In his return from a knee injury, Welbeck prevented Arsenal from falling out of contention by scoring in the last seconds of stoppage time as the Gunners rallied past Leicester 2-1 on Sunday to close the gap on the Premier League leader to two points.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Wenger made two changes to the side that won 2-0 at Bournemouth a week ago with Mertesacker and Coquelin replacing Paulista and Flamini in the starting lineup. Paulista picked up a hamstring injury while Coquelin was a better option to stop counterattacks than Flamini.
The Foxes proved the better team in the first half, outplaying Arsenal in midfield and having three shots on target to none for the hosts. The Gunners started taking control of the match when Leicester rightback Simpson was sent off for a second yellow card in the 54th minute.
I thought Kante and Drinkwater did a good job to limit Ozil’s influence by man-marking the Germany playmaker. Ozil had a high turnover rate and was so frustrated that he often drifted to the wings to find space. When your playmaker can’t express himself, then you need an alternative in midfield.
Cazorla was the equalizer of the team in the 5-2 win over Leicester last September. Ramsey couldn’t play that role on Sunday as he struggled in his positional play. The Wales midfielder stayed close to Coquelin to protect the back four, but he couldn’t find the balance in his game to connect the defense with our attack.
The Foxes had a more compact shape, which explains why they managed to boss the midfield until Simpson’s ejection. Kante, Drinkwater and Albrighton combined to win 11 of 16 tackles. By contrast, Ramsey only won 3 of 5 tackles while Coquelin and Ozil made no tackle at all, according to Arsenal’s official website.
Penalty appeals turned down
In the first half, Oxlade-Chamberlain turned out to be our main provider of ammunition. The Ox outpaced Fuchs in the 21st to make a low cross for Giroud, who was beaten to the ball by Morgan. Three minutes later, Sanchez connected with an offering from the Ox but his shot was blocked by Morgan. The Gunners didn’t have much luck either from set pieces. Sanchez outjumped Simpson in the second minute to head an Ox corner wide. Then Giroud also missed the target from an Ox corner in the 25th.
The turning point of the game was definitely Simpson’s ejection. The Leicester defender was first booked for an obstruction on Sanchez in the 49th. Five minutes later, he made a cynical foul by pulling Giroud back to receive a second yellow card. That seemed a bit harsh as it was just Simpson’s third foul. But then, the referee also awarded a soft penalty to Leicester and turned down two penalty appeals from Arsenal.
The Ox hit Kante’s arm with his pass for Giroud in the ninth minute and Giroud had a bicycle kick blocked by Huth’s outstretched arm in the 74th. In my eyes, the second appeal was more legitimate because Huth killed a clear-cut chance. My only complaint about the officiating is that Drinkwater finished the game without any booking despite clipping Sanchez’s ankle in the fifth minute and making a studs-up tackle on Ramsey in the 71st.
Shifting to a 4-2-4 system
The Gunners capitalized on their numerical superiority to put more pressure on the Leicester defense. Wenger sent on Walcott for Coquelin in the 61st with the Ox playing next to Ramsey in central midfield. The move paid off in the 70th as Giroud cushioned Bellerin’s cross into the path of Walcott, who shot past Schmeichel to level from close range.
Pushing for a winning goal, Wenger then replaced the Ox with Welbeck in the 83rd to shift to a 4-2-4 formation with Giroud and Welbeck up front and Sanchez and Walcott on the wings. Welbeck repaid the manager’s faith by nodding Ozil’s free kick into the bottom corner.
The Foxes tested the Arsenal defense in the first half and it took a couple of saves from Cech to delay the opening goal. Vardy outjumped Bellerin at the far post to head a cross from Albrighton in the 16th but Cech made a terrific diving save. Ozil and Monreal failed to close down Albrighton on that play. Bellerin then gave too much space to Kante, who cut inside for a curling shot that Cech palmed away in the 39th.
But there’s nothing Cech could do on the stroke of halftime when Koscielny missed his interception and attempted a rugby tackle on Kante. The ball fell to Vardy, who flicked the ball past Monreal before colliding with the Spanish leftback. The referee booked Koscielny for his reckless challenge and awarded Leicester a penalty. You could say it was a soft penalty but whenever a defender stretches out a foot and misses the ball, the referee will often point toward the penalty spot if there’s contact. Vardy sent Cech the wrong way to give the Foxes the lead.
Cracks in the Arsenal defense
Koscielny is an experienced defender but he still can’t help diving in. I believe it is his dodgy decision-making that has prevented him from becoming a world-class centerback. The French defender probably picked up an injury while bringing Kante down and was replaced by Chambers at halftime.
The first half showed a few cracks in the Arsenal defense. One explanation is that Leicester worked really hard and often outnumbered us in challenges. Another reason was Coquelin’s lackluster performance. The French midfielder usually compensates when there are gaps in the defense but on Sunday he still lacked a bit of sharpness. He received a yellow card in the 37th for killing a fast break with a foul on Mahrez.
Once the Foxes were down to 10 men, they no longer proved a threat for the Arsenal defense. I was a bit anxious about Mertesacker’s lack of pace but Leicester never managed to create a bad matchup for the German centerback. Still, Mertesacker cheaply gave away the ball twice. Kante intercepted a sloppy pass from Mertesacker in the 29th to feed Vardy, but Koscielny won the ball back. Then Vardy capitalized on a Mertesacker turnover in the 77th to pick out Kante, who curled wide.
I guess my biggest disappointment from the game is that neither Ozil nor Sanchez stepped up for this big game. Ozil had 6 shot assists, including the one that led to the winner. He attempted a through ball for Ramsey in the 15th but Schmeichel came off his line to knock the ball away. The Germany playmaker had more freedom in the second half and made a pinpoint cross for an unmarked Mertesacker, who headed wide from nine yards in the 85th.
Some fans might complain about a foul on Ozil in the build-up to Leicester’s penalty, but I thought the play showed Ozil’s softness. Ozil was still on his feet and could have challenged for the ball but he stopped playing and made no effort to track back. Playing to the whistle is a basic rule for any pro.
Ozil lost possession numerous times and even dribbled his way out into touch under Kante’s pressure in the 33rd. While Pires toughened up after struggling with the physical side of the Premier League in his first season at the club, Ozil still doesn’t enjoy duels. Maybe he should take a leaf out of Sanchez’s book.
Sanchez quickly adjusted to the Premier League, becoming our best player last season. However, he hasn’t hit top form since his return from a hamstring injury. The Chile forward was dispossessed five times and missed the target with his six goal attempts. He miskicked wide from a tight angle in the 76th while a pass to the Ox or Monreal was the better option. Three minutes later, he made poor contact with a low cross from Walcott and his first-time effort harmlessly rolled toward Schmeichel. We definitely need Sanchez to fire on all cylinders if we want to have a shot at the title.
The main positive from Sunday’s victory is that Walcott ended his goal drought while Welbeck scored in his first game of the season. We are currently struggling with our finishing so the more striking options we have, the less pressure we put on Giroud and Sanchez. The Gunners caught the frame with only 6 of their 24 shots whereas Leicester had 3 of 7 shots on target.
Giroud’s all-around performance
Ramsey had four goal attempts. I won’t blame him for the two long-range strikes that sailed wide but I thought he should have done better with his two other shots. After Huth blocked Giroud’s bicycle kick in the 74th, the rebound fell to Ramsey, who volleyed wide from 13 yards. In the closing minutes, Ramsey connected with a low cross from Monreal but his first-time effort from 11 yards went wide again.
Giroud didn’t score but produced a good all-around performance with 13 aerial duels won, 4 shot assists and 3 of 7 shots on target. He made the assist for Walcott’s equalizer and proved again selfless in the 87th by knocking the ball down for Welbeck, whose half-volley was blocked by Morgan. Giroud’s best chance came in the 87th when he controlled a cross from Monreal to fire a powerful strike from 10 yards that Schmeichel parried. It was a good height for the Danish goalkeeper and I thought Giroud should have aimed for the top corner instead. A minute later, Giroud met a cross from Walcott for a downward header straight at Schmeichel.
Cazorla and Wilshere started running a few days ago. After long-term injuries, it takes at least five weeks to build up fitness and get sharp for competitive games. On Sunday, Coquelin was still a few percent away from his best despite running again in the beginning of January. If I were to make a guess, the Everton game on March 19 would be the most optimistic date for the return of Cazorla and Wilshere. The Barcelona game on March 16 would be quite unrealistic since Barcelona is the best team in the world and the pace in the Champions League is even faster than in the Premier League.
Leicester’s easier run-in
It basically means that Wilshere and Cazorla would miss the games against Manchester United, Swansea, Tottenham and West Brom. The FA Cup match against Hull next Saturday is the last opportunity to rest some players before playing every three or four days until the international break in late March.
The Foxes lost at the Emirates stadium but they are still the favorites to win the title. They have a two-point lead and are out of every cup competition while the Gunners are still involved in the Champions League and the FA Cup.
In theory, Leicester should even rack up more points from the last 12 league games than Arsenal since they have an easier run-in. The Foxes have 7 home games (Norwich, West Brom, Newcastle, Southampton, West Ham, Swansea, Everton) and 5 away games (Watford, Crystal Palace, Sunderland, Man United, Chelsea). The Gunners will play 6 home games (Swansea, West Brom, Watford, Crystal Palace, Norwich, Aston Villa) and 6 away games (Man United, Tottenham, Everton, West Ham, Sunderland, Man City).
In terms of quality, there’s not a huge difference for the home games. Southampton and West Ham are the only teams in the upper half of the table that Leicester will face while Arsenal will only play teams placed ninth or below. It’s a different story with the away games. Arsenal will have three tough trips with Tottenham and the two Manchesters whereas Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford will be the only tough trips for the Foxes. In fact, if the Blues are still involved in the FA Cup or the Champions League in May, the game at Stamford Bridge could become a stroll in the park for Leicester.