Leicester vs Arsenal: Four decisions Unai Emery must get right to close gap to Champions League places

Karl Matchett
The Independent

One of the big Premier League clashes this weekend sees Arsenal head to Leicester City as they bid to close the gap to the top four.

Unai Emery has come under increasing scrutiny over the past few weeks, both for the results and performances of his team as well as for the Granit Xhaka fallout.

The Swiss midfielder has been stripped of the captaincy, just over a month after being officially handed the armband, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang installed as his replacement.

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Four draws on the spin have left the Arsenal fans cursing their inability to hold onto a lead, after being in front in each of the fixtures, while they have fallen to fifth place in the top flight after taking only six points from their last 15 available.

It will be anything but easy against the Foxes, though, who are third place and six points ahead of the Gunners, with an unbeaten home league record this season.

Here are four big decisions which Emery needs to get right this season, to avoid further speculation over his future and to push Arsenal closer toward the Champions League spots.

1. Midfield partnership

Guendouzi has been the most impressive of Arsenal’s midfield contingent (AP)
Guendouzi has been the most impressive of Arsenal’s midfield contingent (AP)

Leicester’s three league games since a late defeat at Liverpool have seen them amass 65, 73 and 56 per cent possession. The middle one of those values was skewed somewhat by Southampton’s red card and subsequent collapse, but the point remains: they are good on the ball in midfield, use spaces well and love to dominate play.

To combat that, Emery has to get his midfield selection right, not just to use the ball well themselves but to stop Leicester playing through them.

Arsenal have too often been open, a soft centre which is easy to break through and too reliant on incohesive recovery runs to stop opposition chances.

Emery has trialled a double pivot, a diamond midfield and a flat four in the last four games alone.

He needs a partnership which works together to disrupt the opposition and set a reliable foundation for the talented attackers they possess to thrive from.

If Mesut Ozil is to play, and he seems once more promoted from the second string/Europa League team, there’s even more emphasis on Emery getting his central picks spot-on, otherwise Youri Tielemans and James Maddison could run riot.

2. Xhaka’s reintroduction

Xhaka has been stripped of the captaincy (Visionhaus)
Xhaka has been stripped of the captaincy (Visionhaus)

Speaking of midfield options, there’s the lingering question of when Xhaka himself might be reintegrated into the squad.

Whether or not he leaves in January, there are still 11 games to get through before then and the Gunners aren’t so well-placed that they can simply ignore him for the duration until then.

Given that the major point of contention here was Xhaka’s reaction to Arsenal supporters, it might be wise to bring him back into the fold in an away game first.

The 27-year-old hasn’t featured in the last three matchday squads, while a rotating cast including Joe Willock, Lucas Torreira, Matteo Guendouzi and Dani Ceballos alternate between starters and bench duty. Given the lack of control Arsenal have had across all competitions, even after taking the lead, few can have an iron-clad claim to being a irreplaceable name on the team sheet.

After this game at the King Power Stadium, Arsenal have two matches at home in succession, so if Xhaka is to be reintroduced on the road it was either now or not until December 1 – which would be well over a month after his last outing against Crystal Palace.

Emery has now confirmed that Xhaka won’t feature against Leicester, which means the situation will only continue to fester.

3. Which attacker makes way this time?

Aubameyang celebrates with strike partner Lacazette (AFP via Getty Images)
Aubameyang celebrates with strike partner Lacazette (AFP via Getty Images)

If the midfield has been lacking structure, the attack has suffered as a knock-on effect.

The much-vaunted triumvirate of Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe has been seen together in the starting lineup just once since the North London derby, 13 games and two months ago.

Pepe didn’t make it off the bench against Wolves, with Ozil coming back into the side, while the last away game in the Premier League saw Lacazette left as sub.

All four can’t start in the same set-up, unless one striker is asked to start wide – which, in turn, would lead back to the questions of a lack of midfield tenacity and solidity.

Add in the injured Ceballos, whose form has faded as quickly as it flared in August, and Emery has to strike the balance between options on the bench and impetus on the pitch.

4. First-choice full-backs

Bellerin has yet to play in the Premier League this season (Getty Images)
Bellerin has yet to play in the Premier League this season (Getty Images)

Arsenal have good depth in the full-back areas, though it’s yet to be really proven if they have the required quality.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles and, more recently, Calum Chambers have done a job down the right – but Hector Bellerin isn’t yet back to full fitness, featuring sporadically in the cups so far.

On the opposite flank, Kieran Tierney looks to have made his way into the lineup ahead of Sead Kolasinac, and many Gunners fans expect that Bellerin will do likewise soon on the right.

As he has yet to play in the league this term, it would be a big call for Emery to bring him back in for this game: Leicester’s left wing is incredibly productive, with Ben Chilwell and Harvey Barnes averaging 2.5 chances created per game between them and much of Maddison’s work coming in that channel, too.

Stopping the supply line to the league’s top scorer, Jamie Vardy, is of paramount importance if the Gunners are to take points from this game, and as the central defence seems set with the David Luiz-Sokratis partnership, it’s at right-back where the biggest defensive decision lies.

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