Are Leicester Turning The Corner?
Leicester City picked up their first away point of the season last weekend and they did it by getting back to basics. They probably shouldn’t have strayed from them in the first place.
The Foxes, with the best will in the world, did not win the league because of their flowing, tiki-taka football. They won for lots of reasons, but primarily that they had a team of very good, very hard-working footballers playing very clever football against teams that for one reason or another didn’t figure them out until it was far too late.
This season, it’s been a little different. Though not quite as different as you might think. Yes, their away record is horrible, but look at who they’ve played: Spurs away, Chelsea away, Manchester United away and Liverpool away. Oh, and Hull away. Let’s talk about Hull away.
Everyone has 20-20 hindsight, especially when football is concerned, but the sight of Shinji Okazaki on the bench for that opening game was something of a surprise. You can understand why Claudio Ranieri wanted to play with his new toy, the £18m Ahmed Musa, but removing Okazaki was an error. An error that he has since acknowledged.
“When I didn’t pick him, I lost two great players, Shinji and Kante,” said Ranieri last week. “Now, with Shinji, I recover one great player.”
Ranieri’s 4-4-2 is reliant on players who can play between the lines. Kante, of course, was the guard dog between the defence and the midfield, (as well as being the midfield, occasionally the flanks and sometimes, if they were short-staffed, deputy manager of the club shop) But Okazaki was the man between the midfield and the attack, winning the ball in the air, holding it up and bringing Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez into the game.
Right from the start of Saturday’s clash with Tottenham, Okazaki was smashing around, ruining Mauricio Pochettino’s game plan. Three times in the space of 130 seconds, the Japanese forward made crucial interventions.
But this isn’t to say that Leicester’s improvement is entirely down to Okazaki. There’s more. Musa, who didn’t really click as Vardy’s strike partner, is now out on the left where Demarai Gray started the season (his only start in the league, in fact) and where Marc Albrighton continued until his anaemic display against Chelsea was enough to send him back to the bench. Musa is more tricksy than Albrighton and he seems to be settling into the team far better now. He was aware enough to make a coruscating run into the box when Victor Wanyama’s careless header released Jamie Vardy on the right. Poor Kyle Walker seemed to lose him in his mirrors, realising the danger only when it was too late. But it’s not just Musa either.
The loss of Kante was a grievous blow to Ranieri. That sort of footballer just isn’t replaced easily. The club moved for Nice’s Nampalys Mendy, but he’s only played a single game and is unlikely to be back from injury until December. Daniel Amartey had six games in the role, but struggled to impose himself as his predecessor had done and is another who hasn’t started since The Chelsea Incident. For the last two games, Ranieri has gone with Andy King as a partner to Danny Drinkwater.
King is not especially swift, though hardly slow, and he doesn’t have Drinkwater’s extraordinary range of passing, but he doesn’t seem to have any weak spots either and his best attributes are the funny intangible ones. When Leicester are on the back foot, you can see King’s head swivelling, his arms pointing, his mouth going. A veteran from the lower league days, he’s brought a bit of reassurance and organisation to the team, and how they needed it. Both Robert Huth and Wes Morgan had looked wobbly earlier in the season. With King in front of them, they looked strong again. So strong, that as early as the 31st minute, Danny Rose was striding up the pitch and then throwing his arms up in the air in frustration that no-one was in space. That’s because there was no space. Leicester had filled it all in.
They didn’t win the game, of course, and it would be wrong to even suggest that they deserved to. Spurs were the better side and might have taken the lead before their penalty when Dele Alli capitalised on a momentary lack of urgency in the midfield to find a gap and smash the ball against the bar. Poor Theo Janssen came ever so close to actually scoring in open play too, sliding the ball wide from just inside the box, and Jan Vertonghen hit the bar with four minutes left.
But Leicester survived and they completed their mission. For the first time in on the road in the Premier League this season, they did their job and got a point. Finally, here was a defiant, feisty and hard working Leicester City picking up points away from home in spite of all predictions to the contrary. Hello, old friend.
Is a football writer for ESPNFC and the editor of The Set Pieces