* Never mind thinly veiled; Arsene Wenger’s message to Calum Chambers was in plain view. Arsenal are still embroiled in crisis in central defence – t’was ever thus – and conceding four goals in an opening-day defeat merely exacerbated the issue. The champions were up next, and changes would have to be made. Laurent Koscielny was deemed match fit a full six weeks after his last competitive appearance, and so one of the inexperienced central-defensive pairing would have to make way. Chambers, not, as everyone expected, Rob Holding, was the sacrificial lamb.
It is not the final nail in the coffin of Chambers’ Arsenal career, but it is a damning indictment of a player who was once regarded as on the same level as John Stones. On the same day the £47.5million 22-year-old enjoyed a man-of-the-match performance for Manchester City, his former contemporary was benched in favour of a £2m signing.
Some questioned the decision to drop him, but it was a justifiable call. Holding was the superior member of the pair last Sunday despite playing for a relegated Championship club last season. That Chambers has already slipped behind him in the pecking order is remarkable.
But what now? Wenger has a habit of keeping players in his squad who are simply not good enough, and one fears that Chambers will be no exception. Yet the 21-year-old has started just 12 Premier League games since November 2014, and his development has suffered as a result. Be it on loan or permanently, Arsenal’s fourth-most expensive player ever needs a fresh start.
* As for the man who replaced Chambers, Koscielny was bloody brilliant. Arsenal were painfully uncertain in defence against Liverpool, but with their experienced head restored to the starting line-up, they were a completely different side. He thwarted Vardy, Mahrez and the rest at every opportunity.
Most impressive was the effect he had on Holding. As aforementioned, the 21-year-old had as promising a game as a 4-3 defeat on your debut can be last weekend, but here he was noticeably more comfortable. He made eight clearances, and Koscielny was second with six. It is undeniably not a long-term solution, but Holding has already emerged as a more than capable back-up.
Koscielny’s performance does beg the question as to whether he could have been brought back sooner. He, Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud, Arsenal’s three players with the most minutes at Euro 2016, only returned to training ten days ago. However, the club have more than adept replacements for the latter two; for Koscielny, the Liverpool game proved beyond doubt that his back-ups were not of the requisite quality to play in his absence. Could Wenger not have requested he returned a couple of days sooner?
* Schmeichel; Simpson, Morgan, Huth, Fuchs; Mahrez, Kante, Drinkwater, Albrighton; Okazaki, Vardy.
It did not take a rocket scientist or a football analyst to notice the pattern in the majority of Leicester’s starting XIs last season. Claudio Ranieri had shed his ‘Tinkerman’ skin, making minimal changes to his core squad. Ten players made more than 30 Premier League starts, and an 11th, Okazaki, made over 30 appearances. Only 19 players started at least one league game, and only 23 made at least one appearance.
Just two games into this season, and already 15 different players have started. Seventeen have played at least one game. With the added need to balance the squad for four competitions, Ranieri must completely change his approach. It will have delighted the Italian that the four players reinstated to his starting line-up – Huth, Mendy, Albrighton and Okazaki – were among his better players.
* Much of the pre-match build-up surrounded an Arsenal side at war with themselves, but their opponents were hardly settled themselves. The defending Premier League champions had never previously lost in their opening fixture of the subsequent season, but then Leicester have displayed scant disregard for records and tradition.
Against Hull, Ranieri’s side were worryingly subdued. They rarely threatened the Championship play-off winners, who comfortably held off limp attack after limp attack. Jamie Vardy was poor, Riyad Mahrez was distant, and Danny Drinkwater was missing his central-midfield partner. It was supposed to be the grand celebration, but Hull strolled in and crashed the party. Their victory came as a surprise, but the standard of Leicester’s display was the bigger shock.
Within seconds of the kick-off on Saturday, all was forgotten. Gone was the passive, muted, dispirited performance, and in its place was the Leicester the football world fell in love with. A long ball was punted forward for Vardy to chase, Arsenal’s defensive uncertainty set in, and a corner was won through the striker’s persistence. Same old Leicester.
* N’Golo Kante was highlighted as the player Leicester missed most against Hull on the opening weekend, and while the midfielder’s exit for Chelsea clearly had an affect, there was another key absentee from the title-winning side.
It is no coincidence that Wes Morgan had looked a shadow of his former self over the past two games. You could count the amount of aerial duels the EnglandJamaica international lost on one hand last season, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a collective effort from Hull reminded us of his Championship roots.
Against Arsenal, Morgan was imperious once more. The difference? The return of the suspended Robert Huth, who set the tone with a number of crunching challenges, each met with a delighted ‘HUTH’ from the home crowd. The German instigated Leicester’s remarkable quest for survival in his first half-season, and was a vital component of the title-winning side the next. His return is a massive boost.
* After a quick start, the clash between last season’s champions and runners-up somewhat lost its spark. With neither side wishing to concede a crucial chance, both concentrated more on not making a mistake, as opposed to finding a way through a stoic defence.
Late in the first half, the game burst into life. Mahrez slipped in Vardy with a delightful through ball, only for Petr Cech to thwart the England international. In came Drinkwater, and he fell under the combined challenge of Cech and Koscielny. The King Power Stadium erupted, simply waiting for Mark Clattenburg to purse his lips and point to the spot.
The call never came, and Arsenal launched a counter-attack. Leicester were apoplectic. But, after numerous replays from a number of different angles, all in slow motion, doubt remained. Had Koscielny made requisite contact? Did he win the ball? Had Drinkwater even been touched? Clattenburg could not be certain, and so a penalty could not be awarded.
* There was doubt over the first contentious penalty call, and the officials took the correct course of action. But the second could not have been any clearer. Ahmed Musa, a recent substitution for Marc Albrighton, raced into the penalty area in the 87th minute before falling under the challenge of Hector Bellerin. Leicester’s record signing was in front of the Spaniard, and was preparing to cross. Clattenburg was in the perfect position, but inexplicably failed to award a penalty. He surely did not believe Bellerin had touched the ball, so did he feel Musa dived? If so, a booking was in order. For once, it would have been helpful to see Clattenburg’s thoughts at that very moment.
* Zero tackles. One clearance. Three interceptions. Leicester have grown accustomed to more impressive statistics from a diminutive French midfielder in recent times, but then Nampalys Mendy is no N’Golo Kante. The £13m arrival from Nice was hailed as the Chelsea-bound title-winner’s replacement, but that was a simple misunderstanding of Mendy’s role.
Against Arsenal, the 24-year-old provided a glimpse into his style before an unfortunate injury in the second half. He completed all 13 of his passes, beginning attacks from deep with technical proficiency. He shielded the back four – he was the only outfield Leicester player aside from the defence whose average position was in their half – but in a different manner to Kante. The departed Frenchman was tenacious, energetic and more of a box-to-box player; his compatriot is a controlled, measured and almost placid breed. This is no like-for-like replacement, but it makes for fascinating viewing. Hopefully his injury is not serious, as this was a good insight into what could be a promising future.
* Earlier in the day, the age-old question of referee consistency was brought to the fore. Mike Dean’s awarding of a penalty to Manchester City for holding in the box was met with derision in the day’s early kick-off, but a similar decision in favour of Stoke later in the game offered hope. Decisions are far easier to accept if the proper rules are applied to both sides.
Early in the second half at the King Power Stadium, and Clattenburg did his colleagues no favours. As Riyad Mahrez approached the Arsenal area, he evaded Francis Coquelin with an excellent step-over. The Arsenal midfielder tripped the Algerian around 20 yards from goal, and a free-kick was awarded. In any ordinary situation this was a clear yellow-card offence. The fact that Coquelin had already been booked should have had no impact on the decision. The Frenchman should have been sent off.
* It was not Luis Suarez. Hell, it was barely Mario Suarez. Alexis Sanchez cannot control what his manager says, but it surely does not help.
“He has similar qualities,” said Wenger before the game, comparing Sanchez to both Suarez and Sergio Aguero. “And he has a good timing to run behind the defenders.” If so, he did not display such characteristics on Saturday. For the second week running Sanchez looked out of sorts and out of place as Arsenal’s central striker.
Sanchez may be a similar player to both Suarez and Aguero – he has a similar stature, is just as explosive and talented as his fellow South Americans, and is just as big a nuisance for defenders – but sometimes experiments simply do not work, even if you follow the instructions to a tee. The Chilean is simply not disciplined enough to play the role. He drifts wide far too often, and is too inclined to be involved in possession. It is where he thrives, after all.
Arsenal need a target man, but Alexis is more spear shaft than spearhead. The return of Giroud will hopefully herald the end of this latest test.
* Sanchez was perhaps not helped by a lack of assistance from his teammates. The three behind him – Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – have scored or assisted just 170 goals in 463 Premier League games combined. You can hardly blame the gun for not firing bullets if you keep the safety on.
It was the performance of Cazorla which will rankle most with Arsenal fans. The Spaniard was deployed in a more advanced role, but one he played in his formative years in Spain. But where the 31-year-old is able to dictate the play from deep, he is no longer capable of changing games playing just behind the striker. Six Arsenal players had more touches, five made more passes, and he did not create a single chance. Ozil’s return will relieve him from his No. 10 duties, and he will surely take a place alongside Granit Xhaka in central midfield.
* Or will he? Many questioned the decision to start Coquelin ahead of Mohamed Elneny but, save for the fact he really should have been sent off, the Frenchman was as solid as can be expected. He made six tackles and four interceptions, the most of any Arsenal player.
Xhaka was trusted as his partner, and while the Swiss international has a reputation for being slightly hot-headed, he was reserved, calm and controlled. He made the most passes of any player (73), as well as the most into the opposition half (52). He also gained possession nine times. Wenger must now decide whether his £30m signing is able to fulfil the role of midfield destroyer with an eye for a pass, or whether a tackler must be used alongside him. What is clear is that the 23-year-old should be the bonafide starter among a pool of talent including Cazorla, Coquelin, Elneny and, when he returns, Aaron Ramsey. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find a place for Jack Wilshere.
* Of course, two strikers struggled at the King Power, not just Sanchez. No player encapsulated the glory of Leicester’s rise last season quite like Jamie Vardy, but similarly, no player typifies the uncertainty of what comes after.
Against Hull, the England international was abysmal. He had two shots, but failed to get either on target. He had 20 touches. He made ten passes. Against Arsenal he at least had more purpose, but once more failed to test Petr Cech with either of his two shots, and he struggled to impact the game otherwise. Musa was fast, direct and an imminent cause for concern from the moment he was introduced as a second-half substitute. Ranieri will hope it has reminded Vardy of what he did so well last season.
* Arsenal fans would have feared the inevitable. After their overtures were rejected by both Vardy and Mahrez this summer, the script was already written. Leicester’s invaluable duo would show the Gunners what they had missed out on.
But while Holding was busy silencing Vardy, Riyad Mahrez was finding life difficult up against Nacho Monreal. The Algerian had Leicester’s only shot on target, while he completed the second-most passes of any home player (41), but he was once more nullified.
“We are now in the Champions League and we need something more to play against the big teams,” Ranieri said earlier this week. “Now he knows very well what I want and my expectations are higher. Not only for Riyad but for all my players.” The manager hastened to point out that this was a message to his squad, but it was a nod to Mahrez more than anyone. More is expected of the winger this season, and on current evidence he is struggling to rekindle his form. With Eden Hazard only just recovering from his slumber, let us hope that the Player of the Year curse has not struck once more.
* More on Musa now, who did impress after replacing Marc Albrighton on 86 minutes. Despite being handed scant opportunity to affect the scoreline, the forward came just as close as anyone else. He forced the aforementioned penalty situation, but also had a glorious chance in the closing stages. Mahrez escaped down the right and forced an excellent save from Cech, but the ball fell to Musa. The Nigerian was faced with a split-second dilemma: Hit the ball on the turn, or risk taking a touch before shooting. He chose a third option which no-one had considered: Aimlessly chip the ball back into the six-yard box. It was a strange piece of decision-making from a £16m striker.
Still, Ranieri will surely consider introducing the 23-year-old earlier in future games, if not starting him. He is the perfect third wheel to the Mahrez and Vardy double act, with incisive pace and a usually unerringly direct approach. It is easy to see why Leicester signed him; he fits right in.
* Never mind 5,000-1; the odds on these two sides finishing as winners and runners-up in this Premier League season again is nigh-on unthinkable. Although we are only two games in, neither look capable of producing a sustained title challenge.
This was a necessary result for Arsenal, but it does not make it a good one. Every time Wenger plugs one of the obvious gaps in his squad, the water starts bursting out of another. On Saturday, Holding and Koscielny plugged the hole in defence which threatened to submerge the squad against Liverpool, but that exposed a strikeforce who flourished last Sunday.
For Leicester, it will be intriguing to see how Ranieri copes with the upcoming season. The Italian continues to insist that survival is his aim, but objectives at the King Power have naturally been upgraded. Against Hull they floundered, but this was more akin to their former selves. One point from two games is hardly a cause for celebration, of course.
But the fact for both sides is that their rivals for the title are already five points clear. Antonio Conte has already brought that champion’s right of winning ugly to Chelsea, while both Manchester clubs look a number of levels above both Leicester and Arsenal. With a week of the transfer window remaining, it could shape their respective seasons.