You’d be hard-pressed to find a purer distillation of why Arsenal beat Leicester City yesterday 2-1, and of why the Gunners were always likely to eventually run down for the league title the greatest story in sports, than that final fateful sequence.
Desperate to hold onto the points they had fought for before going down a man after 54 minutes, the Foxes were mere seconds away from a final whistle that would’ve won them a crucial point and, more importantly, made sure their rivals on the pitch and in the table couldn’t make up significant ground on their league-leading pace. Three-and-a-half minutes into the four minutes of stoppage time and facing yet another onslaught on their goal (what had been an even contest that Leicester actually led for a while, thanks to a Jamie Vardy penalty, had turned lopsided after Danny Simpson was sent off, and Theo Walcott had equalized in the 70th), Leicester substitute defender Marcin Wasilewski charged down a ball that Arsenal full back Nacho Monreal was always going to get to first. Rather than conceding the ball and finding another way to thwart the Gunners’ final attack, Wasilewski clattered straight into Monreal. It was an obvious foul senselessly committed in a dangerous position. In just Wasilewski’s second appearance in the Premier League for Leicester this year, he threatened to throw away everything they’d been working toward.
Not only is it needlessly risky to give an opponent with an assortment of talls and leapers a free kick just a couple cuts of grass high and towards the far edge of the penalty area, but doing so when the man tasked with sending in the ensuing cross is Mesut Özil—the best playmaker in England, who lives to stand over a dead ball, size up the angles and trajectories in his mind’s eye, then arc in a pass that flies by defenders on its path toward the fat part of a teammate’s forehead with the exactitude of a geometer tracing a curve with a compass and ruler—is damn near suicidal.
So of course Özil looped in a ball that bent over the heads of Leicester’s defensive line, dipped right between his onrushing teammates and the goalkeeper, and found the head of the springy, 6-foot-1 Danny Welbeck, who only needed to flip his face from one side to the other to redirect the ball into the far side of the goal. That’s how Arsenal solidified their status as title favorites: by flipping the script on the team that more than any other thrived on baiting opponents into showing their vulnerable spot and striking out at it with lightning speed, and making that team stick out its own neck for the Gunners to stomp on.
That it was Wasilewski, Özil, and Welbeck that made the difference in that decisive passage of play is telling. Wasilewski was only on the pitch because Simpson, himself Leicester’s weakest player in their preferred starting lineup, made two boneheaded decisions and got himself sent off. One of Leicester’s biggest advantages this season has been their ability to focus all their energy on a single competition, free from all obligations to compete in anything other than the league. This allows the Foxes to stay fresh, to stay healthy, to strategize extensively on the strengths and weaknesses of one opponent usually for a week at a time, and to cultivate a deep, team-wide mutual understanding by playing the same players together as often as possible. These factors help a small club with a small group of surprisingly talented players—Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kanté—punch above their weight.
But it also means the team is susceptible to dysfunction when one of those well-drilled cogs goes down and in its place comes an underused, undertalented replacement. Leicester’s worst starter losing his head and getting tossed, leading to a team-wide shakeup—Wasilewski came on for Mahrez, which meant the dogged Shinji Okazaki came off for the promising yet inexperienced Demarai Gray, which meant Vardy alone had to sprint after Arsenal’s deep ball handlers, which meant Leicester could neither gum up Arsenal’s attack nor offer much of a threat on counters of their own—that uniquely hobbled a team like Leicester more than most.
Leicester have a starting eleven cohesive enough, talented enough in the right areas, and trained specifically to maximize their various skill sets so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Take one piece out and substitute it for another, though, and it can all fall apart. Arsenal, on the other hand, have a wide range of battled-tested difference-makers throughout their roster that can step up in place of each other and offer new, often advantageous attributes over the player he’s replacing. The former kind of team even competing with the latter for an entire match, let alone an entire season, takes a nearly impossible confluence of serendipities to prevail. For as close as Leicester kept it yesterday, and as close as they are still keeping it in the league—the Foxes do still sit atop the table—the odds remain against them winning that many coin flips in a row.
For 54 minutes yesterday, and for 25 matches this season, Leicester looked like they actually would go ahead and accomplish the impossible. The cascading effects of one simple act brought it all tumbling down. This isn’t to say Arsenal are certain to go ahead and finish the job in the league the way they did in this weekend’s game, as it’s impossible to crown a strong title favorite among these two teams and Tottenham. But it is to say that if Arsenal do go ahead and Do It, meaning Leicester somehow cough up their remaining lead, it will probably because one team can rely on guys like Özil and Welbeck to win games while the other will have to cross its fingers that guys like Simpson and Wasilewski don’t lose them.
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