Arsenal must respond to Liverpool defeat with a strong performance against Leicester

After a game to forget for the Gunners on the opening day of the new season, they are now tasked with having to pick themselves up and brush off the embarrassment of their humbling at the hands of Liverpool as they travel north to face Premier League champions Leicester City this weekend. There were a number of factors that contributed to the loss on Sunday, and if they’re wanting to enjoy a different outcome for this next game, there’s plenty of lessons that need to be learned – and fast.

It might be a new season for Arsenal, but the same problems remain – most notably with the defence. They have been hit hard with injuries once more, with both Per Mertesacker and Gabriel Paulista ruled out for some time after picking up pre-season knocks, and as such manager Arsene Wenger was forced to play the inexperienced due of Calum Chambers and Rob Holding in the centre of his defence after deciding against rushing into the transfer market to buy a replacement. He decided to stick with players who are used to play at centre-back, even if they are young, over the likes of Mathieu Debuchy and Nacho Monreal, and for the first 45 minutes it looked like they might just cope as they both showed calmness and composure whilst defending and when in possession.

However, a second-half onslaught from the Liverpool attack proved too much for the makeshift Gunners defence to take and both Chambers and Holding were unable to stop the opposition from scoring three quick-fire goals in the second half. It was tough to blame either of them too much for their side’s inability to defend well, with the more experienced full-backs and the midfield doing them no favours as Arsenal crumbled under the pressure. The links to Valencia defender Shkodran Mustafi remain but even if he does eventually join it won’t be in time for the Leicester match, and one of the biggest gripes right now amongst Arsenal fans is why it has taken the management so long to react to the injuries sustained by Mertesacker and Gabriel in pre-season. Laurent Koscielny, who didn’t feature once in pre-season, looks set to be rushed back for the weekend’s game and his presence should hopefully sure up the defence somewhat, although plenty of work needs to be done if a repeat of the Liverpool game is prevented from happening again.

Before the official line-up was announced on Sunday afternoon, I was already beginning to feel excited about seeing what Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could do in the first game of the season after showing some great form in pre-season, so I was surprised and disappointed not to see his name on the bench rather than the starting line-up. Creating chances, scoring goals and showing his skills in pre-season, Oxlade-Chamberlain looked incredibly sharp during the club’s tour of the US and Scandinavia despite an injury causing him to miss the end of last season and England’s Euro 2016 campaign, but Arsene Wenger still decided to opt for Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi on the flanks instead. Both player showed glimpses of quality, with Walcott’s opening goal being laid off to him by Iwobi, but I still feel that Oxlade-Chamberlain would have offered more on the counter-attack had he had the chance to play from the start rather than just coming on in the second half.

So what does his exclusion from the starting line-up tell Oxlade-Chamberlain? In pre-season he looked fit, determined and strong, but the boss still opted for others to start ahead of him. He did manage to prove a point when he did come on, scoring a wonderful solo effort minutes after Liverpool had extended their lead to 4-1, and despite some sloppy touches on the ball he did repeatedly attack the Liverpool defence during his short stint on the field. In my mind, he deserved to start this week and after Iwobi was ruled out for a month through injury this week, he does look set to start this weekend against last season’s champions. His pace, power and skill could be a vital weapon for the Gunners during their clash with Leicester at the King Power Stadium. After already dropping three points this season it’s crucial that the line-up is correct for this match with no passengers being afforded a starting spot, and it will offer Oxlade-Chamberlain a great chance to stake his claim. It’s a big season for the 23-year-old with many fans and pundits alike believing it’s about time he started to live up to his potential, and if he finally is able to do that this campaign, then he could really prove to be a game change for the club this season.

Another surprise at the weekend was that Arsenal’s one and only big money signing this summer, Granit Xhaka, was forced to wait until the second half to make his debut after the manager opted to start Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny in the centre of the Arsenal midfield instead. The pair enjoyed a good relationship in the middle of the park towards the end of last season and their work rate in those positions has not gone unnoticed by the manager, especially in the case of Elneny who seems to cover a huge amount of the pitch when he starts. Questions remain though why Xhaka was not afforded a starting berth in such a big game when you consider the money it cost to bring him to north London. Coquelin and Elneny did pretty well in the first half as the screened in front of the makeshift defence pretty well, but in the second they often found themselves out of position and seemed to play more like box-to-box midfielders as Liverpool frequently found themselves with plenty of space in the middle to attack the defenders. Jurgen Klopp seemed to identify this frailty and his players exploited it ruthlessly.

Arsenal fans have long since admired Francis Coquelin after he finally emerged as the defensive midfielder they had been crying out for for some time, with the desire and passion he always shows on the pitch earning him the adoration of the fans very quickly. However, that alone shouldn’t warrant him a starting sport in this Arsenal team, and whilst he might be the club’s sole out-and-out defensive midfielder, the limitations to his game meant I was surprised he was given the chance to start against Liverpool. In the modern age few teams can afford to field a midfielder who is quite so defensive and so limited in an attacking sense, with new-age defensive midfielders usually being required to contribute far more to possession play and helping to build attacks. If you look at some of the best defensive midfielders in the world, with Sergio Busquets being the prime example, you can see how this has changed in recent years. They can will the ball back and defend well but are highly competent on the ball as well, acting always as a great outlet for their centre-backs – something we sorely lacked last weekend.

More often than not Holding and Chambers found themselves having to rely on Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal in the full-back positions to pass the ball to as Liverpool’s attack pressed continuously, whilst Coquelin’s lack of discipline – he was lucky not to see red after making a number of questionable fouls whilst booked – is an ongoing concern. Moving forward, I feel that Xhaka has to come into the team, with his composure on the ball and intelligence as a player a huge asset in that position. He always makes himself available to receive the ball and he passes the ball brilliantly, with the Swiss international’s hawk-like vision helping to build attacks from deep. He might take some time adapt to the Premier League, but he’ll only be able to do that with some game time, and I believe his first start should come this weekend against Leicester.

As much as Arsenal can focus on their own team to try and improve, they also have to be wary of the threats posed by specific opposition, and against champions Leicester City those threats are plentiful. What worries me most is the attacking due of Ahmed Musa and Jamie Vardy – the man who so nearly became an Arsenal player this summer – with both carrying incredible speed, something that has troubled the Gunners consistently over recent seasons. Even if Koscielny does return to the Arsenal defence this weekend, the attacking duo with both be licking their lips with anticipation at getting at their opponents. Musa managed to tear apart Barcelona with his pace during pre-season and even though it was just a friendly, it is worth paying attention to, and with PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez still at the club, Leicester’s potency on the counter attack will need to be respected. Mahrez’s decision to sign a new contract with the club this week will no doubt buoy the team and its fans for this game.

In order to keep the Leicester attack at bay, Arsenal should employ a deep line to try and minimize the threat posed by the speed of Vardy and Musa, whilst Nacho Monreal will have to step up his display against Liverpool to prevent Mahrez from running riot. He did well in the two games last season to nullify him, however, and I have confidence that he will be able to do so again. Keeping Vardy quiet is another matter though, and I’m sure the England international will be determined to score against the club that tried to sign him this summer to make a point that he made the right decision to turn them down. I hope that Xhaka comes in to partner Coquelin to try and improve our midfield solidity, and whilst we’re desperate to see Mesut Ozil return to the first-team, I’d rather see us not risk him and instead go with Santi Cazorla in the attacking midfielder role. It’s important too that we see the best out of Alexis Sanchez, who scored a hat-trick in this fixture last season, so I would move him to the left wing after he was isolated up top last weekend and play Theo Walcott in the most advanced role.

It’s vital that we keep a cool head and pass the ball around much better than we did against Liverpool, building play from the back as we move the ball with confidence. Leicester’s defence is strong so it will be tough to break them down, but if we hold our own, build our attacks patiently and choose our moments carefully, we can come away with three points. I’m confident we will do that, and I’m predicting a 3-1 win for the away side. Up the Arsenal.

Chris Baker

One Response to “Arsenal must respond to Liverpool defeat with a strong performance against Leicester

  • Martin Wengrow
    3 years ago

    Very impressive . Agree with your team selection. Let’s see what the nis decides !

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