Arsenal vs. Leicester: Gunners keep slim Top 4 hopes alive with ugly win

On the pitch, players only care about winning, especially when they are exhausted. Three days after the 2-1 victory over Manchester City in the FA Cup, Sanchez had no energy, losing possession quite a few times in the centerforward position. When Bellerin played him clean through on goal in the 55th minute, a tired Sanchez was let down by a poor first touch, allowing Huth to clear the danger with a sliding tackle. Sanchez even put his team in danger in the seventh minute, attempting a reckless backheel flick on the edge of the Arsenal box that Mahrez intercepted. The ball fell to Vardy, who missed the target from 12 yards.

Arsenal vs. Leicester

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

Despite the lack of rest, Sanchez nearly scored on the stroke of halftime, cutting inside Simpson to rattle the bar from 25 yards. However, the Chile striker’s best contribution on Wednesday came in stoppage time. Fuchs wanted to put the Gunners under pressure with a long throw-in. In an attempt to thwart Fuchs’ plan, Sanchez stood in front of the Leicester leftback, who got so annoyed that he threw the ball straight at Sanchez. The ball bounced off Sanchez’s shoulder, who paused for a second before collapsing to the ground as if it had hit him in the head. That was the worst bit of play-acting that I saw this season! The referee booked Sanchez for not standing two yards inside.

In the end, the Gunners held on to their 1-0 lead for their third consecutive win in all competitions for the first time since January. They have also kept alive their slim hopes of finishing in the Top 4 of the Premier League. With a game in hand, they still sit in sixth place and need Manchester United or City to drop points.

A questionable team selection

Wenger tried to inject some freshness in his team by making 4 changes to the side that edged City with Gibbs, Bellerin, Coquelin and Walcott replacing Holding, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Giroud in the starting lineup. The manager played a back three again to provide some defensive stability before switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 68th by sending on Welbeck for Gibbs.

I thought Wenger got his team selection wrong. First, he could have started Iwobi to rest Ozil or Sanchez. And second, playing Sanchez in the centerforward position made the Arsenal attack quite one-dimensional. The Gunners had a lot of pace in the 3 attacking positions but no physical player, which means that the Foxes just had to sit deep to prevent runs in behind from Sanchez, Walcott or Ozil.

The manager changed of approach in the 75th by replacing Walcott with Giroud. Whereas Sanchez often dropped back to escape the marking of the 2 Leicester centerbacks, Giroud didn’t mind physical duels with Benalouane or Huth and was also a better target for crosses in the box. Benalouane should have been sent off in the 80th by planting his studs into Giroud’s back. It was almost as bad as De Jong’s kung-fu kick into Alonso’s chest in the 2010 World Cup final. Giroud then rolled away from Huth in stoppage time to fire over the bar.

Sterile domination

The Gunners were definitely the better team, enjoying 69% of ball possession, having 13 shots to 7 for Leicester and creating 10 chances to 5 for the visitors, according to Squawka. Arsenal also showed enough commitment by winning 57% of the tackles and 60% of the aerial duels. But it often looked like sterile domination as the Gunners probed around the Leicester area with no real penetration.

Arsenal mostly relied on long-range efforts to test Schmeichel, who turned around the post drives from Coquelin and Xhaka respectively in the 16th and 58th. Our best chance came in the 27th when Walcott forced his way past Fuchs for an angled effort that Schmeichel saved. That play should have given Walcott some confidence, yet it did the opposite.

Walcott was in a good position to shoot in the 42nd but preferred to play the ball back to Xhaka. Then, Walcott failed to make a run toward goal in the 71st when Welbeck charged down the left flank to make a teasing cross. Walcott displayed a decent work-rate, making 1 interception and winning 1 of 2 tackles and 2 of 4 aerial duels, but he lacked an edge in the final third. The main problem with the 3-4-3 formation is that it requires a lot of sharpness from the attacking players.

Lack of creativity

The winning goal came from Monreal, who started as a centerback before shifting to the fullback position in the 68th. Ozil won a second ball in the 86th and Monreal fired a half-volley that ricocheted off Huth’s chest to beat Schmeichel. That was a lucky goal but Monreal’s goal attempt was no coincidence. The Spaniard made his presence felt in the Leicester box by flicking a corner in the 17th. Simpson cleared the ball off the line. It was then Paulista’s turn to flick on a corner in the 29th. Fuchs made a timely clearance to prevent a Monreal tap-in. Monreal’s pace is declining but he has compensated with his reading of the game.

I was a bit disappointed by Gibbs’ performance as a wingback. I expected more end product. Gibbs only created 1 chance compared to 3 for Bellerin. Oxlade-Chamberlain has shone in the wingback role, but the manager didn’t want to take any risk after the Ox picked up a knock against City.

In midfield, Ozil didn’t have the legs to play as a second striker. He therefore dropped back in the playmaker role. That wasn’t enough to improve Arsenal’s passing game, which was too slow to unsettle the Foxes. Xhaka made 98 passes, the most for any player, but couldn’t dictate the tempo like Cazorla would. The Switzerland international had a decent game though, making 1 interception and 1 block and winning 3 of 4 tackles and 1 of 2 aerial duels. His partnership with Coquelin in central midfield lacked creativity to create gaps in the Leicester defense. Coquelin’s limited passing skills especially showed in the final third.

Bragging rights at stake

We knew the Gunners were vulnerable on corners. The Foxes exposed another weakness on Wednesday by creating 3 chances from throw-ins. Koscielny won the header from Fuchs’ long throw in the 22nd, but Mahrez pounced on the second ball to hit a half-volley that Cech palmed over the bar. Ndidi met another long throw in the 54th but could only muster a tame header straight at Cech. In stoppage time, Fuchs’ long throw led to a goalmouth scramble after Ozil failed to clear the danger.

At the back, Koscielny was dominant in the air, winning 8 of 10 aerial duels. He could miss Sunday’s North London derby after landing awkwardly in the 78th. The France defender seemed to twist his knee but was able to play the last minutes of the game. The main advantage of playing a back three is that it’s more difficult for the other team to press high up the pitch in the hope of forcing a turnover. Paulista, Monreal and Koscielny respectively made 79, 75 and 73 passes, according to whoscored.com. Only Xhaka and Ozil made more passes. Paulista too easily let Mahrez run past him in the 39th. The Leicester midfielder missed the target as Bellerin forced him wide. Somehow, Paulista redeemed himself in the 78th by blocking Okazaki’s shot as Koscielny lay on the ground in pain.

Spurs will be the heavy favorites in the North London derby. They have won their last 8 games in the Premier League. There’s no way Arsenal can celebrate St Totteringham’s Day this year. Sunday’s game will be about preventing Tottenham from securing a better finish than the Gunners. If Spurs win the derby, they will finish above Arsenal even if they lose all their remaining games. It would be embarrassing to see such a change of fortunes at White Hart Lane. Under Wenger’s tenure, the Gunners never finished behind Tottenham.

 

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