Welbeck winner highlights Arsenal’s adaptability

arsenal celebrate

Arsenal 2-1 Leicester – www.skysports.com

A long held criticism of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has been his stubbornness, his refusal to acknowledge the strengths of the opposition and change his tactics accordingly. And yet, after a 2-1 victory over Leicester on Sunday, the Frenchman deserves at least an ounce of credit for the way he set his side up.

Any plans to attack via the middle of the pitch would have proved unsuccessful, due to the narrow defensive block with which Leicester operate. Arsenal looked to get crosses into the box from wide areas. Olivier Giroud caused problems in the air and, as well as getting the flick-on for Theo Walcott’s leveller, he could have scored two or three headed goals, had he been more clinical.

In the early stages of the match, it became clear that Leicester were vulnerable in the wide areas. Wingers Riyad Mahrez and Marc Albrighton did not mark full-backs Hector Bellarin and Nacho Monreal, instead supporting N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater in the middle. When Arsenal had the ball, the Foxes were playing effectively with four central midfielders.

Arsenal were given time to pick their passes, but the option of attacking quickly through the middle was not viable. Two years ago, it would have been typical of Arsenal to stick with their usual approach. To probe through the middle. To keep feeding Mesut Ozil the ball and have blind faith that he would deliver, rather than figure an alternative route to goal that would stretch their opponents.

Instead, they attacked down the right through Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who had the beating of left-back Christian Fuchs. According to Squawka, the former Southampton winger committed six take-ons and put 11 crosses into the box, an impressive return. A combination of good play from Chamberlain and quality set pieces gave Olivier Giroud many opportunities to score with his head, some of which he could have done better with.

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Jamie Vardy – www.independent.co.uk

Jamie Vardy had not been heavily involved in the game but shortly before half-time, his forward run provoked an alleged foul from Nacho Monreal and Leicester had a penalty. Vardy stepped up to score his 19th goal of the season and give his side the lead. With four Arsenal players on yellow cards, and Leicester in a position to defend deep and counter, it looked as though the second-half was set up perfectly for the Foxes.

While Arsenal played well on Sunday, an element of fortune was on their side too. Within 10 minutes of the restart, there were two moments that arguably changed the course of the second half. Firstly, Riyad Mahrez was denied a penalty after being allegedly tripped in the box by Monreal. The controversial nature of the first penalty perhaps dissuaded the referee from giving this one and Arsenal were off the hook. Moments later, Danny Simpson was sent off, for a second bookable offence, meaning that not only did Leicester have a slender one goal lead, they would have to defend it with 10 men.

Where Arsene Wenger deserves some credit is his decision to introduce Theo Walcott, who made a huge difference. The former Southampton forward played with a fire in his belly and made direct runs that asked questions of the Foxes rearguard. Hector Bellarin crossed a delightful ball from deep for Giroud, who nodded the ball down and Walcott pounced with a firm first time finish to draw Arsenal level.

Leicester were now playing for a point and they were having to deal with relentless pressure. They lacked their usual energy on the counter-attack, a problem that may be related to fatigue, Claudio Ranieri having picked the same starting eleven for a sixth consecutive match. Despite Vardy’s goal from the spot, he looked uncharacteristically tired, particularly in the second half.

Every time a Leicester player cleared the ball, Arsenal would win it back unchallenged. As a result, the Gunners got efforts away what seemed like every minute and created countless chances. This directness in approach is not something we would always associate with Arsene Wenger’s side, who have in the past lacked urgency in their build-up play.

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Danny Welbeck – www.mirror.co.uk

There was no shortage of urgency from the North Londoners this time, but a combination of poor finishing and impressive saves from goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel kept them level. Arsenal showed perseverance however, to win the match in the dying seconds. Mesut Ozil’s free-kick was headed into the bottom left-hand corner by Danny Welbeck to give the Gunners a priceless win.

Arsenal have not been in an April title race since 2004 and therefore, there will always be lingering doubts about whether they can handle the pressure. However, the same questions can be asked of their closest rivals. Leicester have never won a top flight title in their history while Tottenham have not been champions of England since 1961, when Bill Nicholson was their manager. Manchester City, on the other hand, are six points off the pace after back-to-back home defeats against Leicester and Tottenham, with Manuel Pellegrini’s summer departure confirmed. It would be foolish to rule the Citizens out entirely, yet recent evidence suggests their chances are dwindling.

In the last 12 months or so, Arsenal have addressed some of the criticisms once levelled at them. “They don’t win trophies” – they won back-to-back FA Cups. “They can’t defend in big games” – they’ve taken 12 points from their last six games against teams in the top four. “They have no physical presence” – Francis Coquelin has come into the team. “Wenger is tactically too stubborn” – the team showed against Leicester that it can adapt its approach. Even claims that “They can’t attract big name players” have been answered by the signings of Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Petr Cech in the last three summer transfer windows.

Many of the niggling doubts that people – including this blog – have had about Arsenal’s title credentials have been answered. And yet, they have been in similar positions at this stage in previous seasons and thrown it away. Now is the time for Arsenal to stick to their word, to perform for a whole season, to stand up to the mantle of expectation and to deliver.

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Arsene Wenger – www.gettyimages.com