Just a month after they met in the Carabao Cup, Arsenal are hosts to Leicester City at the Emirates. Both teams have a varying form results-wise, and matchday six of the English Premier League will perhaps provide a glimpse into how both teams will fare with the combination of Thursday night football and weekend matches. On paper, Arsenal have the stronger squad and the most depth. They have also been the most fortunate of the two with regard to injuries to key players.
Leicester have seen Çağlar Söyüncü, Daniel Amartey, Jamie Vardy, Wilfred Ndidi and Ricardo Pereira all get sidelined with injuries of varying length. Meanwhile, James Maddison is still being eased back after his injury problems.
While Leicester may have felt the stress of an amputated pre-season, Arsenal seem to have continued their improvements under head coach Mikel Arteta. In the league, despite not going all the way, they have proved more than a challenge for both Liverpool and Manchester City – two teams that are plenty ahead of Arsenal in their current projects.
In this tactical analysis in the form of a preview, there will be a closer look at both teams’ tactics so far this season. The analysis will use this as a basis from where it will predict how the teams will try to play their game and take home the three points.
Arteta has kept to a sort of back three for some time now. There are big expectations for the newest acquisition in centre midfield, Thomas Partey. After coming off the bench against Man City in the league and starting in the Europa League, there is a good chance he starts here.
Other than that, the biggest question is the front three and whether Nicolas Pépé starts or not. Alexandre Lacazette is the most likely option of taking the spot on the bench, if so. It is hard to say which of the two it will be who starts here, as both played a significant portion of the game on Thursday.
As mentioned in the introduction, Leicester are struggling with injuries at this time. Key players out for longer periods limits the options they have, while also increasing the chance of fatigue accumulating on the ones playing more.
So far this season Leicester have used both five-man and four-man backlines. With Amartey being a mainstay within a five-man backline, it is unlikely they will resort to that. There are doubts about Maddison’s fitness and whether or not he starts. If he does, it is most likely that Ayoze Pérez will be the one to be shown to the bench.
In the Carabao Cup match against Arsenal one month ago, Leicester lined up in a 3-4-2-1. This is also something that could be the case this time around, but more unlikely. The availability situation in the squad is changed, and in that game a larger amount of fringe players was handed starting spots, for both teams. This is unlikely to happen, and thus the predicted starters do not lend itself to a back three/five.
The Foxes lacking in attack
So far this season, Leicester have produced 7.96 xG in five league matches according to Understat. They have scored 12, and thus outperformed their xG with slightly above four goals total. Outperforming their xG at this rate is most likely not sustainable long term. The Foxes have struggled more going forward this season and again, it may well be linked with their injury problems in the latest rounds.
Firstly, lacking Maddison leaves Leicester without their preferred number ten. This puts a bigger expectation of creativity, especially in the final third, on the players replacing him and playing in surrounding positions. In recent games, this responsibility for creativity in the final third has more often fallen to Dennis Praet or Ayoze Pérez.
The scenario in the image above results in a long ball over the top for Iheanacho and a loss of possession. Both Praet and Pérez offers vastly different qualities in attack than Maddison. The lack of their preferred number ten can be somewhat seen in this image. Here, Pérez is showing for the ball in the same path as Iheanacho. Praet is neither showing as an option to circulate the ball nor threatening the Villa structure with his rather low positioning.
The passing and repositioning indications above are a suggestion of how to solve this problem, something they will need to do against Arsenal. The Gunners have shown good defensive stability so far and have shown steady improvement under Arteta. Being able to offer several pathways to progress the ball will be of utmost importance for Leicester to take home the three points.
Here is another situation, this time from the Carabao Cup match they had one month ago. Leicester have just won the ball deep in their own half some seconds ago. After reaching Marc Albrighton on the left flank, there are very few options to continue the play. The two options ahead of him, Maddison and Iheanacho, are both attacking the space behind the opponent line.
To beat the head-start of David Luiz in this case, the ball over the top must be very precise. An easier option would have been if Maddison angled his run more and aimed it on the outside of Holding. Another problem in this exact case is the lack of personnel to play through centrally. The white area is only occupied by Maddison, and he is moving away from it.
Defensive transitions might be the phase where Leicester can punish Arsenal. The nature of a three centre-back system lends itself to quite large gaps between the centre-backs and wingbacks. This, combined with a tendency at Arsenal to play very narrow centre-backs in transition, means that Leicester can exploit the wider channels.
Arsenal’s wing-back play
The dynamics of the wing-back play at Arsenal this season is interesting to follow and will most likely also play a large role in this match. Hector Bellerin on the right fills more of a standard wing-back role. Keeps width, uses pace and one-twos to beat the press and situationally interchanges with Willian. Good examples of these interchanges can be seen in the fixtures against Manchester City at the end of last season and the Community Shield against Liverpool.
Bukayo Saka’s role on the left is a bit different. He frequently cuts inside as an inverted wingback. Not necessarily the type which has been made more famous in later years by Pep Guardiola at Man City but resembling the role David Alaba sometimes played under him at Bayern Munich.
Saka will drift inside the half-space and behind the central midfielder on his side. This not only gives an extra man in the centre of the field; it also has a knock-on effect on the players around him. The central midfielder below him can drop deeper without worrying about too big of a gap between him. On the wide channel, Tierney can advance and double with Aubameyang against the opponent full-back.
Against an offensive-minded Timothy Castagne in the Leicester side, these rotations and dynamics might prove pivotal to taking home the three points.
Leicester’s defensive transitions
It has been said that football is a game of mistakes, and the team that minimises the effect of their own mistakes wins the game. If that is true, then Leicester will have to do something about the problems they have seen in the defensive transitions so far.
A method used with great effect by Leicester in their title-winning season has this season been used more against them. Also taking into consideration the threat the Arsenal front line presents on the counters; key moments of the match could be Arsenal counter. The other way around could see Leicester totally shut down the option of being countered on and show up with a lower block.
A good example of the struggles Leicester has seen recently with their defensive transitions can be seen in the image above. The entire blue field is without a Leicester player, and the result is a dangerous Villa attack. Leaving this much space in the middle of the park against a dangerous Arsenal attack will not be viable on Sunday and is something Leicester will have to work on.
The expectations based on recent form and results of both teams is that Arsenal will come away from this match with the three points. Leicester injury problems will surely play a part but there are clear things to work on which could do them well in this clash. If Leicester would show up in a lower block, which might be the case, Arsenal has also shown their ability in breaking through defensive blocks. It is harder, but they have the tools for the job.