Manager Brendan Rodgers reshuffled the deck, changing both the personnel and formation deployed in Thursday’s Europa League defeat against Slavia Praha. Kasper Schmeichel captained the side from between the sticks behind a back four of Timothy Castagne, Jonny Evans, Çağlar Söyüncü, and Luke Thomas. The midfield four consisted of Ricardo Pereira, Youri Tielemans, Wilfred Ndidi, and Harvey Barnes. Kelechi Iheanacho and Jamie Vardy partnered in attack at the sharp end of a traditional 4-4-2.
Both sides employed a high press from the opening whistle, making for a lively start to the match. The Foxes looked slightly less comfortable on the ball than the Gunners, but it was the work of Iheanacho and Tielemans on the wing that gave the hosts the early lead. The Belgian intercepted a ball intended for Willian took the ball half the length of the pitch before unleashing a low drive from a tight angle that beat Bernd Leno at the far post.
The Gunners sought to hit back almost immediately and thought they’d won a penalty when Ndidi turned the ball over and Tielemans was adjudged to have tripped Nicolas Pepe in the box. VAR overruled the decision as Youri hadn’t actually made any contact, but Pepe was spared the yellow for the dive as a kick was given for an earlier foul by Ndidi. The defense held firm, and the chance went without Schmeichel having to get involved.
At the other end, the visitor's’ defense backed off of Barnes and allowed him an acre of space approximately an acre from goal (yes, I know an acre is a unit of square measure but “208.71 feet from goal” doesn’t have the same ring to it). Harvey being Harvey, he squared to shoot and struck it sweetly, forcing Leno to parry and narrowly evading the onrushing Ricardo.
For Arsenal’s part, their game plan appeared to be “let Pepe fall down on the right wing and try to make something out of the free kick.” Luke Thomas was struggling and finally saw yellow after surrendering the third foul against the Gunners’ winger. This one was costly as Willian delivered a low ball just behind the wall of defenders and David Luiz was able to stoop and guide it into the net. It was Arsenal’s first shot on target from their eighth set piece. We can’t even blame the ref for this one as it appeared to be the first legitimate foul on Pepe of the match.
Jamie Vardy versus David Luiz. Should be worth watching. #LEIARS— Henry Winter (@henrywinter) February 28, 2021
Final score in this matchup: Vardy 0 - 1 Luiz.
It got worse for City in injury time as a Pepe cross was blocked by Ndidi. He raised his leg above his head in an attempt to intercept the ball, but instead hit it with his elbow. Referee Paul Tierney missed it, but VAR didn’t and the penalty was correctly awarded. Alexandre Lacazette took it and took it well, giving the Gunners the lead at the end of a half where they’d trailed almost the entire time.
After seeing his side only have one-third of the possession in the first half, it would be interesting to see what Rodgers changed to start the second period. His first move was to withdraw Thomas and bring on Marc Albrighton and put Ricardo on the left to deal with Pepe. Would this be the move that would restore parity?
No, it would not. This lineup would last exactly two minutes into the half, as Barnes pulled up with an apparent hamstring injury and had to be stretchered off the pitch. Cengiz Ünder came on and took Albrighton’s spot on the right, with the former Villa man switching to the left in place of Barnes. For those of you keeping score at home, that meant that our starting and replacement right wingers were now our left back and left wing.
The visitors doubled their advantage just moments later in farcical fashion. Evans was robbed of the ball deep in the Arsenal half. The ball fell to Pepe, who carried it to the edge of the area. A low ball to Willian on the left caught Schmeichel in no-man's-land, allowing the former Chelsea man to square back to Pepe for a tap-in.
Something momentous happened on 67’, at least “momentous” in the context of this match. After having allowed Pablo to knock over Vardy and giving Arsenal a goal kick after Mohamed Elneny put it behind for a corner, referee Paul Tierney blew his whistle for a foul by Lacazette against Cags. It was the first foul awarded against Arsenal the entire match.
After that one little oddity, we were back to our regularly scheduled program, which meant that there was yet another Leicester injury. Rodgers made his final substitution, sending Daniel Amartey on for the Evans.
In spite of the increasingly...improvisational...nature of the City lineup, they were nearly handed a lifeline just after the change. Albrighton cut in from the right and curled a beauty towards goal, only to see it strike the back of Vardy and deflect harmlessly over the bar.
We got a beautiful little snow globe microcosm of the entire match on 80’. Ricardo drove down the left flank and then centered the ball, but no Leicester player went for it and it rolled past four blue shirts before finding Pepe in the City half. He took the ball into the area and decided to take on Amartey when he could have simply tapped it to Martin Ødegaard, alone in front of the goal and screaming for the ball.
Or maybe this 90th minute moment is more to your liking: Ünder and Kieran Tierney were chasing a ball over the top towards the Roma winger. Tierney headed it behind as he went shoulder to shoulder with the Leicester man. He then went down as if shot and clutched his completely-untouched face for three minutes, pretending to have been struck. It worked, too, as the official gave the foul.
It was that kind of day. It seems only fitting that the Foxes would win a corner in the sixth minute of injury time. Albrighton pinged in a beauty and it fell to Iheanacho, unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box. He went for power instead of essentially anything else and blazed yards over from close range.
That was awful. Arsenal were poor, but we were nowhere near as good as “poor” today. The constant diving from the Gunners was embarrassing, especially as they didn’t need it to win. Or, maybe they did: The final foul tally was 15 against Leicester, 3 against Arsenal and that in no way accurately reflects the way in which the match was played.
The bigger concern, of course, is the potential loss of both Barnes and Evans. We won’t know how long either will be out, but for a team already struggling with an absurd number of injuries, any time missed by either will be difficult to cope with.
Not angry... just feel sad and flat. Injury situation is unreal. The schedule has been relentless of late and it's taken its toll in such a manner.— Jason Bourne (@JasonBourne1986) February 28, 2021
The defeat leaves us on 49 points from 26 matches as we remain 3rd on the table. Next up is a Wednesday trip to Turf Moor to take on Burnely, then it’s off to the south coast to face Brighton and Hove Albion next Saturday.