Leicester City thought they might be heading for their first Premier League win of 2022, but then West Ham United got a corner in the last minute.
Twenty minutes into the match between Leicester City and West Ham United, one corner of The King Power Stadium was out-singing the rest. The visitors had taken an early lead at the end of a weekend when none of the other teams chasing a Champions League place had won. Animal abuse’s Kurt Zouma wasn’t on the pitch. Even on this cold, grey, wet East Midlands afternoon, there was a lot to smile about for the away fans. They had something to cheer about again by the end but it was a close call, while Leicester remain trapped in a defensive Groundhog Day.
It hasn’t been an easy week for West Ham, though much of that is self-inflicted. The decision to start Zouma against Watford was widely criticised and it was not a particularly good team performance to win that game by a goal to nil. But since then the argument has become curdled, in that way modern discourse of any nature does these days.
Leicester’s woes are of a different nature. They hadn’t won since the end of December, and even though they’d only played three league games this year (against Liverpool, Spurs and Brighton), five weeks is a long time to go without a win. The nature of their defeat to Nottingham Forest was also… problematic.
Leicester are currently the worst defensive team in the Premier League based on Expected Goals Against (xGA).
— Sporting Life Football & Infogol (@InfogolApp) February 13, 2022
Before kick-off at the King Power in the Sky Sports studio, things took a turn for the strange when Graeme Souness uttered the immortal line, “For me, looking at that video, that cat hadn’t done anything wrong,” as though he was talking about some shirt-tugging at a corner kick. The widespread merriment at this does rather mask the fact that Souness spoke on the subject with considerably more conviction than most others in the game – and it’s kind of understandable that, sat in a television studio, under those lights, he should momentarily default into football-speak at an inopportune moment – but it still made for a lively pre-match warm-up.
West Ham had, with the same level of bullishness with which they’d done before the Watford match, announced Zouma would be starting, but this didn’t come to pass in the end. He had already been roundly booed by Leicester supporters when his name was read out over the public address system, but it was then announced that he had felt unwell during the warm-up and was being replaced by Issa Diop.
If Zouma represents the worst of West Ham at the moment, it didn’t takes someone who represents the very best of them long to open the scoring. Jarrod Bowen has been lighting the Premier League up this season, and after ten minutes Diop’s long ball sprang the Leicester offside trap for him to slide the ball past Schmeichel and give them the lead.
Leicester looked starchy, a team shorn of confidence, but a break was just around the corner and at least for once there could be little doubt of the validity of a penalty kick award. Half-time was close when Youri Tielemans’ corner struck the arm of Aaron Cresswell in what was quite clearly an unnatural position. Tielemans converted at the end of a half that had done little for his chances if he was, as has been suggested, putting himself in the shop window.
It turned out to be just the tonic Leicester needed. Their first-half performance had been drained of confidence, but they came out for the second half looking transformed and took just 12 minutes to edge themselves in front. Harvey Barnes crossed from the left for Ricardo Pereira to score at the far post; the West Ham defence was absent without leave.
But if there is one thing that everybody knows about Leicester City, it’s that they’ve been defensively leaky and especially from set-pieces. Their decision to replace Tielemans with Jannik Vestergaard after 89 minutes seemed to change the atmosphere around the King Power. It took barely two minutes for those fears to be realised, when Saïd Benrahma’s corner from the right was bundled over the line from a couple of yards out by Craig Dawson.
Replays showed that the ball quite clearly hit Dawson’s arm, all of which leads to the question of what, exactly, the handball rule even is now.
The current IFAB rules on what constitutes a direct free-kick offence specify that, ‘For the purposes of determining handball offences, the upper boundary of the arm is in line with the bottom of the armpit’. The ball seemed to strike somewhere in the region of the very bottom of the sleeve, but for all the fuss about the specifics, this does rather overlook that Leicester had ten outfield players inside their own penalty area and still failed to clear the ball. And if you have to watch an incident 12 times and still can’t decide completely whether it should be a penalty or not, then it probably shouldn’t be given.
Brendan Rodgers knows about the Leicester defensive issues but doesn’t seem able to fix them. Yet again, they conceded a lead from a set-piece, and in the trigger-happy world of the Premier League in 2022, any run of results without a win (and especially with the cherry on the cake of having heavily lost a local derby to lower-division opposition) starts to put pressure on the manager. They stay in 11th but they’re now as close in the table to Newcastle United – six points – as they are to Brighton. European football, it seems, may end up dependent on them winning the Europa Conference League.