Leicester City’s stunning season continues to amaze football fans around the world, and after a shock win over Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, Claudio Ranieri’s men will be looking to repeat their heroics against another title rival in Arsenal FC.
Arsenal’s Invincible season was arguably the last in which they could lay a claim to being the best team in Europe, and the Gunners had a real opportunity to win their first ever Champions League crown in 2004. Claudio Ranieri had other ideas however, deservedly beating Arsène Wenger’s men over two legs and taking his Chelsea side to the semi-finals.
This game may not be as momentous an occasion for either club, but there is a sense that Arsenal’s title challenge this season could be dead and buried if Ranieri outsmarts his French counterpart away from home again — 12 years after he masterminded one of the most memorable wins in Chelsea’s recent past.
Leicester City are not the same side who lost 5-2 at home to Arsenal in September this season, and in a sense, neither are the Gunners. The Foxes are far more confident in their philosophy and their individual ability, while the Gunners’ recent victories haven’t fully put to bed the notion that yet another Wenger side seems to be wobbling when it matters most.
Arsène Wenger v Claudio Ranieri
In eight previous Premier League meetings between the two veteran managers, Ranieri has yet to register a win against Wenger; the Italian failed seven times with Chelsea, with three draws and four defeats, and suffered a defeat in his only ever meeting as Leicester City manager in the nascent stages of this season.
In fact, the only victory Ranieri has in this head-to-head battle in all competitions is the Champions League quarter-final second-leg win at Highbury — a moment so poignant that it reduced him to tears. He will no doubt look to recreate those scenes on Sunday at the Emirates in what is arguably the most remarkable season in his 20-year managerial career.
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Wenger will look for tactical intelligence from his side to deal with Leicester’s threat on the break
Having already lost a big home fixture against Chelsea last month, Wenger will know that a defeat to the league leaders could irreversibly damage his side’s chances of winning the title. Arsenal have been accused in the past of poor ‘big-game management’, but there has been evidence that the Gunners are slowly shedding that tag.
Crucial in their change of fortunes against bigger sides over the past year and a half has been their improvement when not in possession of the ball. Defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin has been key in that respect, but the team as a whole has shown the necessary graft and discipline against opposition like Manchester City and Bayern Munich to register wins despite not having the lion’s share of possession.
Leicester’s game-plan is among the most straight-forward (and effective) in England’s top flight, but teams have still been unable to thwart the Foxes. Arsenal must show the tactical flexibility that they have in other big games this season, and give Ranieri and his men something to think about. Being the home side, Wenger will look to take the initiative, but that cannot come at the cost of leaving large spaces in the defensive third for the likes of Jamie Vardy to exploit.
Wenger could ask his team to remain calm without the ball and allow Leicester to play it into threatening spaces before then applying full pressure on the man in possession. The danger in doing so prematurely — or in the wrong place — is that the Foxes are excellent at bypassing the midfield with aerial balls for the likes of Vardy, and the league’s top scorer found the back of the net against the Gunners from a similar situation back in September.
Ranieri may be more risk-averse compared to the clubs’ earlier meeting at the King Power stadium
A draw at the Emirates would suit Leicester City just fine, and even though they have already far exceeded expectations, Ranieri is unlikely to throw caution to the wind against Arsenal. The game between the two sides earlier in the season was incredibly open, featuring 43 shots, seven goals, and several missed opportunities for either side.
That was, in part, due to the fact that the Foxes really went for Arsenal, leaving behind spaces that the Gunners duly exploited. It was almost as if the roles were reversed in that game, with Wenger’s men being devastatingly clinical on the break as the Foxes’ defenders retreated towards their goal. Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez in particular made the most of the time and space that they were afforded, with the Chilean bagging a hat-trick in the emphatic win.
On Sunday, Ranieri will look for more defensive discipline from his side, particularly from the midfield four of Riyad Mahrez, Marc Albrighton, N’golo Kanté and Danny Drinkwater, in an attempt to deny Arsenal’s German superstar the opportunity to influence proceedings in the final third.
The fact that Arsenal took the lead eventually at the King Power forced Leicester to attack more, and the former Chelsea boss will stress the importance of the first goal to his team.
Jamie Vardy v Laurent Koscielny/Gabriel Paulista
The Premier League’s top scorer is one of the most lethal players on the break in the league, with his pace and finishing putting several teams to the sword this season. Arsenal’s centre-back pairing will have to be extremely wary of their positioning, as even one step in the wrong direction could be absolutely fatal against someone so quick.
Per Mertesacker may sit out this game due to his lack of pace, and Gabriel, as the right-sided centre-back, will have the unenviable task of stopping Vardy, who is fast approaching the 20-goal mark for the season. The Foxes’ striker likes to aggressively run in behind or in channels between full-back and centre-back, and Koscielny has to have the awareness to move across and cover for his less experienced defensive partner if necessary.
The Frenchman failed to do that fast enough for Vardy’s goal at the King Power in September, and Mertesacker was isolated against one of the quickest players in the league.
Mesut Özil v N’golo Kanté/Danny Drinkwater
The former Real Madrid superstar is the league’s top playmaker with 16 assists to his name, and although his influence may have waned somewhat over recent weeks, he will undoubtedly be the Gunners’ biggest attacking threat on Sunday.
Özil has the ability to find gaps in a well-organised defensive set-up, and Leicester’s chances in the game will increase dramatically if the German is taken out of the game. The Foxes’ central midfielders Kanté and Drinkwater will be crucial to achieving that, and the duo will look to harass the Arsenal playmaker every time he is in possession in an attempt to upset his rhythm.
Riyad Mahrez v Nacho Monreal
Monreal has been among the best full-backs in the Premier League this season, but Riyad Mahrez’s unique threat means he will have to be at the top of his game to help his side keep a clean sheet. The Algerian’s threat is not limited to his starting position on the right flank, but his ability to take defenders on and go past them in one-on-one situations means that the Gunners’ left-back will no doubt be tested.
The Leicester playmaker, who has 14 goals and 10 assists to his name this season, has the tendency to drift infield to get on his favoured left foot and as such, will pose a different challenge for Monreal. The Spaniard must try and show him out wide as much as possible to prevent the damage Mahrez can do when the field opens up for him, as highlighted best in the Foxes’ game against Ranieri’s old club Chelsea.
Blast from the past
Arsenal hosted Leicester City at Highbury in May 2004, looking to avoid defeat to be the first side in over a century of English football to win the league without losing a single game in the process.
The Gunners’ ‘invincible’ status was seriously threatened when the away side took the lead through Paul Dickov in the 25th minute, but the legendary Thierry Henry leveled proceedings with a penalty shortly after the resumption of the second half.
Another French legend in Patrick Vieira then scored the winner in the 66th minute, rounding off a historic day for the club and its supporters. Here are the highlights from the iconic final day of the 2003-04 Premier League season: