Premier League roundtable: Leicester spark back to life

Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images   Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images /

This weekend in the Premier League, Leicester thrashed Manchester City, Arsenal came from behind to beat Stoke in another impressive performance and Manchester United earned a narrow 1-0 win against Tottenham. In our weekly roundtable, FanSided’s soccer staff share their reactions. 

Leicester perfect the art of time travel

James Dudko, @JamesDudko

Leicester achieved a miracle in the Premier League this weekend. No, really. The reigning champions achieved the miracle of time travel. It’s something the Foxes had been trying to do for 14 games while they stumbled through one of the most underwhelming title defenses in the history of England’s top flight, including seven defeats and four draws.

Yet a jump back through the continuum was achieved when Leicester beat Manchester City 4-2, a victory loaded with all the hallmarks of the most shocking title win in Premier League history. There was stubborn defending, lightning pace on the break and ruthless finishing.

This was vintage 2015-16 Leicester, as the home side exploded into a 2-0 lead in no time at all thanks to Jamie Vardy and Andy King. But the transference wasn’t really complete until Vardy got his second after racing to meet the sweetest cushioned touch of the season from Riyad Mahrez.

Remember the Vardy and Mahrez combo? The pair fired Leicester to the title, but had until Saturday been sleepwalking through the business of defending it.

Vardy’s summer dalliance with Arsenal and Mahrez’s decision to stick around longer than anyone thought he would made it seem like both players had their heads and hearts somewhere else. Anywhere other than Leicester.

But it looked like they’d never skipped a beat when Mahrez casually and suavely lifted his foot to push a pass into the path of Vardy, a terrific striker looking back to his swift and predatory best. Vardy completed his hat-trick late on after City center-back John Stones added yet another gaffe to his growing scrapbook of shame.

Vardy collecting the match ball was doubly significant for Leicester. Not only did it stop the rot and guarantee three invaluable points over free-falling City. It also proved Leicester can still win the way they did last season, even when missing some of the key figures from that historic campaign.

The Foxes won a big game against a title contender (yes, City still just about qualify as one of those). Leicester did it without last season’s linchpin, N’Golo Kante. They did it without Kasper Schmeichel tending goal, as Ron-Robert Zieler continued to cover for the injured Dane.

These aren’t reasons Leicester should go straight from champions to relegation candidates. But they are reasons a team who conquered all last season might not be so overpowering now.

It’s been too easy for the critics to say the losing run represents the real Leicester. Too easy to say losing is the default position for this squad during a season when the gods of fate aren’t showering the playing surface at King Power Stadium with magic beans.

But those explanations are too convenient and hide a not-small amount of resentment toward last season’s Cinderella story. The practical truth is Leicester were always going to drop their levels somewhat once Kante upped sticks and took his relentless pressing and flawless tackling technique to Chelsea. Even against City, the man signed to replace Kante, Nampalys Mendy, was still not fit enough to start.

Leicester were always going to struggle when Schmeichel, the essential anchor for last season’s miserly back five, fractured his hand in early November. It’s ironic Schmeichel’s mitt got dented in the Champions League, the premier club competition in Europe, and one the Foxes are participating in by virtue of winning the title.

Leicester have already infused the Champions League with the same magic that wowed the neutrals and upset the old guard in England last season. The Foxes won their group and reached the last 16 while losing just one match. Not bad for debutants at Europe’s top table.

But achievements like those come at a cost, emotional and physical. Is it any wonder players probably already tired of pinching themselves and asking if it’s all real would find juggling the demands of league and European soccer for the first time difficult? Dropped points on home shores were surely inevitable while the Foxes were straining to prove they belong in the same pot as Barcelona, Juventus and Atletico Madrid.

All those problems went out the window when Vardy, Mahrez and the rest turned back the clock to tear through City. Leicester won’t retain the title, but they won’t be in a scrap for survival either. Not now they’ve rediscovered the swagger of champions.

Arsenal extend unbeaten run with impressive win against Stoke

Michael Harshbarger, @TimHalpert

Arsenal enjoyed sitting atop the Premier League mountain for around 20 hours after defeating Stoke 3-1 on Saturday. Chelsea, or the team who shall never leave points on the table again, won their ninth straight league match on Sunday, hanging on for 1-0 victory over West Brom. The victory puts them three points clear of the second-place Gunners.

Arsenal are enjoying a fairly decent streak of their own, going unbeaten in their last 14 league matches, since they fell 4-3 to Liverpool on the opening day of the season.

Arsenal have gone all Human Torch in December, scoring 12 goals in their last three games across all competitions. They scored four against Basel in the Champions League on Wednesday, which allowed them to win Group A and avoid Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in the first knockout round. The win included a hat-trick from summer signing Lucas Perez, which had some calling for him to replace Theo Walcott in Arsene Wenger’s first choice starting XI (more on that later).

The Saturday before, against West Ham, the Gunners dropped five goals, including an Alexis Sanchez hat-trick, and a goal apiece from Mesut Ozil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

So, how do we account for this goal scoring boom, and, therefore, the soaring hopes of Arsenal supporters?

Alexis’ 11 league goals are the obvious factor, so obvious there’s no point talking about them in any more detail. The guy knows how to score.

We can start instead with Ozil, who seems to have found the old shooting boots in a forgotten closet somewhere: last season he scored six league goals; the season before he scored four league goals. This season? He already has five Premier League goals in 14 appearances, including his best Robin van Persie impersonation from Saturday. That’s useful.

In a similar vein, Walcott is on track to outpace his previous two seasons’ goal scoring totals by a large margin: He has seven in 14 appearances already this season; for the entire 2015-16 season he scored five, as he did the year before that (he was limited due to injury, appearing in only 13 games all season). His goal on Saturday helped to quiet talk about new hot thing Lucas taking his spot in the lineup.

Arsenal fans may be having flashbacks to Walcott’s hyper-productive 2012-13 season that saw him score 14 goals and assist on 10 more. But he spent a lot of time up top that season, a role currently owned by Sanchez. That means Walcott’s scoring goals from out wide, or as a withdrawn striker, and that’s very good news for Arsenal; as is the return of Hector Bellerin, who can provide service like this to the attackers.

In addition to the players actually putting the ball in the back of the net, the Francis Coquelin-Granit Xhaka partnership in Arsenal’s midfield has blossomed into a true force in front of the back four. Xhaka has taken a while to adapt to the Premier League, but now, after 12 league appearances, seems to be settling into his role as deep-lying playmaker. He’s picking out the correct pass and starting the attack from the midfield stripe.

Coquelin, meanwhile, is a competent destroyer in front of his center-backs. He may not add much going forward, but his tenacity and willingness to chase down any and every attack has made him a key cog in Arsene Wenger’s 4-2-3-1 formation.

Arsenal’s defense has done well to weather the storm of injuries that have plagued them for much of the season — Gabriel was filling in at right back against Stoke, and it was as terrifying as it sounds. Laurent Koscielny has been the anchoring point all season as his back line mates have rotated in and out around him.

Unfortunately, the Gunners were dealt another blow on Saturday in this area as Shkodran Mustafi had to be subbed off in the first half against Stoke. Luckily, Bellerin was available to relieve him. Going forward, Wenger will be left to choose between Gabriel and summer-signee Rob Holding as Mustafi’s replacement over the next three weeks.

Arsenal have proved they can handle such setbacks this season; the recent spike in scoring will also relieve the pressure in the back should it continue. For now, the Gunners will look to hang around at the top of the Premier League table.

Manchester United stay in touch with the top four

Anthony Gallo, @Gallo_Calcio

Before Manchester United’s match against Tottenham Sunday, United manager Jose Mourinho suggested his opponents were the best team in the Premier League. Maybe he was mocking Spurs; maybe he meant it. But after 90 minutes, United were back to winnings ways thanks to one of their summer signings.

Mourinho elected to use the same 4-3-3 lineup he used against Everton last week, and it looked to have paid off early on. Paul Pogba received a low cross from striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the first minute, and wired a shot on target only to be denied by Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris.

This was also the third time Henrikh Mkhitaryan started for Mourinho’s side in Premier League play, and the Armenian international has shown recently he deserves a spot in the starting XI after the club paid $44.8 million for him in the summer.

Mkhitaryan’s first league goal of the season in the 29th minute was a thing of beauty. He received a nicely timed through ball from Ander Herrera, splitting by the defense and putting the ball over a on-rushing Lloris to give his side the lead against fifth-placed Tottenham.

United would go on to have the majority of chances in the first half, which made things a bit easier for Mourinho and his staff going into the break. However, Mauricio Pochettino’s improved in the second half as United dropped off.

For the first 15 minutes of the second period, Spurs pressured United. Christian Eriksen tested David de Gea twice from distance, while Victor Wanyama could easily have scored with a wide open header. The home side stayed strong, however, and denied any chance Tottenham tried to create.

Mourinho said before the match he wants his side to score more goals, and was frustrated at the way they had fallen apart late in games. He was probably livid, then, when a Pogba free-kick hit the crossbar in the 62nd minute, and a minute later when the Frenchman’s shot at the edge of the box was parried nicely by Lloris. But he could take encouragement from the way his side defended, even though they managed only one goal at home again.

Mourinho received some bad news late in the game, when Mkhitaryan had to leave the match with an injury after getting hauled down by Spurs full back Danny Rose, though the coach said he expects Mkhitaryan to be back for their Boxing Day match against Sunderland.

United, all things considered, probably deserved the win, their first at home in the league since September. The Red Devils are now only three points behind Tottenham in fifth and six points behind Manchester City in fourth.

The win against Tottenham wasn’t the most eye-catching in the world, but was exactly the sort of 1-0 win on which Mourinho has made his name. He may still be unhappy with his side’s offensive output, but for the time since the opening three weeks of the season, it feels like United are moving in the right direction.