Kaushik Goswami writes a detailed tactical analysis about the Premier League opener that finished Arsenal 4-3 Leicester City
The Premier League got off to an explosive start as Arsenal came from behind twice to win late in the second half against the champions of the 2015-16 season Leicester City.
Arsenal: Cech; Holding, Monreal, Kolasinac; Bellerin, Xhaka, Elneny, Chamberlain; Welbeck, Özil; Lacazette.
Leicester City: Schmeichel; Simpson, Maguire, Morgan, Fuchs; Albrighton, James, Ndidi, Mahrez; Okazaki, Vardy.
Clinical finishing from both teams
The game produced goals at both ends thanks to some clinical finishing by both teams. While Leicester set up in their 4-4-2 block which won them the title in season 2015-16, Arsenal used a 3-4-3 formation which was effective towards the later stages of last season for them. However, formations are just like numbers as many top coaches say. The finer aspects of positioning make or break these formations in a football match. The game turned out to be one full of errors as both sides gave the crowd lots of entertainment due to the end-to-end stuff they produced.
Leicester used a 4-4-2 deep block when they are inside their own half, staying close to the Arsenal players who try to come deep so that the latter can turn goal-side.
Arsenal’s attacking patterns
Leicester use a compact 4-4-2 block which aims to block the central channels for their opponents. This also means that they leave spaces out wide for the opposition wingers to exploit. With quick switches of play, this can often be exploited like it was in the build up to Arsenal’s first goal. Arsenal were building up play through their left side thereby pulling Leicester’s compact block to that side. This meant that Arsenal’s right wingback Bellerin was free on the right side. Xhaka saw him free and immediately switched the point of attack. As a result, Leicester’s defensive block had to shift direction quickly to avoid a potential chance. It is during such moments when a defensive block has to change direction that gaps open up between the individual units of the block. The small gap that opened up between Leicester’s right-back and centre-back was enough for Lacazette to get into and eventually score from the Elneny cross.
As shown using the arrow, Xhaka finds Bellerin with a switch diagonal ball. This forces Leicester’s block to quickly change direction. Moments like these often create small gaps in the defensive structure as shown in the next image.
As a result of Xhaka’s diagonal, a small gap opens up between Simpson and Morgan which is enough for Lacazette to get into and score.
As pointed out, Leicester’s vertical compactness makes it very difficult for their opponents to penetrate centrally. When Arsenal looked to penetrate centrally, they used quick 1-2 passes to get behind Leicester’s defensive line. Welbeck had a few good chances after such quick combinations to get past Leicester’s defensive line. However, Leicester’s defenders managed to block most of those chances. As pointed out in this article, 1-2s make good chances for the attacking side as the 2nd attacker starts his run earlier putting him in a situation of dynamic superiority against his defender. Even if the defender reacts soon enough, the other attacker will be free owing to the fact that the defensive structure gets destabilized momentarily because of the 1-2.
Welbeck tried 1-2 combinations to penetrate Leicester centrally. Here, he tries to link up with Ozil. As soon as Ozil gets the pass, a Leicester defender rushes out thereby opening up a gap in the back 4. Welbeck meanwhile continues his run.
Ozil then tries the return pass to Welbeck through the gap previously opened up.
Welbeck becomes free as a result of starting his run earlier than the defender marking him because of the 1-2 combination putting him in a situation of dynamic superiority.
Quick Leicester transitions troubled Arsenal
While Arsenal were trying hard to break down Leicester, the latter were happy to soak up pressure and wait for Arsenal to commit mistakes. They tried to force Arsenal to commit mistakes by using their forwards and midfielders in higher zones whenever Arsenal looked to build play up from the back using their 3 Centre backs in Monreal, Holding and Kolasinac. By doing this, they often forced Arsenal to make some mistakes, one of which led to the second goal for Vardy. The threat mainly came from the left flank following a turnover of possession. Bellerin would advance too far up front thereby making himself inaccessible to Xhaka and Elneny. This put Arsenal’s defensive structure in total jeopardy as Xhaka misplaced his passes in the absence of the necessary outlet in Bellerin when he was being pressed aggressively by Leicester’s midfield and forwards. As a result, most of Leicester’s chances came through early crosses delivered from the left flank by Albrighton immediately following such turnovers inside Arsenal’s half.
Arsenal’s structure moments before conceding the second goal. Bellerin needs to be in the box drawn in the image above. Because he is not there, Xhaka does not have proper passing options and misplaces his pass.
Albrighton gets hold of Xhaka’s loose pass. Here we see Bellerin making a recovery run following his positional error.
Bellerin’s error proves costly(many will criticize Xhaka for this goal) as Albrighton delivers an excellent cross for Vardy to score.
Another tactic Leicester employed were the trademark Vardy runs into the channels as soon as Leicester won possession back in their own half. Mahrez found him free 1 v 1 against Cech but Cech quickly came out of his line and swept out the danger. In a game as close as this, such moments can be the difference between victory and defeat.
A pattern in Leicester’s pressing is that they employ a half-hearted press. By this, I mean that usually only the midfield and forwards are seen to aggressively press their opponents inside the latter’s half. As a result, gaps open up inside their structure between midfield and defense. Arsenal failed to capitalize on this in the first half because they seem to lack the necessary tactical intelligence to exploit those gaps which open up time and time again.
Second half substitutes Ramsey and Giroud save the day for Wenger
Leicester took the lead again in the second half with another set piece goal. With the game slipping away from their grasp, Wenger brought on Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud in the 65th minute of the game. This also meant a change in the dynamics of their gameplay. As I pointed out above, Leicester use a half hearted press to put the opposition under pressure in the early stages of their build up. This creates gaps between Leicester’s midfield and defense. The introduction of Giroud meant Arsenal had the option to go long in the early stages of their build up . These long balls helped move the ball quickly into the gaps in Leicester’s structure. With players picking up the ball in these gaps, Arsenal had chances to turn towards Leicester’s goal and shoot. It was therefore no surprise that Arsenal’s shot tally shot up considerably after Giroud and Ramsey’s introduction.
Space opens up between Leicester’s defense and midfield lines because of the half hearted press mentioned above. This allows Arsenal to successfully employ long balls after Giroud and Ramsey’s introduction.
As Leicester conceded attack after attack, they had to shift deeper inside their half. This meant their 2 banks of 4 came closer and closer to each other while Vardy and Okazaki remained up front on most occasions. As a result, Arsenal began to find space at the edge of Leicester’s penalty box. They aimed to exploit this by cutbacks from wide areas to onrushing midfielders. Xhaka, Ozil, and Chamberlain all had shots from just outside the box as Leicester tried to soak up pressure once again.
Arsenal finally managed to equalise after a diagonal ball from Xhaka found Ramsey free inside Leicester’s penalty box for him to score. Two minutes later, Giroud’s aerial prowess worked as another Xhaka corner found him and the French forward headed it in.
Arsenal were lucky to survive a scare on the first day of the season. Starting on a good note this season was important for them as busy months are coming up for them with the Europa League threatening to cause problems in their results in the Premier league. So the wins during the non-busy months can help them secure a top 4 place which is always difficult when teams have to play on Thursdays and Sundays.
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