Arsenal are coming to the end of a treacherous run of matches. Even if you exclude the two Europa League fixtures against Benfica, the schedule has been difficult, compact, and tough sledding.
Southampton, Manchester United, Wolverhampton, Aston Villa, Leeds, Manchester City, Leicester City.
In their first matches against these seven teams, Arsenal took 5 points of a potential 21. Losing to Wolves and Aston Villa really hurt Arsenal this time around, and results haven’t been good enough, but heading into Leicester City, Arsenal have taken 7 of 18 with a chance at 10. I had personally predicted Arsenal would take 12 points from these seven matches.
To get to ten, and keep what little chance they have of making a late run within the league to at least have a shot at qualifying for the Europa League, Arsenal probably have to find a way to win outright over Leicester, preferably while balancing the need to prioritize their fitness for the Europa League. On the bright side, they should get a little respite as the steady onslaught of fixtures takes a brief hiatus to allow the Gunners’ muscles to breathe.
From an Arsenal perspective, this match is likely to look quite a bit different. In October Arsenal used a 4-3-3 formation for the first time while trying to figure out how best to play with Thomas Partey. If you remember, Arteta selected Granit Xhaka, Dani Ceballos, and Thomas Partey to the midfield quite unsuccessfully. The plan was to have Xhaka drop into the backline far left, Ceballos to shift far right in the build-up phase, and have Partey hold down the middle. In the end, Partey was left completely isolated against a Leicester City side all too content to absorb pressure and look to transition when they won the ball.
Arsenal are likely to look quite a bit different in how they set up and play, but that doesn’t mean Leicester are likely to follow suit. Leicester find themselves in third place, level on points with Manchester United, and much of that success has come from their ability to get points from “larger clubs”, specifically clubs that are intent on getting themselves on the ball to try and impose their style of play on the match.
Their 5-2 win over Manchester City is certainly the prized possession, but a draw against United, wins over Tottenham and Chelsea, a 3-1 win over Liverpool, and of course beating Arsenal showed a team content to withdraw into their defensive shape, absorb pressure, and look to transition with devastation when they win the ball. They don’t sit nearly as deep as Tottenham or a dedicated low block side, but they are willing to make sure they get numbers behind the ball.
Additionally, Leicester boast the third best successful pressures per 90 record in the Premier League with 41.7 p90. Given the success they had with these tactics last time against Arsenal, and the injuries to key players like Maddison, Fofana, and Justin, it would make sense that these tactics are used by Rodgers once more. Once they win the ball, Leicester are likely to look for their outlet passes through Barnes and Vardy while Tielemans and Ndidi stay steady. Arsenal will need to be ready for this and stay switched on; no one needs another Tielemans connection that sees Vardy score late.
Arsenal get a break after this match for a full week before Burnley, and have another week-long break after Burnley before things pick back up again, but it’s another post-Europa League, 72-hour turnaround for the Gunners. Arteta will have to get his team right as Leicester look to bounce back from their own Europa League exit.
Rob is available for selection following the successful completion of concussion protocol. Since being substituted last Sunday, Rob has been feeling well at all times and has been closely monitored by our medical team every day at London Colney, where he completed his return to play assessments. Rob returned to full training with the squad on Saturday.
Left knee. Following a strain to his knee in training, Alex is undergoing further assessments and continues to be unavailable.
I believe that we will see a few changes, but it may not feel like as many changes as some may be expecting. Arteta will still be determined to finish the Premier League strong and get as high up the table as possible. Every position earns Mikel extra breathing space as he heads into next season and heavy assessment begins.
What that said, only a few changes from the second leg. While I think Bellerin will be the main right back for most matches down the stretch, something tells me that Soares will get the nod in support of Pepe on the right wing. Bellerin struggles with Pepe on the right wing as both players look to occupy that inside channel for different reasons. Soares offers a right back and looks to overlap or support Pepe which has seen Pepe get more involved from the right.
Partey should see a return to the midfield after his time away ended with a very nice stint against Benfica. He’s quite simply an injection of superior quality for Arsenal. As long as he isn’t isolated in the midfield like last time against Leicester, I expect him to have some great influence on the match.
Up top is where more of the changes may be seen. With Smith Rowe moved back to the attacking midfield, number ten role, it opens the left wing to be occupied by Aubameyang. Smith Rowe also offers Arsenal a more two-footed midfielder in the hole than Ødegaard’s left-footed favoritism. Ødegaard has also seen consistent minutes since he came to Arsenal. This will come in handy as Smith-Rowe won’t have Aubameyang dropping into the half spaces from the left side as Arsenal have had in the last few games when ESR plays left wing. Instead, Lacazette will take up that role while Aubameyang and Pepe stay high from their tucked in channels.
This setup puts Aubameyang in the attacking spaces he is most effective in, it sees Pepe given some freedom to tuck in, while Smith Rowe still get support between the lines from the likes of Lacazette who does a better job in that role than Aubameyang.
It would be a change of system from the last four match from Arsenal and a reversion to what we saw a month ago, but that’s what happens when the change in personnel comes in and key figures are moved or removed.
I spent a chunk of this writeup talking about Leicester’s contentedness to sit in a nice defensive shape, deny access to dangerous areas, press teams with their midfield and front, while looking to transition out quickly and find their prolific striker. That’s my prediction. They will do that. Arsenal will need to respond and prevent themselves from overcommitting and putting their center backs in bad positions where they are isolated against Vardy or caught in a footrace.
With the ball, Arsenal will try to play their game. It’s going to be all too important that Smith Rowe receives help against Ndidi and Tielemans. That needs to come from Lacazette, timely appearances from the wingers, and plenty of sharp play from the pivot. Given Leicester’s proclivity for pressing, Luiz and Gabriel will have to take a few chances with the long ball, but they will have to make that decision quickly. There’s no time for dawdling on the ball.
Last time out, Arsenal took 12 shots to Leicester’s 6 but still came up short. Cutting down those transition opportunities and supporting their midfielders and Smith Rowe between the lines will go a long way toward winning a tough game.
Prediction: 2-1 Arsenal