Belfast Telegraph

Eamon Sweeney: How Jonny Evans, Brendan Rodgers and Leicester City are showing up Premier League's big spenders

Jonny Evans netted only his second Premier League goal for Leicester in Sunday's routine win at Aston Villa.
Jonny Evans netted only his second Premier League goal for Leicester in Sunday's routine win at Aston Villa.

By Eamonn Sweeney

Liverpool can stop worrying about Manchester City. They can start worrying about Leicester City instead.

It's unlikely anyone will stop Jurgen Klopp's men from winning their club's first league title in 30 years. But if anyone does it's more likely to be the Foxes than a City side which, after Saturday's defeat by Manchester United, may turn its mind towards the Champions League.

If Liverpool should falter, Leicester can capitalise. Why not? After all, they've been champions more recently than Manchester United, Arsenal, Spurs or Liverpool.

There's been a lot of talk about (Leicester) City's league-leading defensive record but they're no slouch in the attacking department either. The four goals against Aston Villa yesterday made it 39 from 16 games. That's five fewer than Manchester City and just one behind Liverpool. The next highest scorers, Chelsea, are eight behind Leicester.

Sixteen of those goals have been scored by Jamie Vardy who's on course to pass the tally of 24 which played a key role in the miracle season of 2015-'16.

It seems strange that Vardy remained at the King Power Stadium. The other key players from that season, N'Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez, Danny Drinkwater, were snapped up by bigger clubs. Yet, while big money was being paid for Romelu Lukaku, for Alexis Sanchez, for Olivier Giroud and Alexandre Lacazette, Vardy stayed put.

It's as though the suddenness of his rise combined with the simplicity of his style to make him seem a flash in the pan. What was there really to Vardy except an ability to latch on to balls over the top, outpace the defence and slip the ball past the 'keeper? Surely he needed a bit more to his game than that.

In the season after title success it seemed even Vardy himself might agree with that prognosis. Following his elevation to international football he appeared intent on displaying a more rounded style, like a rock band keen to show there's more to them than the frenetic energy of their debut album.

That disappointing season showed, like the later Undertones albums, that sometimes you're better off sticking to what made you great in the first place. No shame being a one-trick pony if it's a really good trick. So now he's quit international football and after hitting 20 goals two seasons ago and 18 last term, he could top 30 this season.

Leicester's fourth goal yesterday was a microcosm of the Vardy style. The run to get on the end of Dennis Praet's through ball, the touch off the thigh which carried the ball into his path, the pace which brought him clear of pursuers and the second touch which slotted the ball past Tom Heaton.

It all looked so easy you'd imagine it would be easy to stop. But no-one's been able to stop Vardy lately. He's now scored in eight successive Premier League games, three short of the record he set four seasons ago.

One of the joys of Leicester's title triumph was that the team contained players who'd toiled in the lower echelons and never imagined they'd attain such heights. The current team is very different, packed as it is with young players apparently set for great futures.

Of yesterday's starting line-up, Wilfred Ndidi, Ben Chilwell and Youri Tielemans are 22 and Caglar Soyuncu and Kelechi Iheanacho are 23. Talented sub Harvey Barnes is 21. This youthful axis and the team's fluent football sometimes make Leicester resemble a classic Ajax outfit. Like Ajax, they'll struggle to keep their youngsters from the clutches of richer clubs. Yet the ease with which they've absorbed the loss of Harry Maguire suggests this may not be an insuperable problem.

No team in the Premier League has been so wisely and economically constructed. The outstanding back five cost slightly more than half the money Manchester United paid for Maguire. Chilwell, one of the best left-backs in the League, is home-grown. Ricardo, the best right-back by a distance, cost £20million from Porto, roughly the same amount paid to Freiburg for Soyuncu, a revelation at centre-back.

These signings throw the profligacy of the Premier League giants into stark relief. Manchester City have spent a combined £110m on Joao Cancelo and Benjamin Mendy, a pair of full-backs greatly inferior to Leicester's cut-price duo. Central pairing John Stones and Fernandinho cost a combined £80m yet were entirely inadequate against United's speedy attack on Saturday.

Now Pep Guardiola is after Soyuncu. The Turkish international has been sensational in the back four but that surely owes something to the reassuring presence of Jonny Evans beside him. Evans cost Leicester just £3.5m from relegated West Brom last year and you suspect the bigger clubs would have found it beneath their dignity to even consider signing him.

Yet the Northern Ireland defender is a proven Premier League performer and would undoubtedly have improved an Arsenal back four anchored by prize loose cannons Sokratis Papastathopolous (£17m, the same age as Evans) and David Luiz (£8m, a year older) with an even looser one Shkodran Mustafi (£35m) in reserve.

Evans is fulfilling the same role as the inspirational Wes Morgan did during the title-winning season while Brendan Rodgers' management is every bit as canny as Claudio Ranieri's. It would require a collapse of spectacular proportions at Anfield for title lightning to strike twice in the same place but at the moment Leicester are by some distance the second best team in the top flight.

Once again the Foxes are showing up the shortcomings of their supposed betters.

Who'd have thought we'd be mentioning the words 'Leicester' and 'title' in the same sentence again so soon after the last time?

Irish Independent


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