“Playing football is very simple,” Johan Cruyff once mused. “But playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.”
Leicester City’s high-energy, counter-attacking game may be a world away from the Total Football advocated by the former Netherlands international, but the Premier League leaders’ rather straightforward tactics continue to be rewarded.
Last weekend’s 3-1 victory over Manchester City moved Leicester five points clear at the top of the table, with Sunday’s trip to the Emirates Stadium giving Claudio Ranieri’s men the chance to deliver a potentially decisive blow to Arsenal’s title chances.
There is nothing particularly sophisticated about Leicester’s style of play. Ranieri tends to line his side up in a 4-4-2 formation, with an emphasis on sitting deep, forming a compact defensive shape and springing forward with pace on the break.
Jamie Vardy’s speed is essential in providing an outlet for Leicester to get up the pitch quickly, while winger-cum-playmaker Riyad Mahrez provides a dash of inventiveness from the right.
Centre-backs Wes Morgan and Robert Huth have been excellent in recent weeks, moreover, and the likes of goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, Christian Fuchs, Danny Drinkwater, Marc Albrighton and Shinji Okazaki have all also contributed to Leicester’s success.
But the importance of N’Golo Kante to the success cannot be overstated.
The ball-winning midfielder has been a revelation since moving to the King Power Stadium from Caen last summer, with a £5.6 million (Dh29.8m) fee making the 24 year old one of the bargains of the season.
Kante leads the way for interceptions in the Premier League – before this weekend’s matches, he had made 17 more than closest challenger, Aston Villa’s Idrissa Gueye, and no-one has won more tackles than the Frenchman, either.
Kante’s ability to regain possession in the centre of the park has been vital, while his willingness to storm forward with the ball at his feet was in evidence against a lacklustre Manchester City last weekend.
In a recent interview with Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sera, Ranieri praised Kante’s energy, awareness and reading of the game.
“It will not surprise me the day he crosses the ball from the flank and gets into the penalty area to head it,” the Italian said.
“He is someone who knows where the ball will go, knows where the opposition will move, knows everything first.”
Rather unusually for a team fighting for the title, Leicester are not concerned with controlling the ball in midfield.
Only West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland have averaged less possession than the table-toppers, with Arsenal therefore likely to see a lot of the ball in Sunday’s encounter.
What Arsene Wenger and his players must be wary of, though, is Leicester’s quick breaks, with Manchester City guilty of leaving too much space both in the centre and down the flanks.
It is for that reason that the probable return to the starting line-up of Francis Coquelin could not have come at a better time for Arsenal.
The holding midfielder has not begun a Premier League game since the 2-1 loss at West Brom in November, although he did come off the bench in his side’s last two matches against Southampton and Bournemouth.
While Arsenal have recorded three clean sheets in their last four top flight outings, they have generally looked far more pregnable without Coquelin in their line-up.
With Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini paired together in the 24-year-old’s absence, Wenger’s charges have conceded significantly more shots on goal per game.
Leicester frequently bypass the midfield altogether and hit long passes towards Vardy from the back, but Kante’s dynamic runs have been another useful route forward in recent games.
Coquelin, who has the mobility and positional discipline to protect the back four more adequately than either Ramsey or Flamini, will be mindful of that danger.
This is a game which Arsenal cannot really afford to lose, so Wenger will be delighted to have his leading midfield enforcer back and ready for battle.
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