LONDON — Before Arsenal’s 3-1 victory over Leicester at Emirates Stadium on Monday, Unai Emery raised concerns about the Gunners’ constant sluggish opening to games.
“We are starting the matches with maybe less intensity than we want,” he declared. “It’s one thing we need to get better at in the next matches — starting tonight against Leicester.”
Emery’s Arsenal did no such thing. For the seventh league game in a row, Arsenal drew the first half and won the second half, and if anything, this was an even starker contrast than ever: outplayed before half-time by a Leicester side who surprised them tactically, then genuinely sensational from 40 minutes onwards, almost solely courtesy of Mesut Ozil’s best performance under Emery, in his first-ever game as Arsenal’s captain.
But first, Arsenal’s struggles. Leicester boss Claude Puel switched to a three-man defense for the first time this season, with Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho starting up front and drifting into wider positions when Leicester was defending. The game plan was obvious: hit the ball into the channels for the forwards to chase when Arsenal’s full-backs found themselves high up the pitch.
Iheanacho was particularly dangerous, prowling the right-hand channel. After a couple of minutes, he had a shot deflected over, then he forced Bernd Leno into a fine save and then he sent a through-ball just beyond Vardy. Arsenal couldn’t cope, and the swiftness of Leicester’s breaks meant they were forced into fouls. Granit Xhaka was forced to cynically pull back James Maddison and was later booked for a clumsy foul on the same player. Rob Holding pulled back Iheanacho for his yellow and was fortunate not to concede a penalty for a handball.
And then came Leicester’s goal, when Ben Chilwell suddenly burst forward down the left and raced onto Wilfred Ndidi’s through-ball, and his attempted cross deflected off Hector Bellerin and trickled home. It was a fortunate opener, and yet, tellingly, also felt entirely deserved.
As the game approached half-time, this looked like being Emery’s first serious tactical test as Arsenal manager. His side was being completely outplayed by the weaker opposition, using a shape he wouldn’t have anticipated. How would he reshape? Do Arsenal have the capability to revert to the three-man defense they used this time last season under Wenger? Should he start by introducing Aaron Ramsey to burst forward from deep or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as a second striker? Should he keep Ozil, anonymous thus far, as the No? 10?
And then, just as Emery was pondering his options and composing his half-time team talk, Arsenal equalized from their first incisive passing move of the night. Ozil dribbled forward through the center, slipped in the overlapping Bellerin and arrived in the box to provide a typically delicate finish with his left foot, deftly steering the ball in off the far post. Suddenly, it was a different game, a different tactical battle. Suddenly, there was no need to panic. Suddenly, it was The Mesut Ozil Show.
This was, slightly surprisingly, only Ozil’s second start in his favored No. 10 role this season. Ramsey has generally been favored there, with Ozil drifting inside from the right because Emery generally prefers the midfielder at the top of his midfield trio to be a blend of a central midfielder and a No. 10.
Ozil is more of a pure No. 10. But in the second half, he set about proving he can play the role Emery wants, turning matches in Arsenal’s favor with two pieces of magic.
Arsenal’s second goal arrived, like the first, from Ozil combining with Bellerin — whose overlapping runs have been the most consistent tactical feature of the Gunners’ play under Emery. Ozil needs speedy teammates like him to thrive; he needs willing runners to meet his incisive through-balls, and that’s precisely what happened after 63 minutes.
Ozil is generally an assister rather than a pre-assister, providing the final pass rather than the penultimate pass. But here he took up a deeper position in an inside-right position, and a perfect passing lane presented itself. There was the left-sided duo of Chilwell and Maddison, and also the left-center duo of Jonny Evans and Ndidi. Between them was around seven yards of space, and Ozil slipped the ball perfectly through that gap, his left-footedness ensuring the ball curled into the path of the overlapping Bellerin. His task was easy, squaring the ball into the six-yard box for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who converted with practically his first touch.