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Post Match Review

Post Match Reaction: Three Things We Learned from Arsenal v Leicester City

For those justly annoyed over football’s accelerating mutation into a mode of corporate consumption. For those unjustly condemnatory of a longtime, brilliant steward of Arsenal Football Club. For those weary of winter midnights and pre-dawns across the globe to witness our dreams for 20- to 35-year-old men meet the harsh realities of elite competition.

I give you Danny Welbeck in the 95th minute against Leicester City.

When the English forward returned from his 10-month injury absence and headed home to give Arsenal a critical 2-1 win over league leaders Leicester City, he joined us all in the euphoria. The joy we shared is the fundamental reason we follow sport.

Let’s all pause and recognize that this Arsenal team has provided us with four such occasions already this season, in four different fashions, really: The first-half swamping of Manchester United, the brilliant rearguard action against world powers Bayern Munich, the makeshift inspiration against Manchester City, and now this, a dramatic infusion of faith.

Gratitude for those moments should be the primary thing we learned from this match. From an analytical perspective, here are three others.

Arsène Wenger’s gambling instincts can still come up aces

The Arsenal manager showed he hasn’t lost his taste for a bet. Instead of establishing a game plan to negate Leicester City’s counterattacking strengths, Wenger sent his team out to do what they do best. The Gunners moved the ball quickly, attacked the Leicester defenders at speed, and kept plugging even when the breaks went against them.

This approach brought the rewards.

Arsenal had the better of the play in the first half, particularly in the opening 20 minutes, when the objective was obviously to score and force Leicester to spend the bulk of the match outside its defensive comfort zone. The goal didn’t come, as often it doesn’t, and Leicester got the break it needed when Jamie Vardy conned referee Martin Atkinson into awarding a penalty, which he dispatched.

Rather than sulk over this injustice, Arsenal started the second half assertively. The key, it turned out, was Alexis taking on Leicester right back Danny Simpson. Simpson’s regular fouling of the Arsenal dynamo eventually led to a yellow card for a body block and a second yellow and expulsion for tugging back Olivier Giroud.

This handed the initiative squarely to the Gunners. Wenger took it and placed an even more substantial wager on his attackers. He replaced deep-lying midfielder Francis Coquelin with the dangerous but lately powerless Theo Walcott, who provided the cool finish that leveled the score on 70 minutes.

Then, knowing his team needed to win to legitimate their case as contenders for the league title, he sent on yet another forward, Welbeck, a player whose only action since last April consisted of 45 minutes with the Arsenal youth team.

As a result, Arsenal were fielding a goalkeeper, four defenders, one central midfielder with attacking instincts (Aaron Ramsey), playmaker Mesut Özil, and four forwards. Against a team deadly on the counterattack, even with 10 men.


Arsenal can achieve top intensity

Leicester reached the Premier League summit with a combination of persistent intensity and clinical finishing. Arsenal rose to the challenge, matching the league leaders’ energy and desire.

These are impossible qualities to quantify and therefore overused by those who review matches. Mentions of “desire” and “mental strength”–or the lack thereof–usually signal laziness, ignorance, or at least the absence of analysis.

In this case, though, the manager had a supportable point when he said:

We put the intensity in from the first to the last minute. It was as well a mental test for us, because to find yourself down 1-0 at half-time to a team who defends so well, you need to keep going in your head. And we came back in the second half with relentless energy. And we took as well all the risks to win it. We knew a draw was not good enough. In the end it paid off, down to the mental desire of the team to give absolutely everything to win it.

The Gunners did not let up, producing nine of their 24 shots in the last 10 minutes of the match. The last one was the best.

Olivier Giroud’s fortitude founded this performance

Arsenal’s overall persistence and desire took form in center forward Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman, sometimes too demonstrative in his expressions of discomfort, more than held his own in the physical battle against Leicester’s hulking center halves Robert Huth and Wes Morgan.

Giroud won 13 of 20 aerial duels, according to FourFourTwo’s StatsZone app, and created four chances for teammates. One of those was the strong but cultured knockdown that invited Walcott to slot home the equalizing goal.

Giroud also made two tackles, including an eye-catching one as Arsenal increased the pressure after Walcott’s goal. He chased down Leicester’s tireless midfielder N’Golo Kanté well into the Arsenal half and nipped the ball to Alexis.

This was one example of Giroud’s willingness to leave his predictable post; at other times, he ran left and unsettled Leicester’s defense. Indeed, that was where Giroud spun Simpson and drew the decisive second yellow on Leicester’s right back.

Extra time

A word here for Nacho Monreal. Arsenal’s outstanding left back fell victim to Vardy’s machinations for the penalty. Based on his overall performance, though, he deserved to be on the winning side.

The Spaniard shut down Leicester’s dangerous Riyad Mahrez for the second game, this time without the concerted assistance of midfielder Santi Cazorla. He succeeded on five of seven tackles, made nine ball recoveries, and won all three of his headers.

Monreal was also Arsenal’s second most prolific passer on the day, completing 72 of 80 (90 percent). His combination with Alexis, the second most frequent for the team, and his interplay with Ramsey, tied for the third most frequent combination, suggest the team may have found a new route from defense to attack.



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