Good morning girls and boys – long time no speak…. unfortunately life has restricted my writing prolificacy in recent months but has done nothing to abet my thirst for all things Arsenal – I’m proud to say I have managed to attend every away match in the league, along with a European away. On top of my season ticket, my bank balance and social life are both ridden with cobwebs.
Our Sunday noon kick-off against Leicester signals another ‘season defining’ game, which will undoubtedly have significant repercussions for our prospects for the business end of the season. The Foxes have been unquestionably brilliant under Ranieri this season, playing with a ferocious intensity and unerring ruthlessness in front of goal – if only playing them could have an osmosis effect on our exploits.
Whilst their story has been an awe-inducing one, it’s not one that I hope produces a happy ending. Leicester winning the league, regardless of how impressive they have been, would be a shocking indictment not only on Arsenal, but the quality of the supposed topsides in the league. Clearly there is an important context in which Leicester’s meteoric rise has taken place, benefitting from a perfect storm of travails at other clubs. Chelsea, despite a recent upturn in form, have gone full on Britney after looking insurmountable last year, Man Utd have been Louis’d?, City could still win it of course, but the flakiness that has been a feature of Pellegrini’s time in charge has been increasingly prevalent since his departure was confirmed. And then, there is Arsenal.
Whilst we remain well within touching distance of the league’s summit, this has not been a vintage season for the Gunners. In my view, we have played poorly, often grinding out results without looking convincing; but the occasional peppering of stunning results – see Utd (h), Bayern (h), Olympiakos (a) and Leicester (a) – have masked the issues of what has been a seemingly dysfunctional side. Injuries have certainly played their part, with Alexis missing two months during a crucial period, Theo Walcott’s form dissipating on return from a knock and then the loss of Cazorla and Coquelin in one-fell swoop unbalanced the side.
The duo of Ramsey and Flamini has often looked porous and the lack of a controlling influence in midfield has been palpable. Ramsey has come in for some severe criticism, but my view is that his only crime has been trying to do too much, in part to compensate from the lack of defensive support and offensive nous offered by Flamini. Cazorla was also receiving some criticism prior to sustaining his injury, but his calming presence and ability to take the ball as ‘first receiver’ from the back four has been sorely missed.
Whilst the Ramsey-Coquelin partnership has borne little fruit to date, it is worth persisting with, if only to keep Flamini away from the pitch against Leicester. Their rapid transitions coupled with Flamini’s proneness to going walkabout is a recipe made in shitsville.
Gabriel is rumoured to be struggling with a thigh injury for the game, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I remain thoroughly unconvinced by the Brazilian – he lacks composure on the ball, gives away needless fouls and his positioning is raw to say the least. My sense is that his athleticism has masked all manner of sins in the eyes of many supporters, but he has a long, long way to go. The assuredness on the ball and organisational qualities that Per possesses could be essential against Vardy and co. Hopefully we will see a similar improvement to that of Koscielny after he first joined and adapted to the Premier League.
In terms of how we set out to get the right result, much will clearly hinge on our tactical approach and mind-set, which will inform our choice of personnel. In my view, there are two elements we should try to employ to outfox Leicester.
1) Target their full backs – Fuchs is a solid defender and can take a wicked set piece, but he can be susceptible to pacey wingers and movement in behind. Danny Simpson meanwhile appears to me as one of the few weak links in Leicester’s armoury. Fuchs is well protected by Marc Albrighton, who may be a limited footballer but will always put in a proverbial shift. Simpson meanwhile gets little defensive support from the sublime Mahrez, instead relying on Kante’s energy and the intelligence of Danny Drinkwater (who must surely be in the reckoning for an England call-up) to cover his surges forward. Given Mahrez’s preference to float in-field, there is a real opportunity for Monreal to take the initiative and support Alexis to double up on Simpson – the onus then lies with our midfielders to pick up Mahrez’s in-field motions. On the other flank, Bellerin will certainly look to beat Fuchs for pace on the outside, but it is imperative that he has support out-wide. I would imagine Chamberlain will start the game after his goal scoring exploits and improved performance against Bournemouth last weekend, however he has a tendency to drift infield and often plays as an auxiliary midfielder. He could well be acting under instruction from the boss, but we would be missing a trick to not attack Leicester from wide positions, given the quality of their central midfielders and centre backs.
2) Don’t let them revel in the underdogs tag – despite their scintillating form and impressive results, Leicester haven’t shifted the tag of underdog, which psychologically suits them very nicely. Whilst I watched them demolish Man City from behind the sofa, the emphatic nature of the win may have pushed the perception of Leicester from plucky minnows to serious contenders. On Sunday, many will consider Leicester to be favourites, which is an alien situation for their players – we need to use that to our advantage. Their trademark has been ruthless counter attacking this season, sitting back and absorbing pressure, then picking sides apart on the break with the pace of Vardy and laser-like vision of Mahrez. Don’t give them that opportunity – let them have the ball in midfield and deep positions and force them to play like the home side – it isn’t something sides have been able to do against them this season – the one example that comes to mind is our win at the King Power on a sunny autumn afternoon, where we used the pace of Walcott to pick them off on the break. Conversely, we need to prevent the counter – easier said than done. We need to be patient, don’t overcommit and play with discipline. It’s a tall ask, but it is a tactic that has proven successful against this side before.
Clearly, we will need the stars to align and show more tactical intelligence and in-game management than we have of late, but we have the talent in this side to better Leicester – a win would give us irresistible momentum, a draw is tolerable, a loss may be terminal, and that’s before considering what may happen at Eastlands…
See you on the other side.
Until next time x
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