THE Premier League returns this weekend with Arsenal and Leicester kicking off the 2017/18 season on Friday night.
Both sides endured disappointing campaigns last term, with Arsenal finishing outside the top four for the first time under Arsene Wenger and Leicester following up their miraculous 2015/16 title win by flirting with relegation, before eventually finishing 12th.
With Wenger having committed his immediate future to the club by signing a two-year deal and Craig Shakespeare in permanent charge of the Foxes after a caretaker stint at the helm, both bosses will be aiming for a positive start to the new season as they look to push their respective sides up the table.
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Our friends at Football Whispers have identified the key areas in which Friday’s encounter at the Emirates could be won and lost.
Key battle: Central midfield pairings
Despite the fact that they will likely line up in vastly different formations – Arsenal have favoured 3-4-3 of late while Leicester are accustomed to 4-4-2 – there will be an interesting match-up in the middle of the park, with both sides fielding combative central midfield pairings.
With Aaron Ramsey an injury doubt, Wenger could stick with the duo of Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny, both of whom performed well in the Community Shield victory over Chelsea last weekend, out-working and out-playing the Blues’ N’Golo Kante and Cesc Fabregas.
Leicester’s central partnership will consist of Wilfred Ndidi and, providing he recovers from a thigh strain in time to play, Chelsea transfer target Danny Drinkwater.
Whichever side can wrestle control of midfield will be in good standing to come away with three points.
Potential match-winners: Lacazette, Vardy & Iheanacho
Although Manchester City transfer target Alexis Sanchez will miss the game through injury, Arsenal will not lack for pace and dynamism thanks to their club-record £46million purchase, Alexandre Lacazette.
The 26-year-old Frenchman is fast, moves intelligently and is a deadly finisher in one-on-one situations. If serviced properly by the Gunners’ creative players, he poses a major threat to any side in the Premier League.
Leicester’s backline, when on form, are a well-drilled, physically dominant collective. But they lack pace and athleticism, something that Lacazette could take advantage of.
Without star defender Laurent Koscielny, who will miss the game through suspension, the Arsenal back three will not be at full strength, missing their chief organiser and centre-back most comfortable in possession.
With Jamie Vardy leading the line for Leicester, the Englishman’s undying work ethic and pace in the channels will be a constant nuisance for the North Londoners, while Kelechi Iheanacho, a £25million signing from Manchester City, has the instinctive movement and finishing ability to take advantage of any openings brought about by his strike partner’s work.
One of the driving factors behind Arsenal’s Community Shield success last weekend was their ability to keep the Premier League champions pegged back, limiting the effectiveness of wing-backs Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso by keeping them on the back foot.
The Gunners did this through effective creation and exploitation of overloads in wide areas, pushing wing-backs Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Hector Bellerin high to combine with Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck in the inside-forward positions.
Like Chelsea, Leicester are dangerous down the flanks. Arsenal’s ability to take the initiative in these areas will mitigate against the Foxes offensive threat.
In much the same way that they became Premier League champions two seasons ago, Leicester’s best path to success is to absorb pressure and counter quickly and accurately, catching Arsenal off guard and out of shape.
With Arsenal likely to commit numbers into the high, wide zones, the space in behind Wenger’s wing-backs could be an avenue to opportunities for the away side.
Whichever combination of Demarai Gray, Riyad Mahrez and Marc Albrighton starts out wide for Shakespeare’s men, the Foxes have bags of pace and accurate distribution.
How the teams are likely to be set up
Arsenal were without Sanchez and Mesut Ozil for the Community Shield but, while the Chilean has been ruled out through injury, Wenger confirmed after the game at Wembley that the German playmaker is in contention to play against Leicester.
New signing Vicente Iborra will have to wait a little longer to make his Leicester debut thanks to groin strain, while Shakespeare will have to judge whether Mahrez is in the right frame of mind to start amid speculation over his future.
Key stats heading into the game
Arsenal and Leicester have faced off 137 times in all competitions, with the Gunners winning 64 times, Leicester coming out on top 29 times and 44 draws.
The last meeting between the two clubs was on April 26 last season, with Arsenal winning 1-0 at the Emirates thanks to an 86th minute Robert Huth own goal.
In 22 Premier League meetings between the Gunners and the Foxes, the North London side have won 14, drawn seven and lost only one, scoring a total of 49 goals and conceding 18.
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