Arsenal vs. Leicester: Old defensive frailties resurface in 2-1 win

You can’t take anything for granted in the Premier League. On Tuesday, the Gunners nearly blew a two-goal lead over bottomside Leicester by suffering a drop in intensity. But in the end, they won 2-1 to overtake Tottenham in the standings.

Arsenal vs. Leicester

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

There was a bit of complacency in the second half as Arsenal did not create any scoring chance until the 67th minute. That’s when I felt the Gunners really lacked leadership in midfield. Ozil, Cazorla and Rosicky are seasoned playmakers, but none of them could dictate the tempo, show creativity or confiscate the ball to prevent the Foxes from getting back into the match. A few years ago, players would turn to Fabregas whenever they were in trouble because the Spaniard acted like a magnet with the ball.

Wenger injected a bit of freshness by making three changes to the side that lost 2-1 to Tottenham on Saturday with Rosicky, Walcott and Sanchez replacing Ramsey, Welbeck and Giroud in the starting lineup. Fighting relegation, Leicester parked the bus with a 5-4-1 formation. Schwarzer made very clear that the Foxes intended to earn a draw by wasting time with his goal kicks by the 10th minute.

Ozil has been our most dangerous player in the past couple of games but Leicester didn’t even bother man-marking him. Walcott ran past Upson in the 16th to collect a through ball from Ozil but sent his chip straight in Schwarzer’s chest. Ozil then played a one-two with Sanchez in the 27th before having his low strike turned around the post by the goalkeeper. Koscielny volleyed home Ozil’s subsequent corner to open the scoring. Morgan got some stick for poorly tracking Koscielny but let’s give Sanchez some credit for creating space at the near post with a smart run.

Walcott letting Bellerin down

Ozil was also involved in the second goal. Cazorla found the Germany playmaker in the 41st and Ozil unleashed a 30-yard drive that Schwarzer parried into the path of Walcott, who buried the rebound into the bottom corner for a 2-0 lead. Ozil faded in the second half but still had a better game than Rosicky and Cazorla, who did very little defensively and offensively. Rosicky pounced on a clearance from the Leicester defense to volley wide in the 47th while Cazorla tested Schwarzer from 18 yards in the 67th.

Walcott scored the decisive goal but his poor defensive contribution and his lack of involvement in the team’s passing game are two valid reasons why he shouldn’t be a starter. Oxlade-Chamberlain would definitely get the nod over Walcott if he had a better scoring form than one goal in 21 Premier League games this season.

Anybody could see the damage done by Tottenham leftback Rose on Saturday because Welbeck forgot to track back for 25 minutes. You would think that Walcott would not make the same mistake and would give Bellerin a hand. But Walcott let Bellerin deal simultaneously with Schlupp and Konchesky quite a few times. Konchesky charged down our right flank in the 37th and had his cross cleared by Mertesacker. Walcott also wasted a good chance in the 43rd, underhitting a pass for Ozil who was clean through on goal.

A rusty and selfish Sanchez

In his return from a hamstring strain, Sanchez looked a bit rusty. He made a couple of poor decisions in the final third. The Chile forward attempted to capitalize on a Leicester turnover in the 29th by penetrating inside the area instead of feeding an unmarked Walcott to his right. Sanchez ended up hurting his left knee after colliding with Upson. Five minutes later, Sanchez chased a long ball and rounded Schwarzer, but another heavy touch led him to stumble near the by-line. On the stroke of halftime, Sanchez again ignored two teammates to his right and lost possession while cutting inside for a shot.

Wednesday’s results have helped the Gunners move within a point of fourth-placed Southampton. However, Wenger must have been worried to see some old defensive flaws resurface. Last season, heavy losses to Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool exposed Arsenal’s vulnerability on the fast break and set pieces. The outstanding performance at the Etihad stadium last month suggested that the team had found a new defensive tightness. But the loss at White Hart Lane and the narrow victory over Leicester have shown that our defensive reconstruction is still a work in progress.

Leicester could have scored in the first half when Mahrez had three goal attempts but none of them was on target. He beat Monreal to a long ball in the second minute to have a shot deflected behind by Koscielny. Mahrez then beat the offside trap in the 13th and fired through Ospina’s legs but wide of the post. It was suicidal to play a high defensive line with no pressure on the ballholder. Koscielny and Monreal played Mahrez onside as the Algeria winger ghosted past Bellerin.

Too much passivity

Coquelin won more tackles than Cazorla and Rosicky but he still lost key duels in the final third. He shoved Mahrez from behind in the 25th to give away a free kick. Mahrez then cut inside Coquelin in the 38th but curled his shot wide. The visitors’ goal came again from lost duels. Schlupp dribbled past Koscielny and Coquelin in the 61st and the ball fell to Kramaric after a lucky bounce. Ospina saved Kramaric’s point-blank effort before Mertesacker cleared the Croatia striker’s cross-shot off the line. From the subsequent corner, Kramaric fired into the bottom corner through a multitude of legs.

Let’s analyze that goal. When the corner was cleared, Coquelin should have won the second ball. But Coquelin missed his header and Cambiasso was able to shield the ball and feed Mahrez on our left flank. Koscielny headed Mahrez’s cross into the path of Kramaric as Sanchez was a split second late for the block. Coquelin and Sanchez lost the key duels but I felt the team was simply too passive on that play. That’s a pattern we saw when Tottenham leveled from a corner last Saturday. Dembele beat Monreal and Giroud to the ball, then Ramsey lost track of Kane at the far post.

Playing a high defensive line

Leicester could have equalized from a counterattack in the 78th. Coquelin failed to stop Mahrez, who played Kramaric in. The Croatia striker had many options but opted for a lob that Ospina easily caught. Arsenal had only three players to kill the fast break as Mertesacker and Koscielny were stuck up front on that play. Once Mahrez beat Coquelin, it was two Foxes versus two Gunners. There was a bit of panic at the back as both Monreal and Bellerin focused on Mahrez, leaving Kramaric free. In hindsight, Bellerin should have challenged Mahrez and let Monreal deal with Kramaric. The manager did not want to give Leicester another counterattacking opportunity in the 90th and told both Mertesacker and Koscielny to stay at the back even though Arsenal had a corner.

The Gunners can afford to sit back against the big teams because you know they will try to attack, but that’s not really an option against the weak teams, which are happy with a draw. Playing a high defensive line can be a problem with a centerback as slow as Mertesacker and a centerback with sore Achilles tendons like Koscielny, who is not winning tackles he would have won last season.

Nobody tracked Simpson on our left flank in the 57th and the Leicester rightback sent James clean through on goal. However, a bad bounce prevented James from connecting with the cross and Ospina was able to gather the ball. Cazorla blamed Koscielny on that play for his poor decision-making and rightly so. Koscielny was not marking anybody, so he had to take care of James’ burst from midfield. The French defender was let down by his legs in the 71st, missing his interception of Kramaric’s pass for Mahrez, who couldn’t catch the frame with a curling shot.

Is Ospina feeling more pressure?

Bellerin had a decent game despite Walcott’s lack of support. The Spaniard initiated the winning goal with an unorthodox challenge on Schlupp and blocked a volley from Konchesky in the 54th. However, Bellerin will have to get rid of his tendency to cut inside in his own half. That can be a dangerous dribbling move for a fullback. Overconfident, Bellerin lost possession about 35 yards from our goal and Cambiasso fed Kramaric, who shot straight at Ospina from a tight angle. Bellerin is so fast that he should just run down the touchline to beat his marker.

Ospina received some unfair criticism after the loss at White Hart Lane. Of the saves he made at full stretch, very few goalkeepers would have done better. You can’t blame Ospina for Kane’s equalizer. He had to react very quickly to stop Dembele’s close-range header. Was he in a position to tip it over the bar or around the post? I don’t think so. On Tuesday, he made just one minor mistake when he spilled a corner on the stroke of halftime. Instead of attempting to catch the ball, he should have palmed it away as Bellerin did not protect him from a looming Fox. Did Ospina feel more pressure because of the Tottenham match?

Our squad is a bit short now, so I guess the manager will have to rotate for the FA Cup match against Middlesbrough on Sunday. At the back, Gabriel could make his Arsenal debut since we need an alternative to Koscielny. Chambers and Gibbs could get some playing time, too. In midfield, Wenger’s options are quite limited. Ramsey picked up a hamstring injury that should sideline him for several weeks while Wilshere has just recovered from an ankle injury and could lack match fitness. Up front, the manager may have to be cautious with Sanchez, who hurt his left knee, and Oxlade-Chamberlain, who’s been carrying a groin strain since the summer.

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