In the end, Danny Welbeck’s last-minute winner was the true fairytale story as Arsenal closed the gap on the top of the Premier League with a 2-1 win over Leicester City. Welbeck, with 10 months out of the game and only 45 minutes of action for the reserves, was not in contention to feature at all until the day before but the striker’s hunger in the last two training sessions won the manager over. He required only the faintest of touches to score on his comeback, Welbeck seemingly growing an inch over everybody to rise highest and head home.
Overall, it was an astonishing end to the game as Arsenal were forced to dig deep to complete the turnaround after falling behind to Jamie Vardy’s penalty before half-time. The reaction was positive, though undoubtedly the comeback hinged on the red card shown to Danny Simpson early in the second-half. Before that, the Gunners played with an anxiousness that saw attacks lacking any real invention
It’s important now that Arsenal take the feel good factor with them to the next league game because “mental strength”, as Wenger always talks about, will surely be a pivotal factor in whether the team can finally sustain a title challenge. Chasing might suit them because when the opportunity has arisen in recent times for Arsenal to set the agenda, they have often faltered.
Yet, everybody talks about how good the spirits are within the camp and when Welbeck and Theo Walcott can come on to make the difference, not to mention Chambers, Arsenal show that they also have the depth to maintain a title charge.
Kante and Ramsey set the tempo for either teams
Red cards always change games. Sometimes teams can overcome the debilitating effect of playin with 10 men by pooling together like bees to protect their goal. Claudio Rainieri might have felt he was compelled to play like this and as such, instantly went to a back three after Simpson’s sending-off on 53-minutes. But his team is built around running harder than everyone else and the effect was probably larger than he envisaged. Sitting back didn’t suit them and his substitutions were puzzling, especially when he took off Riyad Mahrez, one of the few players capable of carrying the ball large distances, and as a result, they never really got out of their own-half.
In the first-half, the tempo was set by N’Golo Kante, the revelation at the heart of Leicester City’s midfield, breaking up attacks and then driving forward with the ball. He was everywhere, initially making his presence felt with a crunching tackle on Aaron Ramsey as Arsenal tried to break early on.
Together with Danny Drinkwater, he formed a shield in front of the back four that never really allowed Arsenal to pass the ball through the lines to Mesut Ozil. It might have helped Leicester that Ozil played closer to a second-striker, nearer to the offside line than to his own midfield, but with Ramsey taking the responsibility of picking up the ball from the centre-backs, he wasn’t really needed deep. However, it was the intensity with which Kante pressed with that added to the claustrophobia, and discouraged Ozil to make the move deeper.
The creative burden then fell on Ramsey’s shoulders who, in some ways, is not that unlike Kante, a complete midfielder who gets back as quickly as he gets forward. Ramsey’s position in the side, though, demands him to play with more control and as such it was a more encouraging performance, playing with a little more discipline than he has shown in recent weeks.
His natural game, though, is all about risk/reward, and he tried, when possible to break forward and support Olivier Giroud, particularly on goal-kicks. With Francis Coquelin tending to play a little higher than Mathieu Flamini, those risks are minimised because the distance between the two central midfielders is shortened and Ramsey can get forward with more security.
Ramsey’s movement laterally is really interesting, although Arsenal haven’t really been able to take advantage of those runs. On the other hand, Ozil found that by drifting to the flanks, he could be most creative there, crossing a number of times, most notable when Giroud scored an offside goal, from the deep-right position. In that move, Ramsey had made a run to the left-channel, but you might also notice it was Coquelin who took a more traditional pivote position, spreading play left then right in that same attack.
He won’t dictate play for Arsenal, but he’s still an important reference point when Arsenal have the ball at both ends of the pitch. At one a decoy so that Arsenal can pass out by dragging opponent central midfielders with him; at the other, he moves side-to-side with attacks so that when the ball drops lose, he’s first to win possession.
Arsenal exposed on the left-side…
With both Ramsey and Kante setting the tempo for either sides, the first-half was a little frenetic at times, with quick breaks the most likely source for goals. It was from such a break that Leicester won the penalty, and the warning signs had been there with Leicester looking to spread the play towards Mahrez at all times.
To be fair to Arsenal, though, the recovery pace in the back four was outstanding as we rarely saw Vardy use his pace behind. As Per Mertesacker said after the game, “we played well, especially in the first half defensively. How everyone dropped back and recovered well when we lost the ball was outstanding.”
Still, it’s problematic that Arsenal continue to rely on the speed of the full-backs and Laurent Kosicelny, while Mertesacker often gambles (and gambles well) to offset his lack of pace. I said earlier this season, Arsenal are a bad defensive team with really good defenders and there’s nothing that I’ve seen yet to change my mind.
The battle between Mahrez and Monreal was an intriguing one, one which came to a premature end when Simpson was red carded. Before that, the outcome was mainly even with Mahrez unable to find the yard of space to cross once he shuffled the ball from one side. Monreal does well in this regard because he rarely goes to ground, but rather, stays upright with his body about 45 degrees to one side so that he can try and provoke the attacker to move to that side and then nip the ball away with his stronger foot. However it was this technique that saw him caught out for the penalty, not anticipating the heavy touch from Vardy and then not getting positioned as he wanted to so that he could meet Vardy’s run.
…but make attacks down the right count
As they did against Southampton and Bournemouth, and actually have for much of the season, most of Arsenal’s forays forward came down the left-side (41% compared to 33% on the right). Like Leicester, who play towards the right with Mahrez, that’s partly because their strongest players tend to favour that side.
Alexis Sanchez attracts the ball mainly because he bloody-well demands it, but also because he’s a permanent outlet, playing high and wide, stretching the pitch. Wenger says he’s crucial to Arsenal because he always puts opponents on the back-foot, forces them to run back, thus creating space for others. As such, he’s forced to be more of a playmaker for Arsenal than a wide forward.
It was Alexis hugging the left touchline, just staying free of opponents that helped lead to the winning goal, as he received a diagonal pass from Chambers then shaped a cross towards the far post. From the resulting corner, Arsenal won the free-kick from which Welbeck headed in from.
Still, if attacks down the right were more sporadic, that’s where the goals came from – crosses from that side. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had a strong game but he’s yet to form the same kind of partnership with Hector Bellerin as there is with Monreal and Alexis. The equaliser came when The Ox moved central following the reshuffle once Leicester went down to ten-men and Walcott went to that side. Bellerin’s cross was gloriously knocked down by Giroud for the path of Walcott to expertly finish.
As Walcott revealed in his post-match interview, Arsenal’s strategy in the second-half was to go direct as they ended with four strikers on the pitch. Leicester narrowed in a bid to remain compact thus inviting Arsenal to plunder balls into the box and The Gunners duly obliged, sending 50 crosses, the most they have in a game this season.
Olivier Giroud was the principle recipient, winning 11 out of the 13 aerial duels he contested in the box. Up against Robert Huth and Wes Morgan he was imperious in the challenges, as the pair only won two of their headers in the box. Indeed, if those two are not winning headers for Leicester, then they have a real problem because they are the only outfield players in their first XI over 6 foot tall.
Thus Ranieri was somewhat compelled to bring on Marcin Wasilewski, a third centre-back, envisaging the aerial onslaught. The Polish defender, though, had a nightmare, not challenging many headers and conceding the free-kick for the winner.
Giroud, though, has stood out recently for more than his target man qualities although he’s improved in that regard too because he’s not just looking to hang back and win headers from deep as target men are often wont to do.
Instead, he’s making more runs towards the back and near posts, and from outside play, running the channels more, particularly the left. The result, in the last 10 games, he has fewer goals but he’s more team-orientated, notching up 4 assists.
In the previous 25 matches, when he scored 15 goals, he didn’t have a single assist to his name. Now, he has an improved understanding with Alexis and is playing higher up, closer to the “offside-line” as Wenger once recommended he should when he first signed. Indeed, Giroud’s improvement in his movement might be somewhat attributed to Wenger pushing him to do better though Giroud is probably his own harshest critic.
Although he’s not the world class striker that people want him to be, his strength of character to bounce back and make a difference makes him a vital cog in the machine. Arsenal need that mentality for the rest of the run-in.