Down to earth? Leicester dream of top six, but reality is harsh
It was the perfect occasion to end over 21 years of failure. Leicester hadn’t tasted victory at Old Trafford since Tony Cottee gave them a 1-0 win in January 1998, but this was their best shot at ending a barren run of lost causes.
They’re still waiting.
You couldn’t really knock fans’ pre-match optimism, mind: I’m one of them. An unbeaten start after four matches had vindicated pre-season optimism; Leicester had gone to Stamford Bridge and dominated without winning, comfortably seen off Bournemouth before the international break and headed to Manchester knowing they’d face an underachieving team shorn of Paul Pogba at very least.
This time, though, Brendan Rodgers' side fell short; engulfed in a 25-minute midfield storm from kick-off, the Foxes conceded a soft penalty and then struggled to lay a glove on the hosts thereafter.
Old Trafford-bound. United's injuries aside, this is the closest we've been to them for years. Arguably the first time we'll be going there as an aggressor rather than a defending side in most of our lifetimes.
Cue 1-0 defeat. #lcfc
— Joe Brewin (@JoeBrewinFFT) September 14, 2019
A side packed with young talent had the particularly optimistic whispering sweet nothings of the top four: easy to suggest, less so to justify considering that required an average of almost 1.87 points per game last season – or slightly more than three wins in five matches, essentially. For what was a fine season at Wolves last term, they still finished nine points behind a beleaguered and abused Manchester United.
To get into the top six, you need to do three things: beat the bottom-half sides, take points off those around you, but also nick ones off the established Big Six too. Not some of those things – all of them. It’s not easy.
Achieving consistency with a young side is also tough. Rodgers said it himself after the narrow win at Sheffield United, speaking of Caglar Soyuncu – so far lauded by Leicester fans licking their wounds from Harry Maguire’s summer exit, but ultimately still raw and adjusting to life in English football. “He’ll make mistakes,” admitted his manager – and he did. In a tight game, it was Soyuncu’s rash challenge in the early exchanges which handed Marcus Rashford the game’s winning penalty.
There is still plenty to admire about Leicester: two full-backs who love to get forward (Chilwell, Pereira); one of the Premier League’s finest ball-winners (Ndidi); two of its finest technicians (Tielemans, Maddison); the roguish striker who guarantees goals (Vardy); academy graduates getting their chances (Choudhury, Barnes). When it all comes together, it’s a nice story. Neutrals don’t find it difficult to buy into.
But as the New York Times journalist Rory Smith noted at full-time, perhaps the top six is a “state of mind” for now. A nice thought, but let’s see a little more hard evidence before buying into it.
Leicester are still good at achieving the illusion of looking better than they are. Their biggest problem under Claude Puel was possession without a cause. It improved under Rodgers towards the end of 2018/19, albeit against weaker opposition. As Stats Bomb noted in their pre-season preview of the Foxes: “Leicester ranked fourth in open play expected goals, seventh in shots, and fifth in clear shots generated” for the 10 matches that the Northern Irishman took charge of. Something was developing.
And it is: this isn’t purely an illusion. Leicester have a better squad and a better manager than they did last season. Their second-half display at Chelsea was real, and should have earned them more than a solitary point. On another day, they may have come away from Old Trafford with something more to show.
But there’s a reason why the Big Six have occupied 54 of the Premier League’s 60 top-six places of the last decade. Dare to dream... but perhaps wait it out a little first.