Neither Leicester City or Arsenal were pleased with their opening weekend results, as last year’s champions and runners-up suffered defeats.
Arsenal’s makeshift defence were easily exploited by a dynamic Liverpool attack, whereas the champions have yet to fill N’Golo Kante’s void in midfield. However, the nature of this match should favour a Leicester side that prefers to sit deep and launch quick counter-attacks.
Last weekend, Claudio Ranieri’s men struggled to break down newly promoted Hull City, whereas Andy King struggled to provide adequate protection for the back-line alongside Danny Drinkwater. This shouldn’t be an issue against a Gunners side who largely dominate possession, thus enabling Leicester to maintain a low defensive block.
Oddly, Arsenal completed a league double over the champions last season with two contrasting performances: the initial showdown witnessed Arsene Wenger’s men fluster Leicester on the counter-attack, whereas Ranieri’s men conceded a late lead during last year’s run-in at the Emirates following a Danny Simpson dismissal.
In terms of shape, neither side has abandoned their philosophy. The key talking points rest around whether Wenger will welcome back key figures who returned to training camp late due to international duty. Laurent Koscielny appears certain to add experience to a back-line that self-destructed last weekend, but Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil’s return remains unknown.
The Gunners could slot Santi Cazorla into his preferred no.10 role, but Giroud’s absence upfront appears to be a bigger blow at the moment. For all of Alexis Sanchez’s countless attacking qualities, his impact as the main striker is fairly subdued. Theo Walcott’s pace upfront is also an option if Arsenal intended on playing on the break, as he flourished ahead of Alexis in last season’s 5-2 win at the King Power Stadium.
But if Alexis starts upfront, Wenger would likely field Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the flanks, thus offering pace and direct running in wide areas. With that being said, the other major decision Wenger must make regards is midfield pairing. Rushing Ozil back to the XI could see Santi Cazorla return to the deeper role the Spaniard thrived in last season, but Granit Xhaka’s big money summer signing should merit his first start for the club.
Last week, Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin offered grit and protection of the back four, but Xhaka offers ball-winning skills, and a source of creativity from deep. Surely Wenger will be wary of Leicester’s transitional threat, but he’s certainly deprived of genuine passers if Ozil is unable to start – to be frank, Xhaka offers a two-way threat in a deeper role.
Ranieri’s men should be relishing their first home game of the season, and the Italian manager’s main decision is probably based around the ideal strike partner for Jamie Vardy. Shinji Okazaki’s work-rate and discipline would be significant in preventing Xhaka from freely distributing the ball from deeper positions, but Ahmed Musa’s pace alongside Vardy would torment Arsenal’s back-line.
Both Musa and Vardy displayed their willingness to charge into the channels to receive long diagonals at Hull last weekend, which is why Koscielny’s return and cautious positioning from the Arsenal full-backs is required. Despite winning a penalty last weekend, Demarai Gray struggled to impress, which could see Musa also utilized on the right.
Ranieri, however, would likely prefer discipline from the opposite flank of Mahrez, who drifted centrally aiming to take on defenders and occasionally combining with Danny Drinkwater, last week. This opens up the possibility of last season’s consistent performer, Marc Albrighton returning to the XI.
Leicester also looked particularly feeble in central areas, where Andy King filled the void of N’Golo Kante in midfield. King doesn’t possess the ball-winning skills of Kante, and against an Arsenal side containing multiple technically gifted players in advanced zones, Ranieri would be wise to find a new partner alongside Drinkwater.
Similar to Xhaka, Nampalys Mendy is being eased into the Premier League, but King’s exploited defensive deficiencies should see the Frenchman partner Drinkwater in midfield. Although Mendy doesn’t offer Kante’s dynamism and running, he still boasts the necessary physical presence, ball-winning skills and additional protection Leicester lacked last weekend – it’s no coincidence Wes Morgan endured one of his worst performances for the club over the past 12 months.
Ultimately, the match hinges on whether Arsenal aim to dictate the tempo of the match, but Musa and Vardy’s threat upfront may force Wenger’s men to be cautious, here. Offensive transitions will be key, but both managers will aim to address their issues at the back, and a lack of defensive discipline across the pitch.