12th February 2016: Wenger on Leciester

Happy Friday folks. Arsene Wenger held his pre-Leicester press conference this morning and aside from reiterating the latest injury news he gave to the official site yesterday, the boss insisted Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash against the Foxes is one Arsenal are very much looking forward to.

Arsene also spoke about the importance of building momentum following last weekend’s win at Bournemouth, the significance of this fixture in terms of the title race, and the inevitable anxiety that accompanies being league leaders. Here’s what he said:

What is important is to find the momentum back and that means that you win a few games. After, let’s not count too much on the weakness of Leicester because they have not shown too many. We want to find a consistency in our results until the end of the season, because we have big game after big game now. What I believe is that you do not have to be a super mathematician to analyse that it is a very important game, maybe not a decisive one for the Premier League but it is not far away from that. The pressure is on us as well, of course. I don’t deny that but I take that in a very positive way and as an opportunity to show how strong we are. I think the biggest pressure in our job is to play games without pressure. This is the kind of game we want – the kind of game we relish. When you play at Arsenal Football Club, that’s what you want. [Leicester] are still in a position where they think they have nothing to lose. But once you are top of the league, you can also think about losing what you have. That is where the nerves come in a little bit. I do not know how they will respond to that.

The boss went on to lavish priase on Claudio Ranieri’s side, pointing out that even the most sceptical of football followers are now convinced of Leicester’s title credentials and also discussed the first meeting between the two sides this season, our 5-2 win at their place back at the end of September. He said:

It is very romantic and I understand the whole country [being behind them]. That is human. I think as well that [the story] is good for football, and it goes against the usual practice in our game, which is spend and buy big stars. It is important to know that with quality work, quality scouting and quality management you can have great results. Leicester today are in a strong position and they have certainly silenced all the doubters since the start of the season because at Christmas people were saying they would not be there and now we are at Easter and they are still there. In the last week they showed they have solid potential to win the league, with two positive results against Liverpool and Manchester City away. Everybody now thinks they are on the same level as everybody else to win it and they have a mathematical advantage of five points. They are certainly more convinced of their quality now,” he said. “When we played them last, they were top of the table so that has not changed but their belief has been strengthened. The first game we played against them at Leicester was a very open game and it is true that their strength is to be very quick in transition from defence to offence. But we have to nullify their pace and attacking potential – we want to dominate the game, have the ball and be dangerous.

Although we’ll typically look to take the initiative in terms of possession as Arsene suggests above, it’s also pretty obvious that Leicester won’t mind us having most of the ball one iota. In fact they’d prefer it.

Their game-plan this season, on a very basic level, revolves around containing and then countering using the pace, poise and pizzazz of players like Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. So it was interesting that Arsene hinted he’ll continue with the pacier Gabriel at the back alongside Laurent Koscielny, when discussing why Per Mertesacker didn’t start our last game:

It’s difficult for me to go into any individual assessment. I think he has played many games. Sometimes I use a different formula. Per Mertesacker is a great leader, a very respected one in our dressing room, but I have three entire backs and I adapt a little bit to their level of form, to the number of games they’ve played and to the opponents we play against. What are their strengths and where can they hurt us?

Given Arsene’s meritocratic selection policy which is heavily weighted in his players’ last performance, I’d say it’s very likely we’ll see just one change from the Bournemouth game and that will be Francis Coquelin returning in place of Mathieu Flamini to partner Aaron Ramsey in the middle of the park.

Some may expect Joel Campbell to regain his place on the right at the expense of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but after scoring a sumptuous goal last week and producing arguably his best performance of the season, my money’s on the Ox retaining his starting spot.

Back with a preview tomorrow.

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