Last Saturday Manchester City gave a perfect example of how not to play against Leicester City. It was a complacent, arrogant performance, which showed no respect for why Leicester are top of the Premier League. They played into the opposition’s hands, were lured into their traps, and deserved to lose 3-1.
The big question this weekend is whether Arsenal will avoid the same mistakes at the Emirates Stadium? Will they change their game to make themselves less vulnerable to Leicester’s threat on the break? After seeing how they adapted their style and won 5-2 at the King Power Stadium in September, I think they might.
Anyone who has seen Leicester this year knows how they play. It is the same approach whether at home or away. They don’t dominate possession. They concede the wide areas to the opposition, defending deep and narrow. They lure both opposition full-backs all the way up the pitch. Then when they win the ball back, they attack down the opposition’s sides, into the space abandoned by the full-backs. They are brilliant at it and that is why they are top.
It is just baffling to me that City took none of that into account against Leicester last Saturday. Aleksandar Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta pushed so far up the pitch, and at the same time. This was exactly what I warned City against in this column last week. You can see their average positions on the graphic (below), which are ridiculous. This left City’s two centre-backs, Nicolas Otamendi and Martin Demichelis, completely stuck on their own and isolated. Leicester attacked down the sides and won.
There was an element of snobbery in City’s display, as there has been from many teams against Leicester this season. They just wanted to play expansive football with no concern for what makes the Foxes so effective. So many teams have got lured up-field by Leicester and then hit by the sucker punch. They forget that you are never more vulnerable against Claudio Ranieri’s team than when you are attacking them and pushing your full-backs on.
I would have expected the Arsenal team of two or three years ago to go in blind and get beaten in exactly that way by Leicester. They were a side who always wanted to play expansive football, never adapting their approach for the opposition. But there is a new pragmatism to Arsenal’s play this season, as they showed when they played so patiently in that 3-0 win at Watford in October.
When they went to Leicester in late September, Arsenal played in a way that few expected. Rather than pushing both full-backs up all the time, they took it in turns. As you can see from the average-position graphic (below), Nacho Monreal has not gone too far away from Laurent Koscielny. Hector Bellerin pushed up further, but even he was not quite as far advanced as Zabaleta was for City, and Bellerin has the pace to get back.
What this meant is that when Leicester broke, Arsenal always had a back three – two centre-backs and one full-back – who could defend across the width of the pitch, protecting them against Leicester’s counter-attacks. They won the game 5-2.
The fact is that the sides who have had the most success this season against Leicester are those who have studied how they play, showed them respect and matched them up. That is how Liverpool beat them 1-0 at Anfield on Boxing Day. Or how Bournemouth drew 0-0, despite having 10 men. Watford play in a similar style and were only narrowly beaten.
So it is clear what Arsenal have to do to beat Leicester tomorrow – just a repeat of September. Of course, that was at the King Power, but Leicester play the same way whether they are home or away. Opponents have to find the same answers.
This means that Arsenal have to stay patient, even if they have not scored an early goal. The crowd may get on them but they cannot afford to get too desperate and throw men forward later in the game. Leicester are the fittest team in the league and have won so many games at the death.
Arsenal may want to play through Leicester, but they defend so compactly that is very difficult to do. Throwing high balls into the box towards Olivier Giroud is not necessarily the answer either. Leicester are so comfortable defending crosses because they have so many men in their own box when the cross comes in. Opponents playing 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 rarely get as many players in their box when they are attacking crosses, so the cross has to be pin-point. So Leicester have conceded 469 crosses this season, an average of almost 19 per game. Only Watford have allowed more. They are relaxed about it, because Leicester defend them so well.
But there is another way I think Arsenal can score. When they get the ball wide, rather than just trying to float a high ball in towards Giroud, they can cut it back to a runner arriving on the edge of the box. Leicester defend so deep that there is often space there. If Arsenal have Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Özil or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain arriving at the right time, they could find a route to goal, shooting from the edge of the box from cut-backs along the ground.
Champions League will be a test of title-chasers’ priorities
The Champions League starts again next week, meaning we will start to see where the Premier League teams’ priorities lie. Playing in Europe can be tiring, but it can also effect a team’s focus in the build-up to a big midweek match.
Just look at Chelsea in 2013-14, Jose Mourinho’s first season back at Stamford Bridge. They only lost six league games that season but all six were immediately before a European game. Chelsea only finished four points behind champions Manchester City. That run to the semi-finals probably cost them the title. With Chelsea travelling to Paris on Monday to face PSG, and Arsenal and City in action the following week, we will see where their priorities lie.