Just when Arsenal’s Premier League title bid appeared to be taking off, the Gunners were brought crashing down to earth with a 2-0 defeat at the hands of an out-of-sorts Chelsea side last weekend – made all the more poignant by Dynamo Zagreb’s shock Champions League win over the Emirates outfit the Wednesday prior.
Of course, back-to-back defeats – even for a club as successful as Arsenal – doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to hit the panic button. But Arsene Wenger will be well aware that the Gunners now face one of the Premiership’s most in-form sides and toughest challenges in Leicester City, who are currently one place and two points better off in the the league table.
They travel to the King Power Stadium on Saturday, with kickoff at 3pm. But for the north Londoners take all three points against the Midlands outfit, there are a number of questions Le Professeur must answer first.
Here’s FIVE of them…
On Saturday, Arsenal will face the biggest attacking threat in the Premier League. No, not £55million Manchester City star Kevin De Bruyne; not even 2015 PFA Player of the Year Eden Hazard; Leicester City’s in-form winger Riyad Mahrez, who cost the Midlands outfit just £400k in January 2014.
Despite the modest price-tag, the Algerian international has outshone all of the Premier League’s flagship talents in the opening fixtures of the 2015/16 campaign, bagging five goals and three assists in just six appearances.
That leaves him joint-first in the division’s scoring charts and joint-second in the set-up charts – as well as top of the dribble rankings with an average of 4.2 per match – rendering the 24 year-old in some way responsible for eight of Leicester City’s 13 league goals this term.
He’s featured on both flanks and through the middle already this season, so it’s not simply a case of an Arsenal full-back ensuring his job is done correctly. Likewise, Mahrez is at his most potent when attacking on the counter – something the Gunners defence has repeatedly struggled to deal with over the last few seasons.
Therefore, do Arsenal need a change of shape for their visit to the King Power Stadium? Perhaps a move towards more industrious personnel? Either way, solving a problem like Riyad Mahrez is no easy task for Arsene Wenger; although rumours linking the Algerian with a January move to the Emirates are certainly a welcome distraction.
Arsenal’s lack of firepower has been well-documented already this season but Wenger is attempting to make the most of a difficult situation by rotating Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott as much as possible, predominantly based on tactical demand.
Essentially, when Wenger wants to stretch the opposition defence, the England roadrunner gets the nod; when he feels the Gunners need power and presence in the final third, the 6 foot 4 Frenchman spearheads the attack instead. A simple enough system, which has resulted in both making three starts and three substitute appearances in the Premier League this term.
So which striker better suits Arsenal’s needs when facing Leicester City? The Foxes’ backline and particularly centre-back duo Robert Huth and Wes Morgan are by no means the fastest, suggesting Walcott could have a field day with his off-the-shoulder, offside-trap-beating sprints.
But the Midlands outfit like to play on the counter-attack, soaking up pressure before hitting on the break, and that might not leave enough room in behind for Walcott to exploit. Bearing that in mind, having the target-man-esque Giroud occupy the centre-halves might prove more efficient in getting the Gunners up the pitch.
Through his pace, tenacity and defensive awareness, Francis Coquelin has emerged as a vital member of Arsenal’s midfield since the turn of 2015, as one of the only genuine ball-winners left in the Emirates squad.
But the Frenchman came off against Chelsea last Saturday with a knee injury and although Wenger has described it as a ‘short-term problem’, he’ll definitely sit out the Capital One Cup clash with Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday, so it’s unclear whether the 24 year-old will be fit again for the weekend.
Likewise, Coquelin’s usual partner in deep midfield, Santi Cazorla, received a double-booking during the Stamford Bridge defeat, so he’s certainly out of contention. Wenger could therefore be left with the task of patching together a whole new engine room before the Leicester City visit.
Admittedly, he doesn’t have an ocean of talent to choose from at the moment with Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky also sidelined for the foreseeable future. Mikel Arteta looked lost and laboured against Dynamo Zagreb last week in his first start of the campaign, whilst Mathieu Flamini is yet to feature in a competitive fixture for the Gunners this term.
That leaves Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who are hardly famed for their defensive protection and certainly in the former’s case, probably needed higher up the pitch.
Resultantly, Wenger could turn to 17 year-old defensive mid Krystian Bielik, who he signed from Legia Warsaw for £2.7million in January. Either way, Wenger has a few tough choices to make.
Of course, what’s stood out most about Leicester City’s impressive start to the season is their series of seemingly miraculous comebacks, claiming points against Bournemouth, Spurs, Aston Villa, Stoke City and West Ham after initially going behind.
Indeed, it seems the Foxes are now the Premier League’s resident comeback kings, repeatedly showing the quality, conviction and never-say-die attitude that inspired their great escape from the relegation zone at the end of last season. So even if Arsenal generate a lead verging upon insurmountable this Saturday, they need to safeguard against yet another late surge from Claudio Ranieri’s boys.
Easier said than done. Obviously, ensuring complacency doesn’t creep in is crucial, which essentially rests on Wenger’s ability to keep the players focused throughout the 90 minutes – making them fully aware of the comeback threat Leicester pose.
But tactically too, reshaping the Gunners throughout the match could prove vital; perhaps swapping a No.10 for a No.6 in the second half, or bringing on Theo Walcott later in the game to give the Leicester backline a different kind of problem to deal with whilst trying to squeeze up the pitch.
Clearly, however, no Premier League manager has come up with a solution yet – so Wenger certainly has his work cut out.
Clearly Alexis Sanchez is still a little off the pace following his Copa America involvement during the summer and subsequent late return to pre-season.
But he’s now six appearances into the 2015/16 Premier League campaign and yet to record either a goal or an assist – some way shy of his Player of the Year-winning form from last term.
Although it’s surely just a matter of time before the Chile international starts scoring again, perhaps Arsenal need to tweak their system slightly to get a little more from him.
40% of Arsenal’s attacking play in the Premier League has gone down the left flank; they could spread their efforts going forward more evenly, hopefully freeing up some extra space for the 26 year-old.
Alternatively, Sanchez has featured exclusively on the left for the Gunners this term, so moving him to the right-hand side, even for just a few games or even 45 minutes, might catalyse him back to the form of old. They say a change is as good as a rest.
Either way, as Arsenal’s most prolific attacking threat, they need to inspire a higher level of output from Sanchez sooner rather than later.