Demoralising though a 5-2 defeat may be, Leicester have still enjoyed an excellent start to the Premier League season. Are Claudio Ranieri’s battlers capable of qualifying for European football?
It may seem perverse, but in falling to a 5-2 defeat at home against a side below them in the league, Leicester still provided perhaps their best performance yet of a thrilling season. Rarely did they look outclassed against an Arsenal side that, while struggling for form, boast some of the league’s finest players.
Of course, the Foxes’ refusal to bow down and submit to their illustrious opponents was very much symptomatic of their season so far. Fearless, exciting, combative; this is a side who have progressed more than any other in the Premier League over the last few years, and they only returned from a decade-long hiatus last season.
Against Arsenal, Leicester simply did not look like a side who remained rooted at the foot of the table by April last campaign, nor did they resemble one consigned by many – including myself – to relegation this season. Indeed, with a bit of luck they could have held a two-goal advantage over the Gunners. Jamie Vardy continued his fine form by wreaking havoc upon the visiting defence with one goal, while he could easily have added more after hitting both the post and the crossbar.
4 – Jamie Vardy has now scored in four successive Premier League matches for Leicester City. Counter.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 26, 2015
But, credit to Arsenal, they were irresistible at times. Few teams would have coped with an Alexis Sanchez finally reaching the heights he can, while even Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud took their chances. Only against Stoke (29) have Arsenal attempted more shots on goal in a Premier League match this season, but profligate became prolific as they doubled their goals tally for the season in one afternoon.
Leicester’s response to such an onslaught? React in kind. They rained in 16 shots on Petr Cech’s goal – their third highest tally of the season, and the second most Arsenal have faced this season behind Chelsea (22). Instead of being overawed, the Foxes rose to the challenge. They may have fallen on their sword, but it was an admirable showing.
By full-time, the final unbeaten start to the Premier League season came crashing to a halt. This was Leicester’s first defeat in all competitions since late April – a run of 12 consecutive games.
In outlasting the rest, the Foxes join Chelsea (x3), Manchester City (x2), Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton and Aston Villa in a roll call of teams to have sustained the longest unbeaten run over the start of the last 10 seasons. Five of those teams went on to win the Premier League, and while such ambitions are outlandish for Leicester, the lowest finish of any of those sides was recorded by Villa in the 2006/07 season. That matching their 11th place would be seen as underwhelming is merely testament to the excellent work done at the King Power Stadium.
While defeat is always the worst-case scenario, there are positives to glean for Ranieri and Leicester. Vardy and Marc Albrighton in particular were once again the star performers on Saturday, and the pressure of the unbeaten run is now lost in the ether. As Ranieri stated post-match however, a reaction is needed:
“We are sad because we wanted to continue to be unbeaten but when you play against Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, it’s extra teams for us.
“It’s important to learn something but now the reaction is important in the next match.”
Their last defeat precipitated a 12-game unbeaten run, and the loss before that brought a four-match winning streak. Either response would be deemed suitable this time around, but the circumstances are completely different. Leicester no longer head into games as the underdog, although one doubts that will change their approach.
As for Vardy, consternation over the 28-year-old’s existence as an England international is unlikely to ever subside, but Saturday afternoon provided a timely reminder that the striker is the current constant among a dearth of home-based talent. Six goals places Vardy at the top of the Premier League goalscoring chart, while he has played a direct part in 15 goals in his last 17 league appearances. Form will count for plenty when Roy Hodgson contemplates his Paris-bound squad for next summer.
The Foxes are unlikely to sustain their current sixth place standing come May, but a kind run-in heading into December hands them the perfect opportunity to stake their claim for a top-half finish at the very least. Norwich (a), Southampton (a), Crystal Palace (h), West Brom (a), Watford (h) and Newcastle (a) provide tests of varying difficulty, but the Foxes are readily-equipped to pass each. While Crystal Palace, Everton, Southampton and Swansea are regarded as the closest challengers to the established elite, it could be Leicester themselves who crash the party.