Five Things We Learned From Leicester v Arsenal
1) Leicester get knocked down again, but this time it’s going to be harder to get up again
Think about that 90s Chumbawamba earworm ‘Tubthumping’ (and I apologise if you’d been sailing through life blissfully unaware of its existence until now). The Foxes have been great so far this season at getting knocked down (with injuries or some disappointing results) and bouncing back, getting by with other bodies and a great team effort. The only team who have been in the top four all season still. For the first time in the 20/21 campaign, we didn’t bounce back or look like we were going to.
It’s not time to panic, but given how last season unfolded near the end, you’d forgive us for being spooked that a repeat is on the cards. Following on from Europa League disappointment, the match against Arsenal demanded a response of sorts, even if only in the performance. We got one, for the first ten minutes at least and then it went downhill pretty quickly.
The loss to Arsenal wasn’t bad luck, it was a poor performance. The basics weren’t done well, there was the usual set piece calamity that we really have to address at some point soon and it was a very flat, creatively devoid performance. This Arsenal side, with all respect, are nowhere near the level of the Invincibles that were such a joy to watch. Yet we helped them so effortlessly beat us. Between some poor officiating, some play acting (hi Granit Xhaka, good try but no Oscars coming your way sir), we still didn’t deserve anything out of the game.
Then there’s the worst part, yet more injuries to key players. Brendan Rodgers has a huge job to help keep this team ticking physically with the bodies available, but mentally too. We looked vulnerable against Arsenal in every sense of the word.
Chances of making Premier League top four:
Man City - 99%Man Utd - 85%Liverpool - 61%Leicester - 48%Chelsea - 46%West Ham - 26%Tottenham - 14%Aston Villa - 8%Everton - 7% Arsenal - 5%
[FiveThirtyEight] #PremierLeague pic.twitter.com/2ISIewfYX9— RouteOneFootball (@Route1futbol) March 1, 2021
2) With two more injuries logged, the Foxes are looking more and more like Monty Python’s Black Knight
Tis but a scratch? We wish. The Arsenal game lost a lot of momentum and meaning at the horrible sight of Harvey Barnes being put in a leg brace and stretchered off. Seemingly not affecting just the fans, Arsenal all but walked in their third goal shortly after, suggesting the mental toll had hit his team mates the same too. It’s a cruel blow as our star player this season will miss around six weeks after a knee operation.
Harvey Barnes leaving on a stretcher is a heart numbing sight. A player who has given us so much joy in 2021. We wish him a speedy recovery. And wonder why we cant have nice things— Men in Blazers (@MenInBlazers) February 28, 2021
At what stage do we stop saying bad luck and start questioning who cursed us? Pointing fingers at medical staff or a workload in a season of uncharted territory seems strange. It also doesn’t hugely account for some of these being freak accidents. The Barnes injury had shades of Praet and Justin’s injuries. A stretch too far, an odd landing. In our worst injuries this season, there have been no Grealish style assassinations from opponents, our players have essentially injured themselves by pure accident.
Brilliant work as always, but this list hurts
Not content with just one further blow, Jonny Evans found himself in the wars too, although at least he was able to leave the pitch on two feet. His absence will hopefully be much shorter as while we aren’t at panic stations for a number of fit centre backs, it’s not exactly ideal either. That’s the issue for Leicester, we are or have been injury hit in every position except our goalkeepers. Now, I’m not averse to giving Kasper a run at a winger position (maybe try him in the ten role?) but given how important he’s been between the sticks, that’s not ideal either. Anybody know if Danny Ward could put his height to some use up front?
Sure, we aren’t the only club having injury issues this season. Some have been publicly covered than overs, but it’s beginning to look like a crunch point for the Foxes. It’s March and we haven’t once lined up our full-strength starting eleven. Given the Barnes news, it seems unlikely we will this season now. You could argue we’ve been coping well so far or punching above our weight despite it, but we look not just short on the number of bodies but more worryingly, the options.
3) It’s a good time to be a young and upcoming player at Leicester
There’s arguably been no better time to be a young player looking to make a mark at Leicester City than now. It’s a possible catch-22 situation for Rodgers and his staff though. How much to involve some of the promising up and coming youngsters to help spare our remaining fit first team players and allow rotation without risking our league place and the push for the top four? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out something will have to give soon. Fit as he may, we absolutely will have to rest Youri Tielemans at some point! He’s not the only one either.
The next generation have already had a taste of first team life. Involved in training sessions, a group of them having had the opportunity to travel and be included in Europa League squads too. We’ve had debuts from Sidnei Tavares, Vontae Daley-Campbell and the likes of Khankya Leshabela on the bench semi-regularly of late. Ideally, as a club, you’d prefer to dictate the debuts and chances rather than being pushed towards them, but it’s beneficial to the youngsters regardless. Having seen the work and progression that the likes of James Justin and Luke Thomas have achieved, it must be pretty exciting for them.
4) The Jamie Vardy conundrum - a service issue or not?
There’s a lot of worrying things in the world right now, Jamie Vardy not scoring against Arsenal for once is just another thing to add to the list. We’ve almost become accustomed to the striker terrorising the Gunners, but it just wasn’t to be. Perhaps not entirely his fault either, following the opening goal from Tielemans we struggled again creatively and goals didn’t look like they were coming. As much as we have clearly had a service issue with Vardy in the last few games, we’re not creating much generally let alone setting him up, it’s not just a service issue.
Some more eagle-eyed supporters seemed to be suggesting Vardy looked physically uncomfortable in the first half against Arsenal. We know better than most that even a semi-fit Vardy is more dangerous than your average striker, but it is a concern. He certainly didn’t look as sharp as we’d expect. See the moment that he was hauled down when we finally did get a ball over the top. We could go on a tangent about the foul not being given (but that’s a whole other story), but typically he’d have burned the defender on pace anyway. There was a similar moment against Slavia Prague. A suggestion that he’s not quite 100%?
I mean, the pulling helps...
One of the biggest positives of the season so far had been that we hadn’t been quite so reliant on Vardy and his goals. Barnes and Maddison having stepped up had helped, even Youri on seven goals. Most areas of the pitch have chipped in. With quite a few of those goals cut off for a duration, we’ll be looking to Vardy to retake that pressure. We’ll also be reliant on keeping him injury free and continuing to manage his workload. Despite some very odd statements from ‘fans’ who had a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to an off game, Vardy is not done. If anything, it’s back to him being our most important player for a little while.
It was rare for us to play both strikers too, something that may not happen too often in the next games if we air on the side of caution. Kelechi Iheanacho had a positive impact early against Arsenal and he’ll be key with the ongoing absence of our only other striking option, Perez. Is now the time for me to launch my petition to sign Andre Silva for next season?
5) Versatility and options at full-back is a small positive to hold onto
Not a new learn as such but the way Rodgers deployed the full-backs yesterday was interesting. It was a tough first half for Luke Thomas at left-back. Arsenal’s entire plan rotated around Pepe down the left which isolated Thomas and made him our busiest player. He didn’t entirely cope with it and picking up a yellow card sealed his substitution. However, I’ll admit that I expected Castagne to be the one to come and cover the left.
Just how versatile our full-backs have been has saved us on multiple occasions this season. Having never seen Ricardo play at left-back pre 2021, we’ve now seen it twice. Rodgers deployed him to deal with the Pepe problem. It could have helped restore some balance both defensively and in helping Barnes attack, but we never really got the chance to see it working and our problems became bigger than just Pepe and his multitude of free-kicks.
It feels fair to assume that whenever we can line up a full strength eleven, the starting full-backs will be Ricardo and Castagne (unless the Ricardo wing experimentation continues). It’ll just be less predictable which side you’ll get them on. It will even be dependent on our opponents and their eleven, as has been the case already with Justin and Castagne. As the Slavia Prague manager said, it makes us tough to predict and plan against. Not so much with our current list of absentees but you can see the long game Rodgers is playing.
Bonus Learn: Now, this is clutching because it feels like this really needs to end on a positive note and there weren’t exactly many things to pick from. So let’s enjoy the wonderful gift that keeps on giving that is Youri Tielemans. Between the rather lovely words about the club in his Europa League press conference outing, and the goal / celebration against Arsenal, he’s a little bright spot we need more of right now. So let’s just wrap him up in cotton wool, please?