How Arsenal rounded off the perfect week
Following on from a dramatic Europa League fixture against Benfica, Arsenal travelled to the King Power Stadium to play high flying Leicester City.
Unlike Arsenal, Leicester got knocked out of the Europa League by Slavia Prague. Despite this, throughout the season, Leicester have shown much of their good play from last season, with added maturity. The hosts were without Maddison, Fofana, Perez, Preat, Morgan and Justin for the game. None the less, they still had a very strong line-up.
This report will look to analyse the key strategy and tactics used in the game.
Brendan Rodgers opted for a 4-4-2. Schmeichel started in goal, with Thomas, Söyüncü, Evans and Castagne ahead of him. In the midfield unit, Barnes, Tielemans, Ndidi and Pereira formed a tight four. The dual forwards of Iheanacho and Vardy, looked to offer height and depth.
Mikel Arteta rotated his Arsenal side after their midweek excursions. In their 4-2-3-1, Leno started in goal, with a back four of Tierney, Mari, Luiz and Cedric. Xhaka and Elneny were the double pivot behind Willian, Smith Rowe and Pepe. Lacazette led the line.
Set-piece Zonal Marking
After Tielemans opener, the equalising goal came through Arsenal exploiting Leicester’s zonal marking. Zonal marking, especially from set-pieces, is often undone through synchronised movements and a ball into space. Personally, I believe that runs across the different zones, from a selected player, ruins a zonal defence. This is what Arsenal did. As the ball left Willian’s boot, Luiz was moving into the targeted space. This is in contrast to moving a couple of steps and almost waiting for the ball to the far post, like in many set-piece situations. This movement allowed him to get ahead of anyone challenging for the ball and use the pace of the delivery to beat Schmeichel.
Open Play Zonal Marking
From open play, Leicester opted for a man orientated zonal marking system. This requires for the Leicester players to essentially view their respective Arsenal player as their reference point. By doing this, the Leicester players maintained a particular distance from the Arsenal player who was in their jurisdiction. For example, Tielemans would look to control the space around Xhaka, rather than being touch tight. This of course offers Arsenal an advantage, in that they have slightly more time and space on the ball, when they received, than if they were rigidly man marked. This made the first touch and receiving conditions imperative.
What Arsenal did to overcome the Leicester zonal defence, was to overload, both centrally and out wide. A 4-4-2 against a 4-2-3-1, is always susceptible to being overloaded centrally and Arsenal dually did this with Lacazette being key. Leicester would react with their defensive line engaging and minimising the space between the lines, however the furthest side Arsenal winger, always was in a deep position, which couldn’t be marked, without dismantling the organisation. This was evident in the third goal, where Lacazette attracted and negated the Leicester midfield line. Arsenal could then access the space between the midfield and defence. In the reverse fixture, Ndidi sat in this space, however, in a flat midfield four, Leicester did not have an extra defensive player, who could condense these areas. Therefore, Pepe and Willian could enter this space at will, with them having 47 and 30, final third touches, respectively.
Rodgers was clearly weary of Arsenal’s preferred left sided overload. He tried to double up out wide with Pereira and Castagne. Furthermore, Ndidi was that side, offering extra protection in the half-channel. This played right into Arteta’s hands, as they could overload down the left, before switching play to the right for Pepe. Barnes did make attempts to track back, but more often than not, Pepe was 1v1 with Thomas, before Ndidi shut off the inside spaces. Ndidi, was deployed on the right side of the central two, most likely to try and help Thomas, should Pepe look to dribble inside and shoot. This made it important for Pepe to know when to dribble and when to cross. These decisions were key to winning the game, with Pepe winning a penalty from this exact move.
For the penalty, Pepe’s cross hit the hands of Ndidi, who for some reason had them above his head, and the referee had no doubt. Ndidi was protecting the half-space, expecting to engage either a long shot or tricky dribble. Had the hand ball not taken place, Pepe’s cross might have found Tierney, who was very free at the far post, due to Pereira not tucking in. Pepe’s decision making has come on a long way in recent weeks. He no longer looks like a one trick pony. In total Arsenal attempted 23 crosses to Leicester’s 9.
Granit Xhaka put in a phenomenal display in the centre of midfield. From a defensive point of view, he led the way for Arsenal in each of these statistics: defensive actions (10), tackles (3, winning 2), ball recoveries (6) and aerial duels (5, winning 40%). In possession, Xhaka had the most touches for Arsenal (85), the most middle third touches (52) and made 6 progressive carries. Xhaka attempted 70 passes, completing 87.1%, and played 5 successful final third entry passes. Xhaka also had the highest expected goals build-up of any Arsenal player, with 0.34. Pepe was in second with 0.30.
Largely, Xhaka’s success came from his speed of thinking. As mentioned, Leicester looked to a man orientated zonal marking system. This meant that they were waiting for Xhaka to receive, before pressing him. This is where excellent coaching comes in. Xhaka had to receive on the half-turn on his back foot, with limited time and space. This gave him the best opportunity to then play forward, without being tackled. Perhaps, the reason why Rodgers put Ndidi slightly higher in the midfielder four, was to help nullify Xhaka’s diagonal ground passes. With Tierney and Willian, Xhaka could create triangles, which did aid progression up the pitch, but also attracted Leicester narrow, offering Tierney time and space to cross. Elneny who partnered Xhaka, allowed him more freedom to engage with the attacking play and play closer to the Arsenal front men.
In summary, tactically, Arteta got it spot on. Rodgers was handicapped, with all the injuries and fitness related selection difficulties, but still had a relatively strong team. This might have informed his decision to play a 4-4-2, which can be difficult to break down, due to the compactness and discipline. However, with Leicester’s style of play and Arsenal’s technical quality, especially in the transition, Leicester were always at risk.
Leicester’s goal came through poor defending and poor decision making. All the Arsenal players dropped off to defend Vardy. Nobody engaged Tielemans to try to control and restrain the attack, whilst Arsenal got organised. This resulted in his shot (which Leno should have done better with), finding the back of the net. It has become very clear that Arteta likes to have a rest defence with a lot of numbers back, as to defend against this exact situation. Im sure this is something he will work on in the training ground.
Xhaka, Pepe, Elneny and Lacazette were all very impressive. Ødegaard too looked very good after coming on for Smith Rowe, who we hope can recover quickly from his injury. The players look to be building a very good understanding. The pace, fluidity and relationship among the defensive, midfield and attacking units, proved to be very strong.
Ultimately, Arsenal played very well. They ended the game with 56% possession and completed 82% of their 507 passes. Ahead of the game, it would have been right to think Leicester might be out to right their midweek wrongs, yet clearly exhaustion and injuries hindered them. This was very evident in their frustration and the 15 fouls, they committed. In saying this, nothing should be taken away from the Arsenal performance. A difficult game, but it was well managed and well won.