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Gunner Thoughts

Leicester 2-0 Arsenal: Match review and takeaways

Arsenal keep their momentum rolling with a win over Leicester

It was the third round of the Carabao Cup and with it came a lot of pre-match questions surrounding the lineup that Arsenal would field. Those questions were answered swiftly through Arteta’s selection.

Arsenal Lineup: Leno, Holding, Luiz, Kolasinac, Maitland-Niles, Elneny, Willock, Saka, Pepe, Nelson, Nketiah

This meant:

  • Leno remained in net
  • Kolasinac was given a chance at redemption
  • Luiz was back in the side after a neck injury
  • Pepe was given a real chance to succeed as he competes with Willian
  • Nelson got the start despite links with a loan away
  • Nketiah got the start
  • Saka looked to build off the attacking success from West Ham
  • No Ozil or Guendouzi as many may have thought

In the 3rd minute, we saw Nelson pick up the ball past midfield and really drive at the backline forcing a tough save and winning a corner. It was the type of ball-carrying Arsenal have lacked, and a sign of what was to come.

On countless occasions, Saka would go on mazy, devastating runs as he cut centrally. He showed he could stay wide, beat a man and get a ball in, and with 3 tackles, he did it on the defensive end. Look no further than the 26’ when Saka combined a lovely one, two with Eddie to get into the box and on goal. Leicester’s defender, on the wrong side of Saka, brings him down before he can get a shot off but appeals for a penalty fall on deaf ears. No goal, but splendid play.

There were some negatives. Many times, Arsenal looked disjointed between the frontline and midfield making it to easy for Leicester City to play through the lines and get into the attack. One example early in the half when Leicester played from the back to Albrighton who took a positive first touch and simply slipped in Iheanacho on goal 1v1 with Leno. Fortunately, Leno up to the task not once but twice. Off the first save, it comes back at him quick and he made another great save. Offsides, but Leno didn’t know. Excellent keeping.

While Leno was great there, there was a moment late in the half when Leicester were getting confidence. Maddison was on the ball in the midfield, wasn’t closed down, saw Leno off his line and chipped a curler to the far post. Fortunately for Arsenal, and Leno who was almost on top of his six-yard box, it went off the inside of the post and out. Leno has been off his line a lot more in recent matches, especially against West Ham, and I wonder if this is an Inaki influence.

The second half saw a slow start from each team for about the first 10’. Tactically Arsenal looked the same but looked to play down the right side much more as the match wore on. Whether it was Arsenal’s pressure, tired legs, something waiting to happen, or a combo of all of it – Leicester had a 10-minute period where they were very sloppy. In the 55th’ Nelson pressured the keeper who gave it straight to Nketiaah. Eddie may not have been ready for it, because he couldn’t quite get it out of his feet and the chance went away.

However, it foreshadowed the 56’ opener. With Arsenal pressuring and hassling, Eddie nicked the ball 30 yards out and slipped it over to Pepe. Pepe collected, running at the scrambling backline to get to the endline, and play a right-footed cross. The keeper got hands to it but only enough to push it back to Pepe. Pepe shot the rebound from a tight angle, off the post, and it ricocheted off of Fuchs and into the net for an own goal. 1-0.

A scrappy goal and Leicester is punished for their 10 minutes of sloppy play. Not a ton of chances from there for Arsenal who registered 10 shots but only 4 on frame. The next chance came in the 74’ when Holding intercepted and aerial ball to head Eddie through. Eddie forced to lob it up over the keeper, but had it cleared off the line.

Leicester weren’t going down without a fight. 80’ a dangerous free kick located just outside the top-left of the box. The ball whipped in and Kolasinac was not tight enough to Ayoze Perez who gets a head to it but pushes it just wide. He could have done better with it.

Arsenal made 3 subs on the day – Willian > Nelson, Ceballos > Willock, Bellerin > Saka. The final sub would pay dividends. Bellerin came on to play RWB while AMN flipped to the left. In the 90’ Bellerin got the ball laid off from Pepe and makes a FANTASTIC run, beating two guys, driving into the box and slips it to Eddie for another scramble goal. 2-0 Arsenal win.

Arsenal advance, most importantly, and there were positives and negatives. Lots of good moments, many good performances, moments of really lovely intricate play, but that play didn’t result in shots. Same story on the defensive end. Some nice bits of team defending, Luiz was great to have back, but some moments where it was too easy on LC to break through or moments of poor individual play. No one will be too upset with a 4th straight win to start

Here are a few interesting thoughts and takeaways from the match:

A reversion in progressive tactics

Arsenal lined up in their clear 3-4-3, but there were a few alterations to the tactics. First, we didn’t see much overlapping play from Kolasinac. This is likely because he showed against West Ham that he struggles to overlap and get into the attack, and still manage to get back and defend. It’s a role that Kieran Tierney excels at, and one that he seems to be the only one capable of performing. To accommodate this fact and help Kolasinac succeed, Arteta had him step up more centrally, similar to the role Maitland-Niles used to play when Arsenal set up in a 4-2-3-1 from the right. This put the onus on, and gave freedom to, Saka and Nelson to work together dynamically to ensure one came central, one stayed wide, and they exchanged to make marking them more difficult.

On the right side, Pepe wasn’t asked to come central the same way we have seen Willian play. Instead, with Kolasinac stepping into the midfield, Joe Willock would push forward to play in positions that Ozil used to take up in the attack to create a right-sided overload. This kept Pepe quite wide and was reminiscent of the tactics that saw Pepe have some of his worst games. He gets too wide, he has to do a lot more work to be dangerous, and it constrains him from providing his flair in dangerous areas. To be honest, it wasn’t very effective and is something Arteta will have to look at closely should Arsenal ever switch to a 4-3-3, or back to a 4-2-3-1.

By deploying this tactic, Maitland- Niles didn’t get himself into dangerous areas frequently enough. Wether that was by design or because of his own play, could be up for debate seeing as Bellerin was in the game for 3 minutes before being a driving factor in a goal. However it did see Arsenal end  in their 2-3-5 shape which will certainly have been Arteta’s number one goal. It simply looked a little bit different than it has recently. More like the below image.

Saka and Nelson would sometimes be flipped, and the depending on the ball, things would shift to those areas, but the shape did maintain it’s 2-3-5. However, instead of having the right wing tuck in and the right wingback overlap, Willock pushed into those spaces while Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles took up defensive roles in the center.

This was an interesting development. I do believe it was down to personnel more than outright desire, but there are bits of this that could make a resurgence should more midfielders enter the fold.

Pepe Isolation

This brings us to our second point which is the fact that Pepe found himself very isolated throughout the match, and you can’t help but feel it was down to the tactical design. But that doesn’t mean it was the best route to go. With Pepe forced out wide and many people seemingly allergic to giving him the ball, Pepe struggled immensely – especially in the first half.

To add it to, Arsenal continued their trend of funneling the majority of their play down the left side. While this doesn’t seem like the largest difference between the two, much of the right-sided play came in the second half. I was unable to grab an image of just the first half, but it significantly more biased toward the left.

A very impressive football data analyst, Scott Willis, tweeted that this game was not as biased to the left side as the West Ham match up at the weekend, and I don’t doubt it. However, in the West Ham matchup we saw Willian tasked with the role of coming central, unlike Pepe, meaning he was involved in the attack. Leaving Pepe on the wing keeps him away from the areas he is most dangerous in, limits his influence on games, seems to mentally take him out of things.

But here is where this gets a little interesting and has a bit of a twist. Against Leicester, Pepe registered 90 minutes played, 1 shot that hit the post, ¼ successful dribbles, 55 touches, 2/6 crosses, 2/10 ground duels, 18 possessions lost, 1 interception, 1 tackle, but still played a hand in both of Arsenal’s goals.

He received Nketiah’s ball and drove toward the endline, tried to slot it back, got the rebound, and took the shot that went off the post and hit Fuchs before going in, and he is the guy who brought the ball down, placing it right at Bellerin’s feet, and cleared out space for him to make his incredible run for the second goal. Despite having a poor, poor game by his standards, he still produced to quality moments that helped Arsenal win the match. Yet, it gets a bit better. Both those moments came when Pepe was tucked toward the center and a part of the action. Creating more moments like that seem as though they would benefit everyone involved.

Bukayo Saka

The one person for me that takes home the Man of the Match award tonight was Bukayo Saka. Reiss Nelson also had a splendid night and showed exactly what he is capable of — extra interesting since there are some links to him moving away on loan this season — but I thought Saka was just a little bit better. They complimented each other exceptionally well and led to one another’s success, but the runs Saka made, his strength and composure on the ball, his mazy dribbling, his whipped in balls, his ability to be everywhere in the attack — it was so impressive.

For a team that is missing creativity, missing chance creation, missing ball carriers, and missing just a bit of “that” in the side on a consistent basis, Saka could be the one to give “that” to Arsenal. He struggled a little bit against West Ham, but I have a belief that much of that was down to everyone struggling, especially Kolasinac. Against Leicester, Saka showed what an asset he could be as a player looking to be involved in every bit of attacking play.

With the suggestion that Arteta would like his left wingback to tuck into the midfield and get up into the attack, Saka is making  a strong case for why it should be him each and every day. Not  only did he bring it on the attacking side, he also staked a claim with his defensive work tallying him 3 tackles. I wrote earlier in the week about the balance that Maitland-Niles and Sake offer Arteta when it comes to selecting the best fit for job at hand, but I am beginning to have some worries for Niles. I think I may elaborate more on that in a future piece, but I will summarize my thought in a simple way: If Saka plays like that and offers you what he offers on both sides of the ball, it feels impossible to remove him from the lineup.

It was a decent match. As I mentioned above, there were moments of really good play, a couple worrisome moments, but overall, it’s hard to complain about another win against a team that will contend for the top 4 this year. Yes, it was their backups and rotated squad, but it was ours too. They carried out Arteta’s plan, they go the goals, and it feels good to keep the momentum rolling toward Anfield. HUGE match on Monday.

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