Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
One point from three successive bouts with so-called ‘Big Six’ sides may not meet Leicester City fans’ exacting standards. But such a paltry return could hardly be seen as abnormal in a league where the gap between the high-flying haves and the mid-table have-nots appears wider than ever before. And yet, look closer at the performances Claude Puel coaxed from his players throughout that trio of tough encounters, and one comes to a surprising conclusion: Leicester could, and perhaps should, have won all three.
James Maddison’s early miss in the 1-1 draw with toothless Liverpool looms large in the memory. As do the late clear-cut chances Jamie Vardy and Harry Maguire spurned in the narrow defeat to Manchester United. But Sunday’s reverse at Wembley, in which the Foxes battered Tottenham Hotspur throughout a chance-laden second-half really takes the biscuit.
Foxes firing again
And the first-half wasn’t bad from a Leicester perspective either. Notwithstanding Tottenham’s Harry Winks-led dominance of possession prior to half-time, Leicester attempted eight shots in the opening 45 minutes — a season-high for visitors to Wembley. And, even more surprisingly from a side whose attack has failed to fire this season, all eight of the Foxes’ efforts were trained at Hugo Lloris from within the Frenchman’s penalty area. Prior to this game, only Southampton and Fulham had attempted a higher percentage of their shots from beyond 18 yards– quite a turnaround.
Configured in a 4-1-4-1 formation, tailor-made to deny Spurs passage through the middle, Leicester again focused their own attacks down the left-flank. Ben Chilwell duly advanced freely, facilitated on the overlap by Harvey Barnes’ well-timed diagonal runs into the inside-left channel. Kieran Trippier, such a revelation at last summer’s World Cup, continued a disappointing season by invariably failing to track them.
By half-time Barnes had thrice been threaded in behind the Tottenham defence — once by Chilwell, and twice by the debuting Youri Tielemans. But the 21-year-old’s composure deserted him in front of goal, letting a somnolent Trippier off the hook. The England full-back fared little better in the Leicester half either; with Mauricio Pochettino’s diamond choked off in midfield, switches of play to Trippier proved regular but fruitless. Occurring mostly when Leicester’s defensive shape was set, diagonals trained at Trippier and fellow full-back Danny Rose were often easily intercepted en route.
Similar switches of play, from left to right, would undoubtedly have proved greatly beneficial to Leicester’s hopes of breaking the hosts down. But Puel, perhaps concerned with the presence of two Spurs strikers, mostly kept right-back Ricardo Pereira at home during the first-half. Perhaps mindful of the carnage caused by Wolves’ front-two throughout the recent 4-3 defeat at Molineux, Puel wisely chose the conservative option: Pereira’s close proximity to Jonny Evans helped to nullify the target-man threat of Fernando Llorente.
Ricardo sans restraints
That all changed at the start of the second-half, however, as Leicester sought to respond to Davinson Sánchez’s set-piece opener. Immediately, Puel loosened the restraints of his dangerous Portuguese full-back, and Leicester promptly reaped the attacking benefits. The pattern was set early on: neat left-flank possession-play, designed to draw Tottenham in, followed by the switch to Pereira. Hampered by their wingerless formation, Spurs were all but powerless to resist: Demarai Gray, a disappointment in the lone striker role, should have headed a Pereira cross home from close range.
That, in the 50th-minute, was Gray’s first touch in the Spurs penalty-area. No surprise then when he was called ashore for ‘Big Six’ assassin Jamie Vardy upon Leicester’s rather fortunate receipt of a penalty-kick. Vardy surprisingly spurned it, but he was integral to the creation of Leicester’s next big chance: sending Barnes through to once again fluff his lines, after Trippier was caught unawares by a monstrous clearing header from Harry Maguire.
Leicester’s high press at goal-kicks, designed to force Lloris long, put the ball on Maguire’s head in the first place. But it was Pochettino’s customary high squeeze that had spurred Tottenham’s second goal just two minutes earlier. Penned in by the Spurs attack, Pereira tried an ill-advised clearance that Oliver Skipp duly blocked down. Christian Eriksen, otherwise marshaled by the typically effervescent Wilfried Ndidi, did the rest after a neat one-two with Llorente. That was the Dane’s 20th outside-the-box strike since his debut in September of 2013, a stunning record unmatched by any other Premier League player.
Cowed by Barnes’ wasted one-on-one, coming as it did so soon after the insurance goal, Pochettino enacted a defensive substitution. Skipp made way for Toby Alderweireld, as Spurs reconfigured from 4-3-1-2 to 5-3-2, the same system that finally cracked Newcastle United’s resolve last time out. There was little call for it here, however, as Puel was still persisting with just one striker, and Leicester’s main threat continued to lay out wide. Pereira, still without a winger to track him, duly punished the Argentinian’s questionable tactical call. What followed was predictable: another switch of play, another Tielemans ball in behind the defence, and another Pereira cross. Vardy, deputising for Gray, made no mistake from close range. Finally, after wasting three big second-half chances, the Foxes had their goal.
A point-saving second was not to follow, however, as Puel belatedly switched to a two-striker system (a diamond to be precise), thus giving Son Heung-min free rein to settle the contest on the break. The Korean, whose late stint as a second-striker to Llorente against Newcastle had found previously unseen space between the Geordie lines, played a slightly different role here. Five offside calls highlight the frequency with which Son looked to run in behind Maguire. Eventually, with Chilwell committed to all-out-attack and Leicester pushed higher than ever before, one such run paid off.
Still, a final tally of eight second-half Lloris saves tells a tale. With no wins in five now and both cup runs over before they started, Foxes fans may be running out of patience with Puel, but it’s hard to deny that his luck has been very much out in recent weeks. Had Vardy scored his penalty here, and indeed had Maddison converted his spot-kick against Cardiff, perceptions of Puel’s performance could well be very different. The Frenchman continues to show a dedication to refreshing Leicester’s previously aging first eleven, and that rejuvenation is showing signs of catching fire.
Tielemans, in particular, looks a canny capture. In the Monaco loanee, the eighth under-22 Puel has used from the start this season, the Foxes may finally have the deep-lying passer their midfield desperately needed. For whatever reason, neither the face of Vicente Iborra nor that of Adrien Silva fit as far as their erstwhile manager was concerned. But in the 21-year-old Belgian, Leicester supporters may finally have the top-class ball-progressor they’ve been crying out for. Dreams of a functional Foxes attack are tantalisingly close to fruition, then: provided, of course, that both Tielemans and his manager are given the time they need to realise them.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112