The pendulum has certainly not swung, but momentum has shuddered to an abrupt halt. Leicester have cast aside fellow Premier League challengers, mid-table sides and relegation strugglers in their quest for an incredibly unlikely title. But they are not quite Pulis-proof.
Jamie Vardy was frustrated. Riyad Mahrez was contained. Robert Huth was bullied. Leicester were unable to overcome West Brom as they did Norwich three days prior. The hosts endeavoured to secure a victory which would apply pressure to their closest rivals, but a winning goal was not forthcoming. The disappointment at the King Power Stadium was palpable. Welcome to life as a title challenger.
Leicester earned their 79th point of a possible 111 since April on Tuesday. Or they dropped their fourth and fifth of a possible nine in the past fortnight. The club’s aspirations have been transformed with each passing week. A 0-0 draw with 15th-placed Hull City just over twelve months ago disheartened Nigel Pearson’s Foxes, who resided at the foot of the table. A 2-2 draw with 13th-placed West Brom dissatisfies Claudio Ranieri’s side, who are now three points clear at the summit.
The task against the Baggies was clear. Leicester had built their monumental success on an average of 42.2% possession in their previous 27 games; they would host one of the two sides to relinquish the ball more often. Only Aston Villa have won more aerial duels than West Brom this season, and just five sides have kept more clean sheets. The Baggies reside in seventh in a form table against teams in the top half. After navigating the obstacle of a conservative Norwich in dramatic fashion on Saturday, Leicester faced another test: Beat West Brom. Beat Tony Pulis.
In the most remarkable of seasons, Pulis provides a comforting familiarity. For those keeping count, the predictable answer was four. The visitors’ defence consisted solely of centre-halves, each measuring over six feet high. The challenge was set: Find a way through.
Leicester did. Twice. But the Foxes were also breached on the same number of occasions. First, Robert Huth was made to look each of his 31 years and more by the impressive Salomon Rondon. Then a needless handball from Mahrez provided Craig Gardner with a chance from a free-kick around 20 yards out. It was duly taken. Danny Drinkwater and Andy King had completed the most difficult objectives in breaching an obdurate backline, but individual errors elsewhere cost Leicester.
King performed admirably in the centre, but the absence of N’Golo Kante was crucial. The Frenchman has made a league-high 111 tackles and interceptions each this season, forming both Leicester’s most crucial line of defence and most effective foundation for building attacks. The Foxes make 44.6 tackles and interceptions combined per game this Premier League season; Kante comprises a fifth of that tally. For way of comparison, Francis Coquelin is responsible for just under an eighth of Arsenal’s total output, and Eric Dier completes a ninth of Tottenham’s tackles and interceptions. Without Kante, Darren Fletcher was afforded time, space, time again and space again to assist Rondon’s opener. Leicester are hamstrung without their midfield talisman, much like the Frenchman himself.
Ranieri’s side have faced Manchester City and Arsenal in recent weeks, but a home game against West Brom, with Kante sidelined, provided perhaps their biggest challenge. The visitors had beaten the Gunners in November, while Tottenham could only manage a draw against them a month later. Title contenders are often defined by their results against such sides. This was Leicester’s opportunity to lay a marker.
Victory eluded the Foxes, but the gap to Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City still increased. Spurs can top the Premier League table for the first time ever outside of August by beating West Ham away on Wednesday. It would be apt reward for winning such a difficult game. The north London side have spent just 33 days atop the Premier League in their history; Wednesday yields Leicester’s 71st game as leaders this season alone. Perhaps the Foxes will benefit from sharing the burden.
“Tottenham, in my opinion, are favourites,” Ranieri said before the game.”We are the surprise, that is fantastic, a good energy, but if we are realistic the real competitors are Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham.” The term ‘surprise’ does Leicester a disservice. They were 5,000/1 to win the Premier League title this summer; certain bookmakers valued West Brom at 2,500/1 to claim the crown after they earned a point at the King Power Stadium.
But we are in March, and Leicester can surely only be described as second-favourites for the title at worst. The pressure is on Tottenham to beat West Ham and Arsenal to salvage their credentials with victory over Swansea on Wednesday. At least one of the two sides will drop points in the north London derby on Saturday, providing Leicester with a chance of their own against Watford at the weekend.
Momentum shifted on Tuesday, but Leicester will know that precious commodity is a fickle beast. Manchester City boasted it in the opening months, while Manchester United and Arsenal have also shared it. It could be in Leicester’s favour once more in a week’s time in this unpredictable title race.