It may not have been pretty, or full of finesse, but goals from Islam Slimani and Jamie Vardy gave Leicester a 2-0 win that lifts the Foxes into the top ten for now and continues a dream start to Craig Shakespeare’s managerial reign. Five Premier League victories in a row, six in all competitions and the key thing achieved; winning even when we weren’t at our best!
Sunderland will feel hard done by as the Foxes got to a sluggish start, failing to look fully at the races and struggling to string passes together. Unlike Saturday, where there was a lot to be excited about, it was sloppy generally all over the pitch and there weren’t too many highlights to note in the first half. Demarai Gray had deserved to keep his place after his performance at the weekend, and was one of the brighter players in the first half, only let down by his own decision making which should improve with experience. The away side did cause problems, usually wherever Jermaine Defoe was concerned, but Kasper Schmeichel wasn’t forced into making many saves. A better side would have punished the Foxes though, who invited too many attacks.
It was a much better second half from Shakespeare’s side, the turning point coming when the manager made a double substitution. Gray and Shinji Okazaki, having a quieter, ineffective night, particularly in the second half, were replaced by Islam Slimani and the recovered Marc Albrighton. It was a change that proved decisive and vital, almost immediately rewarded, both changing the game and helping to tip the scales in Leicester’s favour. The Algerian striker almost scored with his first touch and offered a different outlet up front. Nobody looked more relieved to have scored than Slimani himself. It was courtesy of a pinpoint pass from Albrighton and some very poor defending, but the striker rose and headed home. It’s a partnership that we’ve simply not seen enough of and this goal showcased why it’s still one to explore more. The striker was unlucky not to double his tally, a lack of luck having been generally the story of his season so far.
In Albrighton, we got back that very direct approach and the tireless work ethic he always bring. While there’s little doubt over the talent and potential of Gray, he is more similar in his style to Riyad Mahrez and it was an approach that hadn’t been working with the scrappier, less fluent style of game we found ourselves playing. With Albrighton, that kind of game doesn’t phase him, it’s actually one he looks comfortable in.
While his pass to Slimani was very good, his set-up and work to create the second goal blew that out of the water. He won a ball that he probably had no business winning out on the wing, before darting forward and delivering an inch perfect cross to Vardy in the middle. For Vardy’s part, it still wasn’t the easiest ball to finish off but he buried it, the second goal killing off Sunderland.
One of the other big positives to take away was the performance of Yohan Benalouane. It’s not the first time this season that he’s been asked to come in and do an important job having not played for a while. He’s delivered every time, without complaint. To the extent that, even as Captain, it’ll be tough for Wes Morgan to win his place back. The centre-back has looked at home in the last couple of games, adapting very quickly and well to life alongside Robert Huth, that partnership already looking strong. Against Sunderland he displayed some great awareness of incoming threats and won virtually everything in the air. Shutting the away side out for the second game in a row shows how easily he’s slotted into to our otherwise unchanged back line.
The defence will be happy to record yet another clean sheet, given it was something we struggled with so much earlier in the campaign. I had worried about how we’d fare without Morgan, it’s something we’ve not really dealt with before, but the likes of Robert Huth and Danny Simpson have stepped up. It helps that Kasper Schmeichel is also having potentially his best season with us yet and makes a very fine Captain. He’ll be especially pleased to shut out the opposition in what was his 250th Leicester City appearance.
There was certainly room for improvement in the performance and we did ride our luck at times, but it says a lot about how far we’ve come in the last few weeks that we kept working, kept trying and managed to grind a result out of it, with another clean sheet to boot. Certain players didn’t look up to their usual standards. Despite some magical first touches in the first half, Mahrez struggled tonight, too wasteful in possession or not getting into the right positions. Danny Drinkwater suffered in a similar way, the usually reliable midfielder currently experiencing a more difficult spell and less dependable, by his standards, more stray passes or things not quite working out.
The fixtures are coming thick and fast, more Premier League action is next for the Foxes, a trip to Everton on Sunday that will likely enforce selection changes given its close proximity to our away leg at Atletico Madrid. It’ll be another test of our squad, particularly our back-line. Could Leicester pull off yet another win at Goodison Park, Craig Shakespeare would join an even more elite club of just two Premier League managers who’ve won their first six games, sitting alongside Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti. Something suggests though that with relegation now a less imposing threat, thoughts could easily be turned to the task ahead in Spain, and key players to be rested in anticipation.