Arsenal took full advantage of Danny Simpson’s second half dismissal to overrun Leicester City on the flanks and secure a famous comeback victory.
Leicester’s 5-2 defeat at home to Arsenal in late September prompted manager Claudio Ranieri to drop his aggressive full backs and take a more considered approach that saw his side go unbeaten in the league until Boxing Day. Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs were the replacements for Ritchie De Laet and Jeffrey Schlupp respectively and both have played their part in Leicester’s continued success.
But today, in the return clash of the fixture that spurred their introductions to the team, both men let their team down. The genuine wide threat of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on Arsenal’s right posed a threat that Fuchs was not able to handle in the first half. Oxlade-Chamberlain was the half’s top chance creator with three, not including one of many key interceptions made by Wes Morgan to cut out his 25th minute cross to Olivier Giroud.
Fuchs was clearly rattled, very nearly playing Mesut Ozil onside for a one-on-one during this early spell of home domination. There was a lesson here for Manchester City, whose decision to field David Silva and Fabian Delph on the flanks last week badly hamstrung their chances of playing around Leicester’s narrow defensive unit.
Leicester’s fearsome counter-attack still looked likely to cause the Gunners problems down the other end however, despite the return to the Arsenal side of Francis Coquelin. The defensive midfielder picked up a booking for a tactical foul on a breaking Riyad Mahrez, after the league’s top interceptors did what they do best, hunting in packs to dispossess Mesut Ozil. Jamie Vardy’s 16th minute headed chance also originated from a fast break, after some great sweeper-keeping from Kasper Schmeichel.
Finally, right at the end of the half, Leicester cashed in on one of those breaks, after a typical surge from deep from the indomitable N’Golo Kanté set up Jamie Vardy to win – and score – a penalty kick. Relief for Leicester, who have seen valuable points slip through their grasp courtesy of missing their last two opportunities from twelve yards.
Although they had troubled Fuchs significantly in the first half, Arsenal began the second by foraging mainly down the left through Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean originated the move that led to Mesut Ozil’s blocked 47th effort, before getting his man, Danny Simpson, booked two minutes later. Nacho Monreal, conceder of Vardy’s penalty, also began to pose a big threat on the overlap, teeing up Olivier Giroud for a back post header (at Fuchs’ expense) in the 53th minute. This was a big half for the oft-maligned striker, who won eight more aerial duels than anyone else on the pitch and trailed only Ozil in the chance-creation department.
It was Giroud who tempted Simpson into the silly tug that saw him accrue a second yellow card in five minutes and leave his side in the lurch. Claudio Ranieri did not have the Middlesbrough loanee De Laet to turn to, forcing him instead to call on immobile centre-back Marcin Wasilewski to deputise. Shinji Okazaki, the striker tasked with occupying one of Arsenal’s central midfielders, was forced to move to the right briefly before ultimately being replaced by Demarai Gray.
This absence of a body in the middle of the park greatly reduced Leicester’s ability to slow down – and intercept – Arsenal’s passing from deep. The hosts were now able to move the ball out wide much quicker and with greater regularity, stretching Leicester’s compact defensive unit to its maximum. Arsenal finished the game with a total of 50 attempted crosses, more than double their seasonal average of 21.
Wes Morgan was forced to make two more vital interceptions in short order, after a cross apiece from Arsenal’s overlapping full backs, Monreal and Hector Bellerin. This overwhelming pressure, combined with a positive substitution from Arsene Wenger, resulted in what seemed like an inevitable equaliser; Theo Walcott feeding off Giroud’s knockdown, after another Bellerin cross. In a damning indictment of the home side’s ability to break down Leicester’s resolute backline, this was Arsenal’s first shot on target of the afternoon.
They would go on to inflict five more on their visitors in the last twenty minutes, as the seemingly never ending stream of crosses went on unabated. Wenger, often criticised for not using his bench to its fullest potential, seemed foolish to wait until the 83rd minute to bring on a second striker to avail of these opportunities. When he finally did, in the shape of the long-injured Danny Welbeck, the pressure ratcheted up another couple of notches, with three Monreal crosses in three minutes causing palpitations among the Foxes faithful; another Wes Morgan intervention, combined with a wonderful Schmeichel save and profligate finishing saved their bacon for the time being.
Until Wasilewski stepped up of course, committing one of the most stupid fouls you are likely to see on a football pitch, unnecessarily barrelling into Monreal after half-clearing yet another Arsenal corner. Leicester had looked dodgy defending set-plays all afternoon, with Sanchez, Giroud and Mertesacker all going close for the hosts. Danny Welbeck, in his first Premier League appearance of the season, went one better, getting ahead of the abject Fuchs to complete his side’s first second half comeback victory at the Emirates in five years. Mesut Ozil’s free-kick was perfectly weighted, earning him his 17th assist of a marvellous season.
Leicester were crestfallen, but must point to individuals who weren’t capable of handling the pressure of this Sunday afternoon title decider. Arsenal, on the other hand, demonstrated a mettle that was long suspected to be absent from its playing staff, keeping their nerve to prevail upon the enforced loss of a Leicester body from the midfield fray. It’s anyone’s now.