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Jonny Evans' absence has revealed Leicester's weakness – just as it did for Manchester United

Jonny Evans, Leicester
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The Harry Maguire derby will take place without Harry Maguire. The Jonny Evans derby may not feature Jonny Evans. 

When Leicester host Manchester United on Saturday, it was set to be a meeting of centre-backs with shared features on their CVs, but very different price tags. United made Maguire the most expensive footballing central defender in history when they bought him from Leicester for £80 million; his old team-mate Evans, whose route from Old Trafford took him via West Bromwich Albion, cost City just £3 million. He is an example that, while there has been an explosion in the price of centre-backs, bargains can still be found.

Evans’ reputation has been elevated by Leicester’s – and his – excellence in recent years; perhaps it was, too, by United’s travails before they bought Maguire. He was the one who got away, the man who lost a game of musical chairs with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling and was exiled by Louis van Gaal. If plenty regretted that decision, Evans has felt a more assured, more authoritative figure in recent seasons than he was during his erratic moments at Old Trafford. Arguably it was only when Raphael Varane was signed to dovetail with Maguire that they had truly replaced Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, the duo Evans understudied and was expected to succeed; instead of being side-by-side in the visitors’ defence at the King Power Stadium this weekend, they may have teamed up on the treatment table.

But importance can be illustrated in absence. Minus Evans, Leicester have lost some of their solidity and stability. Injury and illness have limited him to 29 minutes of Premier League football this season and if it was inauspicious that Leicester conceded in the first, to Bernardo Silva, the difficulties have tended to come without him. Leicester find themselves with the third-worst defensive record while only four teams have allowed more shots. 

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Reasons abound; so do fitness issues. James Justin looked their finest full-back last season but is yet to play this year. Ricardo Pereira has been below his best. Covid has meant Ryan Bertrand has had a stop-start beginning to his City career. In defensive midfield, Wilfred Ndidi is now sidelined. At the back, losing Wesley Fofana in pre-season meant Leicester’s losses can be counted in both quantity and quality.

Caglar Soyuncu’s horribly error-prone form can be traced back to Euro 2020 but he was wretched at West Ham and conceded a penalty needlessly at Norwich. Daniel Amartey was a stopgap sidekick in August while Soyuncu and the new signing Jannik Vestergaard have looked mismatched since then. If their relationship is at such an embryonic stage that it is logical to expect improvement, it underlines what Leicester have missed.

Soyuncu has looked miscast as the senior figure. When, after Maguire’s 2019 sale, he was the reserve who was reinvented as a revelation, it was alongside Evans. When Fofana made his hugely impressive introduction to the Premier League the following season, it was as Evans’ partner. The Northern Irishman is less flashy than the Turkey international, but he has a capacity to knit a defence together; it is the sort of influence that is rarely measured in statistics about the numbers of interceptions, blocks or tackles made but which can be reflected in results. 

And the last two seasons have shown how removing the premier central defender can destabilise a top team, whether Aymeric Laporte at Manchester City in 2019/20 or Virgil van Dijk at Liverpool last season. In both cases, their injuries were compounded by other absences that meant midfielders had to slot in at centre-back. Yet, minus Justin and Fofana, Leicester can testify that defensive injuries rarely just come in ones.

But it feels no coincidence when perhaps the worst spell of Brendan Rodgers’ time in the Midlands has come when Evans has largely been missing, just as his appearance against Napoli seemed symbolic. Leicester did not concede in the first half with Evans. They were breached twice in the second period without him. His return may not be a panacea for all their problems but the chances are that his colleagues would take confidence from his presence. And centre-backs who make others better tend to be the most significant of all.

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