Brendan Rodgers summoned his inner Harry Redknapp. “We are down to the bare bones,” he said and, compared to a manager more associated with that phrase, it felt a statement of fact rather than an excuse or a reason for recruiting more players. Leicester had ended defeat to Arsenal with Ricardo Pereira acting as their third-choice left-back, minus two of the three outstanding centre-backs and shorn of their second- and third-highest scorers.
As Rodgers knows better than most, seasons can turn on one game. Seven years after Steven Gerrard slipped, Harvey Barnes stretched. He requires surgery on his knee and is out for a minimum of six weeks. “Unfortunately, it is a bad one for him and huge blow for us,” said Rodgers. His winger is literally down to the bare bone. “A bit of the bone in his knee has come off so it needs to be repaired.”
Barnes had been the antidote to Leicester’s other injuries. He had alleviated their historic reliance on Jamie Vardy, scoring seven goals since Christmas to the veteran’s one. He was a reason why Gareth Southgate’s destination of choice of late has often appeared to be Leicester games.
Now he is out, at a point when James Maddison, albeit with a hip problem that appears less serious, is already sidelined and when Jonny Evans was the latest addition to an injury list that already included James Justin, Wesley Fofana and Dennis Praet. Rodgers’ adaptability, his players’ versatility and Leicester’s can-do mentality have camouflaged the extent of their injuries so far this season. The defence has consisted of the last men standing at times but the defensive record was impressive, even if the way Arsenal cut through them scarcely reflected well.
Rodgers finds himself in a familiar position, albeit with a twist. Barnes was a reason Leicester boasted more strength in depth than last season, but injuries have dented that. This year, like last, they procured 49 points from the first 25 games; the task is to prevent a second relapse into the Europa League. The personnel may involve the stand-ins. “We will find a way,” said Rodgers and he could be forgiven for a vagueness about precisely what that way entailed.
It may be an exaggeration to say Leicester’s conquerors offer inspiration; they cannot afford the same calibre of deputy. Perhaps, over the season, Leicester have offered an indictment of Arsenal but Mikel Arteta had more scope to rest and rotate and his irrepressible second-string forward line consisted of Alexandre Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe and Willian: two club-record signings and one of the best-paid players in Arsenal’s history. Leicester have felt the role models for Arsenal of late; as the Gunners’ finances are crunched, Pepe is destined to remain their costliest buy for quite some time, while few Willian-type acquisitions will be sanctioned.
If Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka have served as the Emirates Stadium anti-Willians, Barnes has been a Leicester version, a player who has progressed as rapidly as the Brazilian has regressed. So perhaps this was a throwback or simply an illustration that Arsenal’s expensive understudies possess quality. Lacazette and Pepe had been unfortunate to lose their places anyway, the Frenchman as a result of Arteta switching Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to the striking role, the Ivorian after scoring in two of his three previous starts on the road.
Willian was the anomaly, the man who appeared the new Mesut Ozil, but only because his salary rendered him a drain on the wage bill. He felt like Arteta’s pet project when picked ahead of the more deserving. His two-assist bow against Fulham in September seemed one of the most deceptive debuts in Arsenal history. Thereafter, it looked as though six years of stalwart service to Chelsea had drained him of energy as he chugged around ineffectually, devoid of zip and zest, a failure as a false nine, the most imperfect of No. 10s, not his old self on the wings.
Then came a restorative four days. “He changed the game against Benfica,” said Arteta. Willian built on it with two assists against Leicester. “He was really good again,” added his manager. It may be too late: the top four are out of Arsenal’s reach. A place in the top four felt Leicester’s for the taking, even after Pepe tormented the teenage left-back Luke Thomas. And then Barnes was stretchered off and their future became more uncertain.