Arsenal 2 Leicester 1: Super N’Golo Kante typifies Leicester approach – pity about Danny Simpson

Leicester are now playing for such high stakes any error will be held up as the difference between winning the title and not

It was from the top of the league, and with their heads held high, that the Leicester City players went to applaud their 3,000 fans at the final whistle. They had delivered another impressive collective performance – 10 of their starters were immaculate – which but for a few minor details, and one major one, might have earned them a win even more impressive, and more important, than they had achieved at Manchester City nine days ago.

Leicester came to the Emirates with precisely the same game plan they had used at the Etihad. They defended deep, absorbed pressure, luring their opponents on to them so they could hit them on the break. It was simple football, perfectly executed, and they deserved their half-time lead.

Arsène Wenger admitted that Arsenal had been “in shock” at the interval, and they certainly looked vulnerable to the second Leicester sucker punch, the goal on the break that had killed Manchester City the previous weekend.

Then, in five second-half minutes, the game changed. Danny Simpson committed two silly fouls and was sent off. Claudio Ranieri had to withdraw Riyad Mahrez for Marcin Wasilewski, not exactly like for like, and the momentum, and the space, was with Arsenal.

Those two fouls were desperately out of character with a side built on selfless, intelligent defending. Leicester are a clever team who play the percentages. This was their first red card of the season, and it cost them.

It would be easy enough to say the pressure of the situation, the lure of an eight-point lead over Arsenal, was what drove Simpson to make such a bad error. It was a mistake, a concentration lapse, and footballers at all levels make them, regardless of the context. But Leicester are now playing for such high stakes that any error will be magnified and re-examined, held up as the difference between winning the title and not.

Simpson, it must be said, did not make the only lapse in discipline. Wasilewski, his sub-par replacement, gave away a needless free-kick on Nacho Monreal in added time from which Danny Welbeck headed the winner. But if Simpson had not been sent off, Ranieri would not have needed Wasilewski in the first place.

The overall display from Leicester, then, had much to say for itself. Wenger said that they had proved they are not top of the table “by coincidence”. They showed once again that they have a very effective way of playing, even if it is not how we are used to seeing Premier League champions approach the game.

Leicester are still two points clear of Arsenal, and they still have the easiest run-in. With no Premier League games next weekend, they resume their title push on 27 February, hosting Norwich City and then West Bromwich Albion. How they fare against teams who dig in and sit back, with no attempt to take the initiative, remains to be seen. If they fade away over the final straight, that lack of nous on the front foot might be the reason why.

But in this sort of game, against this sort of opponent, they played perfectly while they still had 11 men on the pitch. And while this is a star-less team, and a reminder that football is a team game, their spirit and style were encapsulated perfectly by the central midfielder N’Golo Kanté.

This was one of the performances of the season from Kanté, at least as good as when he drew the Jose Mourinho era to a close by shutting Chelsea down at the King Power Stadium just before Christmas. Kanté dominated midfield, in partnership with Danny Drinkwater, winning every loose ball and stealing many straight from the toes of his opponents.

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Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez all learnt their lesson after showing him too much of the ball. When Drinkwater was too busy doing up his bootlaces in the centre circle, Kanté stormed back to win a crucial tackle on Sanchez.

Kanté has been called a destroyer but there is far more to his game than just breaking up play. He is exceptionally sharp with the ball and has a burst of pace, meaning that he can start attacks as well as just stopping them. The penalty which Jamie Vardy scored in the first half came from when Kanté burst away from Laurent Koscielny in the middle of the pitch, catching the Arsenal defender off-guard with acceleration few expected.

In the battle between Kanté and Francis Coquelin, there was only one winner. The two players were born just six weeks apart but they play similar roles and if the France manager, Didier Deschamps, was watching this match, it will have been immediately clear to him which of the two uncapped midfielders he should take to Euro 2016. The two moments, just before the break, when Kanté skipped away from Coquelin in the middle of the pitch proved that. Coquelin was withdrawn after 61 minutes, as Arsenal started to chase the game.

It barely needed to be asked whether Arsenal would be a better side if they had Kanté in midfield. Wenger knows him very well, having been alerted by a close friend when he was still a youngster playing in the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. But Kanté went to Caen, from where Leicester signed him ahead of Arsenal last summer.

There was a time when Arsenal used to get first pick of the best young players in France but that is clearly not the case now. Their Premier League rivals have caught up in this field, just as they have in diet, conditioning and speed of play.

 

That is why this is such a tight title race, with so little to choose between the top four teams. Yesterday Leicester came to the Emirates, played perfectly for an hour, made one mistake and lost to the last kick. That is the pressure, those are the stakes. Leicester remain on top, but with a very long way left to go.

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