Giroud and Alli key as Arsenal and Tottenham win top-four battles
Several trends and patterns were on show last weekend, as Arsenal and Tottenham sealed crucial 2-1 wins over Leicester and Manchester City respectively. There were shrewd gameplans, some slick French linkup play, roaming playmakers and commendable midfield battlers.
In both encounters, familiar weaknesses were punished.
At the Emirates, Arsenal at first had trouble breaking down Leicester, with Olivier Giroud one of few players who threatened through powerful aerial play and neat passes. The Foxes were at their industrious best and looked comfortable until Danny Simpson's 54th-minute dismissal, after which the Gunners scored twice thanks to Giroud's knockdown for Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck's stoppage-time header.
Elsewhere, Tottenham targeted the space in front of City's centre-backs, and while it proved difficult due to the presence of Fernandinho and Fernando, they did find openings, such as when Erik Lamela created Christian Eriksen's late winner.
Spurs have now won five straight league fixtures and remain unbeaten on the road since the opening-day defeat at Old Trafford, while an uninspired Manchester City haven't won back-to-back league games since mid-October.
Giroud's linkup play crucial
Few can have been surprised to see Leicester hold off Arsenal in the first half on Sunday, given how well Claudio Ranieri's men have defended in recent weeks. Finding few gaps down the middle, the Gunners attacked down the flanks, which led to a series of crosses and corners that involved Giroud.
Giroud's passing was better than his finishing. On 15 minutes, he delivered a fine layoff for Mesut Ozil to play through Aaron Ramsey, only for Kasper Schmeichel to intervene. Ten minutes later, he played a one-two with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose cross found Alexis Sanchez in a good position.
Early in the second period, he offered a backheel flick to Ozil, whose blocked shot led to Ramsey firing wide. And yet his finest moment came in the 70th minute, when he expertly knocked down Hector Bellerin's cross for Walcott to equalise.
A few minutes from full-time, Giroud nearly assisted Welbeck with another header, before playing an excellent cross to Walcott from the left. All in all the target man won 13 out of his 18 attacking aerial duels, and though none led to a goal directly, his services helped create four chances.
Ranieri's Plan A works well
Until the red card, everything was going to plan for Leicester. They had dropped back their wingers to disturb Arsenal down the flanks, while Ngolo Kante and Danny Drinkwater had broken up attacks and covered the spaces in which Ozil operates.
At the other end, Jamie Vardy had won and converted a penalty from a classic counter. Arsenal had managed seven efforts, of which three had been blocked and four didn't hit the target. In other words, Schmeichel was yet to make a save.
The dismissal put Leicester under more pressure, yet they battled well and completed a remarkable 38 tackles and 30 interceptions; on average, no team in the league rank higher in either statistic.
They were eventually undone by Giroud's header and Welbeck's flick from Ozil's free kick, and while those goals may indicate problems at defending crosses -- like Sergio Aguero's header for Man City the week before -- Ranieri had few other reasons to doubt his initial gameplan.
Man City the creators go quiet
In Manchester, City conceded few chances, but lacked flair and creativity.
It probably didn't help that Manuel Pellegrini played a defensive central midfield duo in Fernandinho and Fernando behind Yaya Toure, Raheem Sterling and David Silva, but the Chilean will have been disappointed to see his chief playmakers engineer so little.
Man City did offer some promising exchanges down the left early on that involved Sterling, Toure and Silva, who had drifted across from the right, but by half-time Hugo Lloris had only made one save. City had provided few threats beyond Aguero's shot over from a corner.
Their first big chance came in the 49th minute, when a deflected Toure effort looped into the path of Aguero, who fired over from a good position.
After Tottenham's penalty four minutes later, Man City risked more: Silva began to roam more freely and Fernandinho started to offer forward runs. Soon Toure curled a free kick onto the crossbar, before substitute Kelechi Iheanacho smacked home Gael Clichy's cross.
But Spurs scored the next one, and Man City didn't muster another big chance until the 94th minute when Lloris got a hand to Aguero's cross just ahead of Nicolas Otamendi. By full-time, neither Toure nor Silva had created an opportunity from open play, even if Toure had almost scored himself.
Narrow midfield key for Spurs
For Tottenham, the focus was clear: pierce Man City down the middle. The system was 4-2-3-1, with Dele Alli and Son Heung-Min drifting inside from their wide positions, and with Eriksen dropping deep to dictate play.
Alli took up particularly good positions and was fouled centrally twice inside the opening 14 minutes. In some ways, the narrow roles of Alli and Son played a role in the equaliser, in that Danny Rose was so far up the pitch when swinging in the cross from which Sterling was deemed to handle the ball.
Spurs conceded after Harry Kane had converted the penalty, before Lamela replaced Alli on 81 minutes as a right winger. Before long, the Argentine won the ball centrally and ran at an unprotected backline to set up Eriksen, who was already nearby, and that both were positioned so narrowly underlined Mauricio Pochettino's strategy.
Even if Alli wasn't involved in the goal, he probably symbolised the concept best by receiving so many passes in good positions while simultaneously recovering possession across a vast area.
It was the kind of mixture between clever movement and fervent work rate that has underpinned Tottenham's title challenge.