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Arsenal 2-1 Leicester City: Sense and Sensibility

Arsenal beat Leicester because they were sensible.

Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Leicester City's meteoric rise from bottom of the Premier League in February 2015 to top in February 2016 has led almost all to try and make sense of it. Making sense of Leicester's rise, though, is pretty much impossible. By definition, a team with Robert Huth and Wes Morgan at centre back and is starting Marc Albrighton, who couldn't get games for Aston Villa two seasons ago, should not be first. But they are, precisely because they do three things dangerously well: defend in a low block, press in midfield, and counter-attack. They thrive because they don't make sense, and because teams try to make them make sense, and it often doesn't work, as Manchester City found out last weekend.

As Leicester rose to the top in the first half of the season, Arsenal fans (and Arsène Wenger) were quick to point out that the Gunners had been the only team to beat Leicester, winning 5-2 at the King Power stadium. That result, though, was before Leicester tightened up at the back; Arsenal were able to exploit space even after Jamie Vardy had put the Foxes 1-0 up, and there was reasonable concern that Arsenal would fall into the same trap that Manchester City did.

Arsenal, though, were sensible. Even in the opening period of the match, where Arsenal started very quickly, one of the full backs was more reserved. In the first minute, when Arsenal broke, it was Nacho Monreal who flew forward as Alexis drifted inside, with Héctor Bellerín protecting against a fast break.

Furthermore, there were three decisions that were made that were sensible. The first was enforced; Per Mertesacker came into the side as Gabriel injured his hamstring, but it was the right decision anyway. Secondly, Mathieu Flamini was dropped for Francis Coquelin. While the latter still has limitations (and they were seen as Arsenal and Coquelin struggled to play out under Leicester pressure), and he was completely unnecessary after Leicester went down to 10, Coquelin is Not Flamini, so it was a step in the right direction. Finally, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain kept his place in the side, ahead of Joel Campbell. Campbell has not played a minute since the Southampton draw, and the manager has seemingly realised the problem of having both Alexis and Campbell on at the same time, as they do vaguely the same thing, though of course, Alexis does it at a much higher level. By playing Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arsenal had another runner in behind, and he was the most frequent threat in the first half.

There is a positive consequence of playing Oxlade-Chamberlain: by deploying another runner, and giving Alexis instructions to create less and play in the final third more, Aaron Ramsey has taken on a deeper role in the Arsenal midfield. Ramsey did the same last weekend at Bournemouth, and was instrumental in Arsenal's two goals. Here, he was the primary creator in deeper positions, providing the joint-most passes to Özil (with Monreal) and the most to Alexis, while also completing 90% of his 106 passes. In a deeper role, he was able to give Arsenal the midfield control that had been missing in recent weeks, and this was crucial. As Arsenal searched for a goal later on, Ramsey started making late, third man runs, confident in the knowledge that Leicester really did not have a counter-attacking threat.

There was only one real period where Arsenal lost control: right after Danny Simpson received his red card, Arsenal chaotically flew forward, with the mentality best epitomised by Coquelin physically ushering Riyad Mahrez to run off after he was substituted, a ploy that he was somewhat lucky to get away with, given he had been booked. On the hour-mark, Wenger replaced Coquelin with Theo Walcott, and moved Oxlade-Chamberlain to central midfield with Ramsey. Arsenal calmed down, spreading the ball from side to side, controlling the space and the tempo. When facing a deep block, control is especially important; by controlling the tempo and the space, you move defensive players around, the gaps of which can then quickly be exploited. Essentially, not every single pass has to be a forward pass; in fact, it is sometimes better to pass square, and hope to provoke a defensive player to move and create a gap.

This is what happened with Arsenal's equaliser; after a period of possession, Ramsey spread play wide to Bellerín. This forced Christian Fuchs to come out to challenge the right back, leaving Walcott off of the winger Demari Gray. The space where Fuchs would've been was ruthlessly exploited by Walcott's movement and Giroud's knockdown.

The final ten minutes were less about control and sensibility, but by that time, Leicester had lost all manner of shape, and were just defending their penalty box. Arsenal played Özil as a hybrid 6 and 10, and Arsenal attacked down both flanks, with the left flank, with Monreal and Alexis, more rewarding due to their creative qualities. Some impressive ball movement in the final 3 minutes of stoppage time saw Alexis play the ball into a dangerous area, forcing Schemichel to concede the corner; from there, Arsenal won the free kick, where of course, sense lost to the powerful force of the narrative. This is, after all, the Barclays, and one cannot expect anything else but a player returning from 10 months out to score the winner.

Arsenal beat Leicester because they were sensible; for once, a team didn't try to make Leicester see sense, but rather, took Leicester as what they are, a side that capitalizes on arrogance. If Arsenal are to make this victory count, sensibility, from the players and manager, will be what sees them over the line.