All week long I heard people talk about Jamie Vardy and how Gabriel needs to play against Leicester City because of his pace.
Speaking on Saturday, Paul Merson went as far as suggesting Héctor Bellerín play centre-back. God only knows what he was thinking. No, with Gabriel injured Per Mertesacker got the nod and was excellent, not giving Jamie Vardy and co. a sniff.
You know, there seems to be this baffling idea going around that Mertesacker is competing for Olympic gold in the 100 metres. You do realise he doesn’t have to be fast, right? The attack which saw Leicester City earn a penalty saw Laurent Koscielny sprint into a challenge with N’Golo Kanté. The defender left his team-mates exposed and was booked for his odd challenge.
You see, defending is much more about positioning and intelligent decision making than pure physical attributes, otherwise athletes would make it as footballers and Koscielny would be flawless. No, you have to understand the game, read it well and judge your actions and Mertesacker does that excellently.
For the opening stages of Sunday’s match, Jamie Vardy didn’t even stand on Mertesacker’s side of the pitch. For the rest of the first half, Arsenal defended fairly compact as a block and made sure a one-on-one foot race simply never happened.
So why was everyone – pundits and fans inclusive – so convinced Mertesacker’s (lack of) pace made him the perfect target for Vardy? As long as Arsenal defended intelligently, Mertesacker would look after himself, and he did. Footballers aren’t generally engaged in individual battles that often anyway, the structure of the teams should look to accentuate and negate flaws. That’s exactly what happened, and Arsenal’s solid defensively display – was built upon a solid base which Mertesacker was at the heart of.
Calum Chambers replaced Koscielny at the break, and was also very impressive. The Englishman has only played at centre-half a handful of times all season, but he once again showed that it is a role he can play superbly.
Calm on the ball and good off of it, he did well to hold up Leicester City counter-attacks and rarely looked flustered or overwhelmed. He and Mertesacker only attempted one tackle each, with both of them winning the ball.
They never truly looked under pressure, and for that you can only credit the entire side and the way they set out.