The Big Match

Football: Gunners need to show up

While Arsenal playmaker Mesut Oezil could have a major impact against Leicester tomorrow, he has not had an assist this year. And none of the Gunners’ forwards have scored in their last four league games.
While Arsenal playmaker Mesut Oezil could have a major impact against Leicester tomorrow, he has not had an assist this year. And none of the Gunners’ forwards have scored in their last four league games. PHOTO: REUTERS

Their attacking talents have to be at their best against Leicester's tight defence in must-win game

Arsene Wenger marked his side's first win in five Premier League games by reflecting on the title race. "Leicester are the favourites now," he said at Bournemouth last week. Perhaps it was an honest assertion, perhaps a case of mind games, perhaps even a mix of both.

Whichever, it is a sign of Leicester's staggering progress. Grounds to doubt them have been replaced by reasons to believe they will make the impossible happen whereas Arsenal, as usual, are surrounded by questions over their mettle, their consistency and their tactical nous. They have to convince the sceptics. This is a must-win game for them, but not for Leicester.

Yet a victory for Claudio Ranieri's side would complete a rare clean sweep. They have already won away at the other two title contenders, Tottenham and Manchester City, in 2016.

Perhaps last week's high-paced demolition job assumes a greater relevance than Arsenal's 5-2 win at the King Power Stadium in September. It was Leicester's heaviest defeat under Ranieri, and the only time they have conceded five times since 2010, yet City are a team ideally configured to playing away from home.

Arsenal share certain characteristics with Manchester City. The danger, however, is that they fall into the same trap, of having possession without penetration, of failing to defend set-pieces properly, of committing too many men forward and leaving their centre-backs isolated against Leicester's speedy strikers.

Certainly Wenger should order his full-backs that one should remain back to deny Jamie Vardy the space in the channels he likes. Arsenal should not be afraid to defend deep.

Their manager ought to omit Per Mertesacker in favour of the quicker Gabriel - the slow Martin Demichelis was tortured last week - and he should recall the fit-again Francis Coquelin in midfield to provide the bite that N'Golo Kante offers Leicester.

He needs his attacking talents to return to their best. Mesut Oezil is without an assist in 2016. None of their forwards have scored in their last four league games. The German's wait is a symptom of their drought but that could end.

The indications are that Alexis Sanchez is starting to return to top form. He was Leicester's September tormentor. Arsenal's left flank could be a key battleground. Nacho Monreal secured two assists then and he was a rare defender to win his duel with Riyad Mahrez.

The difficulty for Arsenal is that few teams outrun Leicester while Ranieri's men can defend in two tight banks of four, restricting space in areas where they want to create. It will be harder for Oezil to find room between the lines. Aim crosses at Olivier Giroud and Leicester have two sizeable centre-backs, in Robert Huth and Wes Morgan, who have kept five clean sheets in seven games. Unless Wenger can plot a path through an increasingly resilient unit, perhaps last week's analysis will prove correct.

ARSENAL v LEICESTER

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2016, with the headline 'Gunners need to show up'. Print Edition | Subscribe