Leicester City’s rise to the top of the Premier League with just five games remaining has been a remarkable story, and has spread positivity across England in an otherwise cynical time for the much maligned image of English soccer. The flip side of Leicester’s rise has been the ongoing struggle of Arsenal, the team that many tipped at Christmas to be the top of the league by the end of the season.
Leicester City’s dynamic wing-play, 4-4-2 system and two solid centre backs have previously been trade marks of Arsene Wenger’s title-winning teams but many years have passed since Arsenal and Wenger’s last successful league campaign in 2003-4. Can Wenger learn from Leicester’s rise?
1. Unearthed gems are still out there
Wenger has historically been credited as being the man in European soccer that can spot the rough diamond whether it be the speed and finishing ability of a young Nicolas Anelka or the raw talent of a 20 year old Kolo Toure, but his ability to spot and acquire young previously unheard of talent seems to be on the wane. Leicester have proved through the signings of N’Gol Kantè and Riyadh Mahrez that there are still top quality players out there available if a manager is willing to take the risk. Mohamed Elneny’s emergence since his January signing has been well documented but Wenger has turned to more big-name signings and experienced names in recent years. Nobody can doubt the talent of Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez but the signings of Mathieu Debuchy, Lukas Podolski and David Ospina offer low risk but have come with little reward at the same time.
2. Old-fashioned center backs can still be effective
If we turn out minds back to the title winning teams of the Wenger era, there are a few themes that run through each starting 11. One is most certainly the simplicity of the center back pairing with Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell starting during the unbeaten season, Campbell alongside either Martin Keown or Tony Adams during the 2001-2 season and Keown and Adams present throughout the double-winning 1997-8 campaign. Although Laurent Koscieny has progressed in recent years and Per Mertersacker has clear leadership qualities, the insistence on playing out from the back has cost Arsenal. Plus the success of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth as well as the formidable partnership of John Terry and Gary Cahill last season shows that the strong, basic center back still leads to success in the Premier League.
3. The importance of changing tactics
Claudio Ranieri’s ability to set his team up to defend without possession for large portions of games whilst making sure their attacking threat is still active has created success against teams up and down the table whom enforce different tactics against the league leaders. His tactics are reminiscent of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid team. And their success in La Liga against the two biggest teams in Europe is certainly not a bad starting point for a team with Leicester’s resources. Wenger’s attacking, fluid way of setting out his team is not likely to change and there is much admiration for his consistently attractive teams during his spell as manager. However, his inability to change tactics from game to game is frustrating to Arsenal fans who feel that this rigidness puts the Gunners at an avoidable disadvantage against teams that find it so easy to play against Arsenal given they know the way Wenger’s team is going to approach the game. The 1-2 away win against Manchester City last season in which Arsenal had just 35% of possession was meant to be the start of a new tactically astute Arsene Wenger but this has not materialized.
4. Back to the future: 1-0 wins
Surprisingly, Arsenal and Leicester have kept the same number of clean sheets so far this season with Leicester conceding two fewer goals than Arsenal and finding the net two more times. However, Leicester have won 4 more games so the conclusion from these statistics shows that Arsenal aren’t scoring when it counts and are conceding in vital games. Arsenal have scored 12 goals in their last 5 games, which is double the amount that Leicester has. That sounds impressive until you realize that the Gunners have conceded 7 goals compared to Leicester’s 5 clean sheets in a row. The old days under George Graham where a 1-0 win and successful usage of the offside trap were the hallmarks of the team are a long way away and for good reason. But Wenger’s success has always been built on strong defensive performances and Arsenal’s usual end of season run of form in prior years has usually coincided with successive clean sheets that look unlikely in the current team.
5. Are 2 strikers better than 1?
Although the 4-4-2 has its limitations and the risk of a physically overrun midfield is a problem that Arsenal’s technical players have faced in recent years, the adherence to a rigid 4-2-3-1 system has left the Gunners with just 1 striker on the field at any time and this has amplified the weakness of that part of the team. Oliver Giroud has performed admirably over the past 3 seasons and he has hit 20 goals in all competitions this season but his immobility occasionally results in a congested attacking area with our attacking midfielders struggling to find the space they need to control the game. Danny Welbeck stretches the defense to create the space for our attacking midfielders but lacks the goal scoring and fitness record of Giroud and cannot be relied upon to hit 20 goals a year at the moment. Leicester’s combination of Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki has meant that there is always a forward stretching the opposition defense and a presence in the box; this can not be said for Arsenal with cries from the stadiums often bemoaning the lack of presence in the opposition penalty. Although a system with 2 strikers may not be practical against the top teams in the league, it could be an option for Wenger against the stubborn mid-lower table teams that Arsenal often seem to struggle against.
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