57% of the possession in the first half. This can mainly be attributed to the lack of passing options available, and Arsenal’s hesitance to press Leicester’s backline.
Leicester’s attacking full-backs leave space for Arsenal to counter-attack
Arsenal’s defensive shape made it difficult for Leicester to easily play through the midfield. Leicester’s full-backs were forced to position themselves quite high up the pitch in order to play around Arsenal’s press. More often than not, Pereira was the full-back who got forward. Pereira attempted six dribbles in this game, to Chilwell’s one.
In the above image, we can see an example of one of Pereira’s offensive runs creating space in the midfield. Lacazette tracks back with Pereira while Guendouzi closes off the half-space. This leaves Tielemans free in the centre of the pitch. On this occasion, Pereira plays the ball to Pérez on the wing, who quickly finds Tielemans in space.
Tielemans manages to play a dangerous ball into the box which Leicester fail to capitalise on, in this instance. However, the use of the attacking full-back to create space in the midfield ultimately became one of Leicester’s most effective attacking tactics in this game.
Arsenal managed to exploit the space left by Leicester’s offensive full-backs on multiple occasions in this game. Despite having less possession, Arsenal had a higher xG than Leicester in the first half, 0.56 to Leicester’s 0.47. This can be attributed to the effectiveness of Arsenal’s counter-attacks in this game.
The pace of Arsenal’s front two along with the intelligence of Özil were the key to Arsenal’s counter-attacks. When Leicester’s full-backs left space in the defence, Özil would move to the wing to occupy that space.
As soon as Arsenal managed to win the ball back, Özil provided an offensive outlet for his teammates. Özil would combine with the wide forward to progress the ball up the pitch. Arsenal’s wing-backs were often quick to join Arsenal’s counter-attacks throughout the game. Arsenal often found themselves with an attacking five, consisting of the two forwards, Özil, and the two wing-backs. This was effective in overloading Leicester’s defence on the counter-attack on multiple occasions.
Arsenal’s forwards and wing-backs would often make diagonal runs in the channel between Leicester’s centre-back and full-back, moving away from goal. This was especially effective at creating space during counter-attacks when Arsenal had an overload on one side of the pitch.
Arsenal’s diagonal runs through this channel were effective at dragging one of Leicester’s centre-backs wide. This created space in the box for another of Arsenal’s attackers to exploit. One of these diagonal runs created space for Arsenal’s best chance of the game as the ball fell to Aubameyang in the centre of the box in the 14th minute.
Leicester’s relentless press on Arsenal’s backline
Arsenal were hesitant to press Leicester’s backline, as we discussed previously. However, Leicester were relentless in their press on Arsenal’s backline throughout this game. Arsenal’s backline has shown a weakness already this season, in their attempts to play out from the back. Leicester were effective in exploiting this weakness in this game.
In the above image, we can see that Leicester were quick to put pressure on Arsenal’s three centre-backs in the build-up. On this occasion, Bernd Leno is in possession of the ball. Leno has often taken risks in order to adhere to Arsenal’s philosophy of playing out from the back. Leicester’s pacy front three were prepared to press Arsenal’s centre-backs if they were to receive possession here.
Arsenal’s centre-backs were reluctant to play long-balls from the back in this game. Due to the congested nature of the midfield, they often played the ball out to their wing-backs in the build-up. The ball being played out to the wing-backs was a big pressing trigger for Leicester.
Leicester’s near 8 would frequently press the wing-back when they received the ball. Furthermore, Leicester’s near winger would trackback to put pressure on the wing-back also. They would keep the centre-back who they were originally marking in their cover shadow while performing this action.
Leicester’s press on Arsenal’s wing-backs was effective in creating multiple chances for them throughout this match. The returning Bellerín, in particular, struggled against Leicester’s press. Bellerín ultimately lost the ball more than any other player on the pitch. He lost the ball on 14 occasions, seven of which came in his own half of the pitch. His opposite wing-back, Sead Kolašinac, was not far behind him, having lost the ball on 12 occasions.
Luiz frequently operated higher than his centre-back partners during Arsenal’s build-up play. Luiz played almost in the role of a ‘6’ during Arsenal’s build-up. This allowed him to move past the press of Jamie Vardy and move into space in midfield.
Luiz offered an effective passing option for his centre-back partners, as well as Arsenal’s wing-backs. However, Luiz leaving his position was still a gamble, as this left an in-form Vardy in space between Arsenal’s other two centre-backs. Vardy gambled by not moving deep to follow Luiz, instead opting to stay on the last line.
In the above images, we can see an example from the 10th minute of the game where Vardy’s gamble almost pays off. An advanced Luiz has a pass intercepted by Youri Tielemans who is pressing Guendouzi. Tielemans quickly releases to Vardy who is exploiting the space between Arsenal’s two wide centre-backs.
This shows another example of Leicester’s effectiveness at winning the ball high up the pitch and exploiting Arsenal’s philosophy of playing out from the back. Arsenal’s defence became the makers of their own problems on multiple occasions in this game.
Second half tactical tweaks create an open game
Both teams made slight tactical changes which created a much faster-paced game in the second half. Arsenal’s wing-backs sat higher than they had in the first half, from the beginning of the second period. This aided them in their attempts to overload Leicester’s wings.
Bellerín, in particular, enjoyed opportunities to combine with the wide forwards and Özil. Bellerín’s most frequent pass combination in this game was with Aubameyang, due to their link-up on the right-wing.
Arsenal’s wing-backs often sat as high as Leicester’s last line in the second half. This, along with Luiz stepping into the ‘6’ role, gave Arsenal something of a 2-3-5 pyramid shape in attack at times in the second half.
We can see an example of this shape in the image above. Luiz is bringing the ball out of the defence in this instance, while we can see Kolašinac playing alongside Ricardo Pereira in the left-wing position on the far side of the pitch. We can see Bellerín occupying a similar position on the right-wing as the play moves on.
Leicester made their own tactical tweaks to influence the game in the second half. Firstly, Barnes began to play a lot more centrally in the second half. At times he played almost as a second striker, just behind Vardy. This was especially effective when Bellerín was high up the pitch, as Barnes and Vardy could essentially create a 2v1 situation against Chambers at right centre-back.
Pereira also played an even greater role in Leicester’s attack in the second half. At the risk of leaving themselves vulnerable at the back on the counter-attack, Pereira frequently drove all the way to the byline at times in the second half.
The purpose of this was to create a similar attacking situation to the one he helped to create in the first half, where his offensive run creates space for his midfield teammates. We can see the effectiveness of these tactics in the image above.
After a period of patient build-up, Pereira manages to make his way to the byline in the Arsenal box. On this occasion, this leaves both Maddison and Ndidi free at the edge of the Arsenal box. Pereira manages to find Ndidi on this occasion, who is unlucky not to score as he rattles the crossbar.
The early stages of the second half ultimately resulted in a game of counter-attacks. Arsenal’s high wing-backs left a lot of space for Leicester to exploit, while Pereira’s attacking role also left Leicester vulnerable at the back.
When Arsenal had the opportunity to counter-attack in the second half, their pacey forwards and wing-backs were quick to exploit Leicester’s defence.
In the image above, we can see a situation created as a result of an Arsenal counter-attack. Pereira, Ndidi, and Maddison are all scrambling to get back on this occasion. Meanwhile, Evans, Söyüncü, and Chilwell are trying to remain compact as the three of them have to deal with four Arsenal attackers.
Bellerín and Lacazette manage to create a 2v1 scenario versus Chilwell here. As Bellerín pulls wide, so does Chilwell. Meanwhile, Evans and Söyüncü are occupied by Aubameyang and Özil at this moment. This creates a sizeable gap between Chilwell and Söyüncü which Bellerín drives into. He is subsequently let down by his finishing on this occasion.
Both teams enjoyed plenty of attacking opportunities at the beginning of the second half. However, Arsenal still struggled to create many clear-cut chances. In the second half, they failed to get a single shot on target.
Meanwhile, Leicester benefitted from the more open game the second half produced. Leno was tested on five occasions in the second half, three more than the first period.
Barnes’ movement creates the opening
Barnes thrived in his more central position in the second half. As we discussed, his more central role was crucial in creating an overload versus Chambers as Bellerín attacked. However, Barnes also played a crucial and unselfish role in creating the first goal of the game.
As we discussed, due to the attacking role of Pereira, Leicester’s attacks often ended up focusing on the right-wing in the second half. As Pereira attacked, his opposite full-back Chilwell tended to sit in a more defensive position. This often left Barnes as Leicester’s only attacking threat on the left-wing.
On numerous occasions where Leicester patiently looked for an opening on the right-wing, Barnes would move more centrally and even more towards the right-wing, than the left-wing. Barnes’ movement would pull Bellerín away from his right-back position as he tracked Barnes’ run.
However, this created space on the left-hand side of the box for Vardy to pull away into and get a clear shot at goal. These tactics paid off for the opening goal of the game. As we can see in the image above, Bellerín had been pulled out of position by Barnes’ movement. Vardy then capitalised on the space that had been left empty by Bellerín, by pulling away from Chambers.
We can see Vardy pointing to the space where he wants the ball delivered in the image above. He quickly moves into that space and when you’re as clinical as Vardy, a second of space is all you need in the box.
Barnes had been substituted off for Dennis Praet in the 74th minute. Maddison subsequently occupied the role that Barnes had been playing, just behind Vardy. Maddison also benefited from this role as he scored Leicester’s second goal.
Maddison creates the space for Vardy on the left on this occasion by pulling away to the centre. Vardy moves into space and holds the ball up this time. He subsequently finds Maddison on the edge of the box. Maddison pulls off an excellent finish under pressure from Bellerín to score Leicester’s second.
Arsenal immediately switched to a 4-2-3-1, bringing on Nicolas Pépé for Holding. However, the extra attacker was not enough for Arsenal as they suffered a 2-0 defeat.
Our analysis shows that this game was a tight contest between two very good teams. The game was won by the more creative team on the day. Leicester managed to make the difference and create their scoring opportunities by the tightest of tactical nuances. However, it was the lethal finishing quality of Vardy and the class of Maddison that really won the day.
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