All of television is billing this weekend’s Arsenal-Leicester game as a blood-pounding make-or-break showdown between an intrepid David and a Goliath with an identity crisis. While I’m not understating the importance of the game in any way – a Leicester victory would deliver both mathematical and morale driven blows to Arsenal’s title chances – it realistically seems more like a make-or-make-later weekend for Leicester and a break-or-break-later one for Arsenal. The remaining fixtures, fixture congestion, psychological baggage or lack thereof, and the mushrooming goodwill of the footballing community – all things point towards the possibility of Leicester actually going the distance and depositing a sharp kick to the collective gonads of the cash-laden Premier League.
Leicester’s challenge of proactivity
Such is the free-flowing and confident nature of the Foxes’ gameplay that even a defeat against Arsenal is unlikely to dent the groundswell of momentum they have built up over the season. They will have at least a two point lead at the summit after this weekend, they have only the Premier League to focus on till May while all other challengers grapple with multiple competitions, their excellent squad fitness seems set to continue, and the communal purple patch of Mahrez, Vardy, Kante, Drinkwater, Fuchs, Huth, and Morgan has perfectly coincided with this August-to-May period.
The final three fixtures against Man United, Everton, and Chelsea notwithstanding, all other matches are against eminently navigable opposition on paper, starting with home fixtures against Norwich and West Brom. I actually think these more conventional matches are the only thing remaining that can mess with Leicester’s destiny date.
Ranieri’s men have a very clear blueprint of operation and have executed it to near perfection. They defend deep, thus nullifying Morgan and Huth’s lack of pace and accentuating their strengths in defensive positioning. They hunt for the ball in packs, stemming from the logic that the more people around the ball when the opposition give up possession, the more likely it is to fall to Leicester feet. Once Kante or Drinkwater, their bull terriers in blue, snap the ball up, they focus on quick and vertical passing to move it up the pitch. Vardy, Mahrez, Ulloa, and Okazaki take advantage of an opposition caught off-guard on the transition, striking with rhino force and cobra precision.
While this plan has stood up against sustained scrutiny, it has proved somewhat shaky when the opposition have deferred the ball to Leicester. If teams pack defensive lines and stay disciplined in marking men and space, Leicester have no opposition disturbance or empty space to take advantage of. Draws against Bournemouth and Aston Villa offer partial proof here, as do earlier results such as a 2-2 draw with Stoke and a 3-2 win over Villa where Leicester had to come from behind. With the giddy heights they occupy in the table, teams like Norwich, West Brom, and Newcastle are sure to offer Leicester respect by asking them to attack. It will be interesting to see how the masters of explosive reactivity deal with this challenge of proactivity, to see whether Leicester can succeed through both sudden pounce and measured possession.
Is no experience better than negative experience?
Just as Leicester have all of context smiling down upon them, Arsenal are greeted with a frown and flip-off. Even if they beat Leicester, Arsenal have Man United and Tottenham away within the next few weeks and tough trips to West Ham, Everton, and Man City remaining as well. These fixtures are interspersed with FA Cup matches, and a taxing double-header against Barcelona looms large on the horizon. No player except Cech seems to be in a rich vein of form: Ozissts have dried up, Alexis is looking tentative after the injury, Coquelin is back but not quite back, and Ramsey and Bellerin have been stop-start in recent weeks.
The only factor being touted in Arsenal’s favour is that they have the experience of dealing with title-chasing pressure before whereas Leicester don’t. Conventional wisdom says Leicester will crumble when the enormity of their imminent achievement sinks in, and Arsenal will capitalize on this implosion by riding in on their wizened old horse of been-there-don-that. I actually think Arsenal’s title-chasing experience might well be the biggest factor stacked against them.
To be clear, we are not talking about the archaic experience of the early 2000s, where glorious end-of-season winning runs, Ljungberg scoring gluts, and a marriage of sizzle and steel culminated in open-top bus parades. We’re talking about the more recent experiences within Wenger’s reach, where leg breaks, a dung-heap of draws, chastening defeats against title rivals, and consistent choking on the big stage ensured that seasons ended in skid-marks instead of success.
The optimistic view of things is that Wenger and co., fuelled by two FA Cup triumphs, will learn from all these failed fire-tests and channel their inner strength of character to finally come up trumps in the mental stakes. But the pessimistic – and I think more likely – view is that when Arsenal face crunch situations, the combined psychological baggage of all aforementioned failures crash down on their heads with a deafening thud, a sense of panicked paranoia and desperate déjà vu sets in, and the teams does things that it normally wouldn’t do and shouldn’t do to clutch defeats and draws from the clutches of victory.
Experience can be a valuable teacher, but it can also be an abusive ex that keeps on reminding you of all the mistakes you made and how worse off you are for it. Leicester’s blank slate with respect to not having faced this situation before might well turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
As bleak as this entire article sounds, I am fairly hopeful that Arsenal will win this match. Leicester can still leak goals in spite of their newfound stability at the back, Arsenal are aware of the must-win nature of the game, the crowd will be behind them (after the first five minutes, at least), and karma may decide to even up after the scores of missed chances against Southampton.
Where my confidence wavers is trusting Arsenal to rise up to this must-win routine for the remaining twelve games, while simultaneously juggling FA Cup and Champions League runs. I have enough precedent for this confidence to waver. It’s up to Arsenal to set new precedents.