It was quite the way to get things started. The 2017/18 Premier League season began with a bang, as Arsenal twice came from behind to defeat Leicester City 4-3 in a pulsating encounter at the Emirates Stadium. Having lost on an opening day in 2013, 2015 and 2016, it was vital that the Gunners picked up all three points on matchday one.
Nevertheless, this was not exactly the type of performance to convince neutrals that Arsenal can win the Premier League title this term. There were plenty of promising moments going forward, including some fabulous interplay in the final third and two tremendous headers from Alexandre Lacazette and Olivier Giroud, but the hosts’ positive attacking play was almost undone by some shoddy defending.
A 3-0 loss to Crystal Palace in April persuaded Arsene Wenger to switch to a 3-4-2-1 formation, which the Frenchman stuck with for the remainder of the campaign. Nine victories in their final 10 matches in all competitions suggested that the system had been an unqualified success, yet Arsenal was at times a little fortunate to pick up as many wins as they did in that period. Nevertheless, the new configuration clearly had a positive impact, so it was no surprise to see Wenger stick with it throughout the preseason and in Friday’s curtain-raiser in north London.
The problem against Leicester was the makeup of the three-man backline; with Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi and Per Mertesacker all absent, Wenger was forced to field a rearguard of Rob Holding, Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac – two left-backs and a 21-year-old centre-half. Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki clearly fancied their chances up against such a trio, and the Leicester pair quickly set about making life difficult for their direct opponents.
The visitors’ game plan was clear after just 60 seconds when Okazaki attempted to set Vardy free in behind rather than playing a simpler pass to the England international’s feet. This was the Leicester of old: getting the ball forward quickly and counter-attacking at speed.
Craig Shakespeare’s men pressed high in the opening stages, perhaps because they had gone behind so early to Lacazette’s header. Okazaki and Vardy barely gave Arsenal’s defence a moment’s peace, while Matty James and Wilfred Ndidi were also industrious and aggressive in the centre of the park. The Gunners looked flustered in the face of such pressure, and the back three was frequently disorganised without the ball. Both of these issues were evidenced by Leicester’s second goal: Arsenal lost possession far too easily when Ndidi put the squeeze onto Xhaka before Vardy was afforded ample space in the middle of the box to convert from Marc Albrighton’s cross.
In the end such problems did not affect the result, but Wenger cannot have been pleased with the manner of his team’s defending. The return of Mustafa and, in particular, Koscielny will no doubt aid their efforts, but Arsenal will have to be significantly sturdier at the back if they are to get anywhere near the Premier League title this term.