After an exciting first week of action, matchday two of the 2016/17 Premier League season kicks off this weekend. The match that we’ll be focusing on: Leicester City vs. Arsenal. Last year, these two clubs finished as one and two in the league table respectively, but neither of them were able to pull of an opening day victory. Matchday one saw an unconvincing Leicester fall to Hull City 2-1, while Arsenal’s defense decided not to play the second half in a 4-3 thriller against Liverpool. Can either of them rebound from this disappointing start and start their climb up the table?
Starting with the Gunners, one thing that was abundantly clear last weekend was the inexperience of their center backs. Fitness concerns regarding Laurent Koscielny and injuries to Per Mertesacker and Gabriel meant that Calum Chambers and Rob Holding were left to hold down the fort. Despite a strong first half, the two young guns were absolutely torn apart by Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool in the final 45 minutes. Chambers in particular appeared to be targeted by the pace of Liverpool’s attack and I doubt that will change at the King Power Stadium. These defensive issues have prompted Arsene Wenger to entertain the idea of risking an early return for Koscielny just to provide some experience to his back four. While the Frenchman would undoubtedly be an improvement to either Holding or Chambers, if he suffers a fitness-related injury this could be the start to a very long season for the Gunners.
Joining Koscielny on the list of possible fitness gambles this weekend are Olivier Giroud and Mesut Özil. These two provided a substantial chunk of the Gunners’ attacking threat last season. Giroud led the team with 16 goals, and the bug-eyed magician provided a league-high 19 assists along the way. Last week, Arsenal lacked a clear focal point in attack and, even though Giroud attracts a lot of criticism, I think he can provide them with a nice big target up front. Özil’s importance is clear, and you could argue that he’s one of the strongest midfield players in the league. Their returns would immediately boost the Gunners’ chances of taking three points away from home, but the same risk that follow Koscielny’s introduction follow theirs as well.
Switching over to the Foxes, the big story has to be the recent four-year contract extension of Riyad Mahrez. The Algerian joins Jamie Vardy in rejecting the Gunners’ reported transfer advances, and he could make them pay on Saturday. Against Hull, Mahrez was actually one of the more consistently dangerous players for Leicester. He didn’t quite have the killer instinct that made him so valuable last season as he missed a couple great chances to find the back of the net, but you could probably attribute that to it being the first game of the season rather than a drop in ability. Arsenal’s makeshift backline was torn apart by Liverpool, can Mahrez do the same?
While Mahrez looked just a little off against the Tigers, Jamie Vardy played like a shadow of the lethal striker that dominated the league last year. On several occasions the 29-year-old had golden opportunities to lock the game up for the Foxes and he just couldn’t do it. An open net chance was blocked. A clear shot at the top of the box was sent flying over the bar. An easy lay off was just completely missed. Against Manchester United, Vardy looked like a true goal poacher and took advantage of a horrendous defensive error to find the back of the net. Leicester fans will be hoping that the poor form against Hull was just an anomaly and that their talismanic striker can re-establish his dominance at home.
When these two sides met last season, the Gunners, surprisingly, managed to take all six points against Claudio Ranieri’s men. That includes a 5-2 thrashing at the King Power Stadium. I’m not convinced that they’ll be able to replicate that beat down this time around. Leicester are going to come out swinging in an effort to make up for their poor form against Hull City and I think that Arsenal’s defensive frailties will be exposed. Look for Vardy and Mahrez to steal the show. Final score: Leicester 3-1 Arsenal