Two of the biggest losers of the opening weekend lock horns on Saturday and, considering champions Leicester lost only three times last season, both will be desperate to avoid a second defeat by week two.
The Foxes were poor but unlucky to lose at Hull, while Arsenal’s defensive crisis aided Liverpool's 4-3 win in north London. For this encounter, much will hinge on the personnel Arsene Wenger has available.
The most urgent spot to cover is at centre-back, where injuries to Per Mertesacker and Gabriel had deputies Calum Chambers and Rob Holding wobbling badly last weekend. The big call, therefore, concerns Laurent Koscielny, who alongside Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud returned late to training after the Euros and missed the Gunners' opener. Wenger says the trio will be considered for selection.
“Of course they have not played any games for a while, so I have to be selective and I cannot go for the three because that would be too risky,” Wenger said. “But basically, with Laurent Koscielny, I have no choice. If I have to take a gamble on one, it’s certainly on him.”
Koscielny’s inclusion would help to negate the pace of Jamie Vardy and rapid summer signing Ahmed Musa, yet a gamble on Giroud could also be worthwhile. The alternative is to give the lone striker role to Alexis Sanchez, who wasn't involved in any of the three goals Arsenal scored last weekend. Whereas the Chilean would likely struggle to find space in behind a deep back four, Giroud could easily punish one of Leicester’s few defensive weak spots: defending crosses and set-pieces.
Trouble in the air
At first, this might seem a strange observation. Leicester won the title last season by having two strong centre-backs in Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, and with the latter now returning from suspension, the presence of a powerful striker would seem to play into their hands. Better, then, to select Sanchez, whose rapid feet can bamboozle static markers.
Yet look at how Leicester conceded their goals in the second half of last season. In their golden period, which began after defeat by Liverpool on Boxing Day and ran up until the final game before they sealed the title (a draw at Manchester United on May 1), Leicester played 18 league matches and conceded just nine goals. Of those nine, five came from corners or crosses.
Sergio Aguero scores from a cross against Leicester
Let’s do a quick summary. In February, Manchester City scored a consolation in a 3-1 defeat when the tiny Sergio Aguero leapt to steer in a cross. At Arsenal, Leicester conceded from a headed knockdown to Theo Walcott, then a Danny Welbeck flick from a free-kick. At home to West Ham, they conceded a penalty from a corner, then failed to clear a lofted cross. Though they had a player dismissed against Arsenal and the Hammers, the pattern is still notable: more than half of their conceded goals in the title run-in came about because they lost defensive aerial duels.
This starts to make sense when you analyse the team as a whole. Morgan and Huth are big, but look at the rest: Kasper Schmeichel's not the most commanding aerially; full-backs Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs are not particularly towering players; and the same could be said of midfielders Marc Albrighton, N’Golo Kante (now replaced by Andy King or Nampalys Mendy), Danny Drinkwater and Riyad Mahrez. The current strikers, Vardy, Musa and Shinji Okazaki, don't help much either.
Their defensive shape also encourages crossing. Leicester sit deep and keep their midfield four narrow, which cedes space out wide. Last season, they had one of the lowest success ratios for aerial duels inside their own box. (Top were West Brom, who often fielded four centre-backs at once.)
Now enter Giroud. The targetman scored in the 5-2 win at the King Power Stadium in October last year, even if that was a meaningless strike converted as an 80th-minute substitute. The game could actually have indicated that Sanchez should play up front on Saturday, since he hit a hat-trick. However, those three goals came as a winger, and Leicester were far more porous at that stage of the campaign. In fact, that very defeat prompted Claudio Ranieri to change his full-backs, which in turn established the back four that underpinned their solid run to the title.
More relevant was Giroud’s display at the Emirates in February. The Foxes struggled as much with him as they did with any striker last season. With their narrow shape closing off the central spaces, Arsenal attacked out wide and swung crosses into the box, where Giroud was aggressive enough to record seven attempts.
The France international also offered neat link-up play; it was he who produced the lovely cushioned header for Walcott’s opener. He won 12 out of 18 attacking aerial duels – Leicester didn't lose as many in any other league game last season. Adding to his assist, he created three chances, all inside the box.
Some may point out that Leicester were playing with 10 men following Simpson's dismissal on 54 minutes, but Giroud had already wrecked havoc by then, winning eight out of 11 attacking aerial duels (his success rate actually declined after the red card). Even the big centre-backs couldn’t handle him: Huth lost three out of seven defensive aerial duels, Morgan lost five out of seven.
Leicester's signings this summer haven't addressed the issue. At Hull last weekend, they began by allowing Curtis Davies to meet Robert Snodgrass’s corner at the near post, the centre-half's header flashing just wide. The scenario then repeated itself for the opener: a Snodgrass corner found Davies, whose effort was saved by Schmeichel, before Adama Diomande pounced to give the hosts the lead.
Those two corners represented half of what Hull created on the day. A chink in the Leicester armour clearly still persists. For such reasons, Ranieri might well prefer Sanchez up front to another meeting with Giroud on Saturday.
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