Arsenal and Leicester square off in the biggest match of the English Premier League season

This Sunday may be the biggest day of the English Premier League season. The four top sides in the table — Arsenal, Leicester City, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur — will square off in two matches that will determine the shape of the title race. If Leicester pulls off another big victory while Spurs and City draw, that would put the Foxes an incredible seven points clear. But if Arsenal and Spurs both win, Leicester’s lead would be only 53 points to 51 for both North London sides. While it is not impossible to lose a 7-point lead, nor would a 2-point lead be indefensible, the gap in the likelihood of Leicester winning the title would be massive.

I have projected the title race based on the nine possible combined outcomes of these two matches. The effects are wide-ranging.

The most important match here appears to be Arsenal-Leicester, as either side become likely title favorites with a win. Arsenal, with the league’s best expected goals difference, projects strongly enough to be solidly favored to make up the two-point gap over Leicester City. Spurs and Manchester City will be rooting for a draw in the early match.

Both matches offer not only big stakes but also fascinating tactical battles. In the early match at the Emirates, Arsenal will be attempting to slow down the direct counterattacking runs of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy that utterly wrecked City’s defense last weekend. It is no secret how Leicester attacks. Of the top five clubs the Foxes are a massive outlier tactically. The following chart counts the number of passes or runs into the central area of the final third, compared to the number of those which took place as part of a counterattack. Most top clubs use counterattacking as one method of reaching the central area of the final third, but Leicester depend on it primarily.

There are a few ways to try to stop a counterattack. Arsenal will certainly look to hold possession and prevent Leicester from having many opportunities, but the Foxes’ 44 percent possession rate is already 18th in the league. Claudio Ranieri’s side is used to playing without the ball — Leicester only needed 34 percent possession to batter Manchester City. An aggressive counter-press can slow down opposition counterattacks, but this is not Arsenal’s game. The Gunners’ 46 percent counterpressing rate is 13th in the league.

That means the weight of the burden for stopping counterattacks will fall on defensive midfield and the backline. Here Arsenal will need Francis Coquelin, who has been available only as a substitute recently. His replacement Mathieu Flamini offers neither the athleticism nor the skilled positioning of Coquelin, and Arsene Wenger’s side has been far more open to penetrating attacks since losing its first-choice defensive midfielder.

The attacking gap is in fact even larger. Arsenal has average about 2.2 expected goals per match with Coquelin and 1.55 without him, likewise 3.3 big chances created per match with Coquelin, 2.2 without. With a thin squad and a key weakness in central midfield, Arsenal has significantly dialed back its aggression in attack. If Coquelin is back and fit, breaking up counterattacks and freeing his teammates to push forward more aggressive, Arsenal should be solidly favored.

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