Why Leicester City should remain fearless during the Christmas period

Leicester City’s 2015-16 Premier League season has been nothing short of a fairy tale.  Favourites for relegation after an offseason which saw the club part ways with Nigel Pearson, the man who steered the Foxes to survival after spending four and a half months at the foot of the table, Leicester have set the top flight of English football alight with a string of scintillating performances under current manager Claudio Ranieri and find themselves top of the Premier League table going into the Christmas period.  Even the most optimistic Leicester City fan would not have predicted such a strong first half to the season.

Whether Leicester can realistically challenge for the Premier League title has been a real talking point, but there is no reason to think that this side is any more likely to lose ground than the supposed favourites.  December was considered to be the month during which Leicester would face tougher tests from stronger league opposition, but the Foxes have already taken 10 points from four games, including wins against Chelsea and Everton.  Many pundits have suggested that Leicester must beat the top teams to be in with a chance of winning the title, but such logic does not prevail when Manchester City lose to Everton and West Ham United – two sides Leicester City have already beaten on the road this season.

Although Leicester City may never find themselves with a better opportunity to push for the title, they go into the second half of this season without facing the media pressure that Arsenal and Manchester City will come up against.  Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, two of the league’s top prospects – and likely January transfer window targets – have a combined 28 top-flight goals this season and continue in a rich vein of form which shows no real sign of faltering.  Foxes fans will have been very pleased to hear Claudio Ranieri publicly stating that neither player is for sale at any price, and it is hard to see why either would want to leave for pastures new.

Whilst Vardy and Mahrez will take most of the plaudits for an astonishing first-half to this Premier League campaign, both players will be the first to acknowledge their teammates who have been as instrumental to Leicester’s success.  N’Golo Kante – a relative steal at £5.6 million – may have performed better than any other top-flight central midfielder so far this season, and his ability to not only adapt quickly to life in the Premier League, but his understanding of the game and positional play has not gone unnoticed by Ranieri and Foxes fans alike – especially given the loss of Esteban Cambiasso over the summer had been such a cause for concern.

Despite Cambiasso’s exit from the East Midlands, Danny Drinkwater continues to embody many of the positive attributes which the decorated Argentine displayed during Leicester’s remarkable second half of last season.  Last year will have been frustrating for the former Manchester United player, but his obvious development is a sign that a lack of game time certainly was not time wasted.  Foxes fans will be hopeful that the hamstring injury picked up against Chelsea will not keep the midfielder side-lined for too long.

An improving and relatively unheralded defence has only conceded four goals in the last five games (having previously shipped 20 goals in the first 13 games).  Many picked out Wes Morgan as the weak link in Leicester’s back line last year, and even at the beginning of this season, but the captain’s recent performances have been crucial in maintaining Leicester’s continued momentum.  Full-backs Christian Fuchs and Danny Simpson have played at a consistently high level, despite finding themselves outside of the starting XI at the beginning of this season – another example of players making the most of the opportunities handed to them.

In short, the key to Leicester’s success is more than down to just one or two key players.  It is a result of the positivity and fearlessness shown by the entire squad, and by the coaching staff.  Claudio Ranieri continues to manage expectation by telling the media that Leicester’s target is 40 points – a total that nobody had predicted that this club might well achieve before the New Year – but it is obvious that every player in that dressing room is taking this season one game at a time before getting at all carried away.  While a Boxing Day clash against Liverpool at Anfield seems like a lump of coal from the scheduling gods, Leicester City have not lost a Premier League match in a nine-month stretch dating back to the end of March 2015 (W8, D4) and have no reason to approach this match any differently.  Like their fans, the players should enjoy this moment – but should certainly show their opposition no respect based on club stature and history.

To experience a spell such as this can only truly be appreciated when a club has been through difficult times in the last several years; relegation to League One, Championship playoff heartbreak on two separate occasions, and last season’s horrendous run of form in the top flight. Leicester fans can be forgiven for enjoying this moment – as who knows how long it might last.

The Greatest Escape

Leicester City’s top flight status for next season was confirmed on Saturday following a goalless draw against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.  After an astonishing run of results, including six wins out of seven, the way in which the Foxes secured safety was almost anticlimactic – but that won’t bother anybody associated with this football club even in the slightest.  Other results around the league certainly favoured the Foxes over the weekend, but nothing can be taken away from what Nigel Pearson and Leicester City have achieved themselves over the last eight games of the season.

After a blistering start to their Premier League campaign which saw the Foxes pick up 8 points from their opening five matches – including an incredible 5-3 victory over Manchester United – Leicester struggled for results, losing eleven of their following thirteen league games, during which time Nigel Pearson’s men accumulated just two points from a possible 39 and were rooted to the bottom of the table from the end of November.  While being labelled as ‘unlucky’ by a number of pundits, and that their results were not always a reflection on the performances, Leicester City had been written off as relegated even before Christmas.

Despite picking up seven points out of a possible nine over the festive period, Leicester’s struggles continued as they went another eight games without a win.  Following a 4-3 loss at White Hart Lane, the Foxes were seven points adrift of safety heading into April.  But just eight games later, Nigel Pearson’s men can enjoy their final game of this Premier League campaign at the King Power Stadium against Queens Park Rangers, previously determined to be potentially Leicester’s most important fixture of the season, knowing they will be playing in the top tier of English football again next year.  It has been the greatest escape in Premier League history.

Even non-Leicester City supporters would struggle to argue against how impressive a turnaround Nigel Pearson has orchestrated since the beginning of April.  Their form over the last ten games has been bettered only by Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal – who boast first, second and third place in the Premier League.  Pearson may have had his critics for the run of form which led Leicester to prop up the other nineteen teams for 140 days – and there will be time to reflect on that over the summer – but he must receive huge credit for the character and togetherness which exists within this squad, and for not letting his players become distracted by the pressure of the situation.

Each of their last eight games, from which Leicester took 19 out of a possible 24 points, was certainly no given thing.  The turnaround began on 4 April at the King Power Stadium with a 2-1 victory over at-the-time ninth-placed West Ham United, followed by a remarkable 3-2 win over fellow strugglers West Bromwich Albion.  A 2-0 victory over Swansea lifted the Foxes off the bottom, and a scrappy win at Turf Moor saw Leicester climb out of the relegation zone for the first time since 22 November.  Despite losing their game in hand when the champions elect Chelsea came to town, the Foxes responded admirably with back-to-back wins over Newcastle and Southampton, before picking up a point against Sunderland on Saturday to guarantee survival.  Of those eight games, four of the teams played were very much in a relegation battle (and two still are), and two teams continue to push for European football next year.  For Leicester City to hit red-hot form at the time that they did and to beat teams still with something to play for is something that everybody associated with the football club should be immensely proud for.

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Possibly the most remarkable statistic is how defensively solid Leicester have been during this run of form.  With 54 goals conceded, their overall record this season ranks as one of the worst in the league, but the Foxes have conceded just six goals in their last eight.  Only Chelsea and Arsenal have conceded fewer goals in that time.  The loan signing of the experienced Robert Huth is undoubtedly accountable for Leicester’s recently stingy defensive record (the Foxes have not conceded a Premier League goal in 548 minutes while Huth has been on the pitch).  At the other end of the pitch, Leicester have been in excellent goal-scoring form during the same period, having found the net fourteen times, and scoring at least two goals in five of their last eight matches.  Only Manchester City have a better record in front of goal during this time.  In short, Leicester have performed far, far better than the teams around them over the last two months – and achieved as much as some of the teams who will be playing Champions League football next season.

With the opportunity to finish thirteenth in the Premier League and with a final points tally of 41, Leicester City will undoubtedly want to end the season on a high note against Queens Park Rangers this Saturday in front of a sell-out crowd at the King Power Stadium.  But after another roller-coaster season, this is one game for Nigel Pearson and his team where the pressure, deservedly, will be off.

Stability over survival: is there more to football than the Premier League?

A Sunday evening social media frenzy gave Leicester City supporters a very real glimpse as to what life would be like without Nigel Pearson at as manager of their football club – and for the majority of those supporters, it was not pretty.

Sky Sports and a number of online newspapers had broken the story last night that Nigel Pearson had been sacked as Leicester City manager.  After several hours of silence, the club released a statement confirming that this was not the case, and that “reports to the contrary [were] inaccurate and without foundation”.  The time in between was agonising for Leicester City and Nigel Pearson supporters, who had to consider the very real prospect of a replacement (and likely to be currently out of work) manager – at this stage of the season.

Nigel Pearson’s altercation with James McArthur during Leicester’s 1-0 home defeat to Crystal Palace on Saturday was regrettable and somewhat unsavoury, but it also gave the media – and fans who have been losing patience with Pearson – further ammunition to suggest that it was time for him and the club to part ways.  With upcoming games away at Arsenal, Everton and Manchester City, it seemed believable that Pearson’s departure had been confirmed, until the club issued a report to confirm the opposite.

The reality is that relegation is a very real possibility for Leicester City this season.  In all likelihood, the club needs to win at least five of their remaining fourteen fixtures to stand a chance of maintaining their Premier League status in May.  The Foxes have dropped points against other struggling teams facing a battle for top-flight survival over the next few months (notably at home against Burnley and West Bromwich Albion, and away at Queens Park Rangers and Aston Villa).  It could even be argued that a positive FA Cup run has paved over the cracks of a terrible run of results dating back to Leicester’s 5-3 win over Manchester United at the end of September 2014.

There is an argument that Leicester City has the right owners, stadium, facilities and history to be a top flight team.  A number of fans believe that Leicester has a Premier League pedigree, and that the club is currently where they belong.  The truth is that none of that means anything, and you can only consider yourself a Premier League club based on where you are now – not where you were ten to fifteen years ago.  Leicester City has been a Championship club for nine of the last eleven seasons.

But is there more to football than the Premier League?  In this era, many consider any alternative to be unthinkable.  Another reality is that there are only 20 places in the top flight of English football, and not being amongst those 20 places does not necessarily indicate a bad team or a bad manager.  If the Foxes were to get relegated this season, would it really be a smart decision for the club to replace Nigel Pearson, bearing in mind that he is the first manager to achieve promotion with Leicester City – twice – since 2004?  Given Pearson’s experience at Championship level, would he not be the right man to guide Leicester City back to the top flight in a year’s time?

Nigel Pearson could have gone out and spent millions in the transfer window on big-name players in an attempt to improve the club’s survival hopes.  Observers of his tactics in the transfer window will confirm that this is not his style.  There is no guarantee that a desperate spending spree in January would result in a seventeenth-placed finish.  The club would be in a far more precarious position if it were relegated with an additional five Premier League players on their books.  Not only could these types of signings come with baggage and hefty wage requirements, but they come with no guarantee of Championship experience – something this current Leicester City squad has in, and something Nigel Pearson will be very mindful of at this time.

For the first time since the late 1990s, and amidst the highs and lows, Leicester City has achieved something bigger than Premier League status.  It has achieved stability.  And while it may not seem believable to everybody at the moment, Nigel Pearson is the reason for that stability.  Only a minority of clubs can say they have been able to achieve the same in the modern era of football.

Real test yet to come for Leicester City

Leicester City have made a promising start to life in the Premier League following a ten-year absence from the top tier of English football.  The Foxes have yet to register a win in their first three games, and suffered defeat at Stamford Bridge, but came from behind against Arsenal and Everton to earn a draw against two top-four hopefuls.  Considered relegation fodder by many, Nigel Pearson’s side sit fifteenth in the table during this September international break, having gained with two points from three games, which is a better start than many level-headed fans would have expected.

What is as impressive as the modest points tally is the manner of the performances.  Leicester do not look like a team out of place in the Premier League, even in spite of the teams faced so far.  The Foxes have averaged just 35 per cent possession in their opening games, but have created real goal-scoring opportunities in all three outings.  Nigel Pearson adopted a 4-2-3-1 formation towards the end of their 2013/14 Championship campaign, knowing that Leicester would need to adapt at the next level, and this is already paying dividends.

A number of players have noticeably upped their game this season.  Andy King and Liam Moore, who were not regular starters in the Championship, look as though they have played at this level for a number of years, and are very much making the most of their opportunities.  Jeffrey Schlupp, who is being utilised more as an attacking wide player, looks more of a threat going forward than he ever has done.  Riyad Mahrez appears to be the key to unlocking opposing defences.  And Leo Ulloa, already with two goals to his name, is doing his very best to repay his transfer fee and win over Leicester fans at the same time.

While there are positives to be taken at this stage of the season, the real test is yet to come for Leicester City.  Relegation will not be avoided in fixtures against the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea.  It will be games like Hull away, three days after Christmas, and trips to Burnley and West Bromwich Albion towards the end of the season.  Those will be the games that Nigel Pearson will be looking to take results from – and, with the greatest of respect, the teams that he will be looking for his players to take points away from.

Of course, each game is important, and Leicester will need to maintain the same level of performance for the rest of this season if they are to hold onto their top-flight status.  But Nigel Pearson will be pleased with what he has seen from his team so far, and will hope to build on an encouraging start to life in the Premier League.

We are Premier League: Leicester City clinch Championship title

Leicester City supporters have witnessed more than their fair share of ups and downs in the last seven years.  The horror of relegation to League One in 2008 saw Nigel Pearson appointed as Leicester’s new manager, followed by a thoroughly successful season in which the Foxes secured promotion back to the second-tier as champions.  Pearson guided Leicester to the Championship playoffs during the 2009-10 campaign, only to be beaten on penalties by Cardiff City.  Eighteen months of managerial turmoil followed, with limited success on the pitch, before Pearson was reinstated at the club in November 2011, to the delight of most Foxes supporters.  After being given time to make the side his own, Pearson guided Leicester City to the playoffs at the end of the 2012-13 campaign, despite a disastrous run of form which saw Leicester win just three of their remaining seventeen league fixtures, only again to suffer the most gut-wrenching playoff heartache at Vicarage Road.  Critics began to suggest that Nigel Pearson may not be the right man to guide Leicester back to the top-flight.  For want of a better phrase, and the avoidance of a footballing cliché that even I have used before, being a Leicester City supporter has been a roller coaster ride over the last seven years.

Leicester City clinched the Championship title last night at the Reebok Stadium with a 1-0 win over Bolton Wanderers, courtesy of a howitzer strike from Lloyd Dyer, and will return to the Premier League in August for the first time in a decade.  Nigel Pearson has steadied that roller coaster – at least for now.

There’s no big secret to Leicester’s success this season; it is purely down to hard work and consistency.  Nigel Pearson is not the type of manager to spend millions on big-name players.  He is smart enough to realise that promotion from the Championship cannot be bought.  As such, he made minor tweaks and additions to last season’s squad.  Despite the perception that many have of Leicester City being a big-spending club, five of Pearson’s seven signings this season were free transfers, including free agents Marcin Wasilewski, Gary Taylor-Fletcher and Kevin Phillips, who have all played their part in Leicester’s success this year.  They are typical Pearson signings: those who are willing to work hard for each other, the fans, and their manager.  They are a welcome addition to an already strong core of players that are used to lining up alongside one another.  Right now, this Leicester City squad is more united than it has been in a long time, and it is clear to see in every game that they play.

On the same day that David Moyes was added to the seemingly endless list of managerial casualties, Nigel Pearson, currently the longest-serving manager in the Championship (although still less than two and a half years into his second spell at the King Power Stadium), stands as a reminder of the unsympathetic, disadvantageous revolving-door culture in modern football.  Huge credit must go to chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and vice-chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, not only for the financial stability they have given Leicester City for years to come, but also for the faith they have shown in Nigel Pearson, and for their patience in a game that is becoming increasingly impatient.

How Leicester City sealed promotion: ten season-defining moments

It is official: Leicester City will be playing their football in the Premier League next season.  With six games to go, the Foxes boast a nineteen-point lead over third-placed Queens Park Rangers, and a nine-point lead over second-placed Burnley, as they look set to be crowned winners of the Championship on 3 May at the King Power Stadium.

Nigel Pearson has made it clear that his side will not be taking their foot off the gas for the last six games of the season.  However, fans can rest assured that their side have secured automatic promotion.  Here are ten season-defining moments in Leicester City’s 2013-14 Championship campaign:

10. 26 December 2013: Leicester 1 Reading 0: The Foxes go top of the Championship

On paper, this result may not seem all that remarkable, but it was pivotal in Leicester City’s success this year for two reasons.  Firstly, it was a comfortable win against a side that had beaten the Foxes in their last six straight meetings, and secondly, David Nugent’s first-half penalty secured the three points which took Leicester to the top of the Championship table – where they have remained since Boxing Day.

9. 3 August 2013: Middlesbrough 1 Leicester 2: second-half response from Vardy and Drinkwater on opening day of the season

After the 2012/13 season ended in such disappointment for Leicester City, fans might have feared the worst after going a goal down at the Riverside on the first day of the season.  But, as so often they have done under Nigel Pearson, the Foxes were much improved after the break, and scored twice in seven second-half minutes through Danny Drinkwater and Jamie Vardy – two players who would go on to be central to Leicester’s success this season – to grab all three points.

8. 4 April 2014: Leicester 2 Sheffield Wednesday 1: Anthony Knockaert’s free-kick secures the three points to gain automatic promotion

Again, as a standalone game, this result doesn’t stand out – but the ramifications of it make this a big moment in Leicester’s 2013/14 league campaign.  Riyad Mahrez had given the Foxes an initial first-half lead, but it was Anthony Knockaert’s superb second-half free kick that gave Nigel Pearson’s men victory on the night and, with QPR and Derby both failing to win the day afterwards, that goal would seal Leicester City’s status as a top-flight club in 2014/15 with six games left to play.  For the manner in which Leicester’s season ended for Knockaert in 2013, it seemed only fitting that he score the decisive goal for the Foxes less than twelve months on.

7. 18 January 2014: Leeds 0 Leicester 1: Nugent’s smash-and grab winner

This win emphasised the difference between this season and last season for the Foxes.  A tricky game away from home in which Leicester were under the cosh for long periods of the first-half may well have been an away loss last season, but the visitors hung in, and with veteran striker Kevin Phillips making his debut as a substitute, David Nugent poked home a late winner to secure an invaluable three points for Leicester City, who opened up a five-point lead at the top of the table, after Burnley were held to a draw at home against Sheffield Wednesday.

6. 2 November 2013: Watford 0 Leicester 3: Leicester lay to rest the ghost of last season’s play-off semi-final

Nobody was entirely sure how this one was going to go, but Leicester, back at Vicarage Road, where they had been eliminated from the play-offs in heart-breaking fashion just six months ago, put in a thoroughly professional and complete performance, picking up their fourteenth win in all competitions along the way.  Their first goal was fortunate, but Anthony Knockaert and Lloyd Dyer put the game beyond the Hornets as the Foxes showed their mental strength in the second-half, laying to rest any lingering memories of their last trip to Watford.

5. 21 December 2013: QPR 0 Leicester 1: Coming of age game for Jamie Vardy as Leicester claim unlikely win at Loftus Road

Despite their strong start to the season, Leicester’s trip to then league-leaders and automatic promotion favourites QPR came on the back of four games without a win for the Foxes – including back-to-back-to-back defeats.  Harry Redknapp’s side were yet to suffer a league defeat in 2013/14, but after Leicester weathered an early barrage of pressure from the home side, Jamie Vardy’s composed first-half goal gave the Foxes an unlikely win at Loftus Road, at a point in the season when they could have started to fall behind the front runners.

4. 10 January 2014: Leicester 4 Derby 1: Foxes put on a master class against their East Midlands rivals

The Foxes have been impressive in front of the Sky cameras this year, but this performance was the one that really caught the eye of everybody watching, sending a message to the rest of the Championship at the same time.  Derby, who were very much in form going into this tie, were completely blown away by Leicester City, and the margin of victory could have been even greater.  David Nugent scored twice, and goals from Ritchie De Laet and Jamie Vardy rounded off a comprehensive win against their East Midlands rivals.  The win also gave Leicester their eighth win in nine games against Derby County.

3. 29 March 2014: Burnley 0 Leicester 2: Leicester open up six-point gap with deserved win at Turf Moor

Leicester had drawn their last two league games, while Burnley had narrowed the gap between first and second to just three points after back-to-back victories.  Although they were without top goal-scorer Danny Ings through injury, Sean Dyche would have felt that his side had a real opportunity to leapfrog Leicester City at the top of the table in this first-versus second encounter.  However, David Nugent gave Leicester a first-half lead against his former side, and substitute Chris Wood’s superb dipping volley with just over ten minutes remaining gave Leicester a deserved three points.  Victory for the Foxes also brought Burnley’s twelve-month unbeaten record at Turf Moor to a grinding halt.

2. 8 February 2014: Leicester 2 Watford 2: last-gasp strike from Danny Drinkwater rescues a point for Leicester

Leicester had won nine in a row in the league going into this game, having kept three clean sheets in their last four.  So it was much to everyone’s surprise when the Foxes found themselves 2-0 down with five minutes remaining in the first-half.  Fans will have had last season’s torrid end-of-season run of form in the back of their minds, but Matty James gave Leicester a lifeline just before the break.  Watford were organised in the second-half, and loaded the midfield with bodies to make it difficult for Leicester to attack.  The Foxes piled on the pressure, but as stoppage time ran down, it seemed like their unbeaten run would be coming to an end – until the 94th minute of the game, when Danny Drinkwater kept his composure to fire home a last-gasp equaliser to send the home fans into raptures.  Leicester have remained undefeated for another two month and counting since that game.

1. 25 March 2014: Leicester 1 Yeovil 1: never-say-die moment of the season as Schmeichel, Wood salvage a crucial equaliser

If there was one moment to encapsulate Leicester City’s never-say-die attitude this season, it was the 92nd minute of their home fixture against a well-organised, yet relegation-threatened, Yeovil Town on Tuesday 25 March.  The Foxes had been far from at their best in this match which, on paper, looked like a routine win.  Nigel Pearson’s men had found themselves a goal down at half-time and, while they were improved after the break, having dominated possession, shots, chances, it really did seem as though they would be handed their first league loss in over three months.  Foxes fans will feel they were denied at least one penalty in this match, but the truth is that Leicester did not play well enough to win this match.  In second-half stoppage time, when Kasper Schmeichel had gone up for a corner-kick in front of the Kop, the ball was picked up by Danny Drinkwater on the right-hand side, and the Danish keeper rose higher than any player on the pitch to head Drinkwater’s cross against the underside of the bar, which bounced down over the line, before being bundled into the net by Chris Wood.

It was an indescribable feeling that will only ever be known to the 26,240 fans at the King Power Stadium that night.  Schmeichel was wrongfully denied the goal, and it was fortunate that Chris Wood was in the right place at the right time in the Yeovil six-yard box, but it was a defining moment in Leicester City’s season – and history – and one which kept the momentum of the Foxes’ unbeaten run going.

Looking to the future

The January transfer window has not exactly brought about a plethora of activity to the King Power Stadium.  Nigel Pearson has previously indicated that he prefers to complete any business well before the deadline.  That being said, it won’t have come as a huge surprise to Foxes fans that the signings of Kevin Phillips and Riyad Mahrez are both done and dusted early into the calendar year.  While these two players may not have stirred more than a quiet excitement around the club compared with other teams in this division, these two signings tell us a lot about Nigel Pearson’s plans for the rest of the season.

The signing of Kevin Phillips might have been one of the worst-kept secrets in recent years.  However, the 40-year old striker brings a wealth of experience to the King Power Stadium.  He also has a proven track record of scoring goals, and, regardless of his age, he poses a problem for defenders.  He made an instant impact in his first appearance for the Foxes against Leeds United, and his dummy on the edge of the penalty area was the catalyst for David Nugent’s 88th-minute winner at Elland Road, during a game in which Leicester City were far from at their best.  Phillips has experienced promotion to the Championship with four separate sides, and Foxes fans will be hoping that he can make it five at the beginning of May.

The signing of Kevin Phillips demonstrates that Nigel Pearson has thought about Leicester’s torrid run of form this time last year, which saw the Foxes slip out of automatic promotion contention and almost miss out on the playoffs despite holding a comfortable position near the top of the Championship at the end of January 2013.  It means that Pearson has also considered that, despite the Foxes’ league-best current form, there will be games where perhaps Nugent or Vardy are unable to find that breakthrough goal; given that Leicester have faced every side in the league this season, opposing sides may travel to the King Power Stadium with the game plan of frustrating Nigel Pearson’s men, as was often the case during the League One campaign.  It also gives Leicester fans a mental boost, knowing that he is an option whether Leicester are winning 3-0 or losing 2-1 with fifteen minutes remaining.  A player like Kevin Phillips always possesses a threat, and he has the ability to change a game.  And, in addition, while he may not be one for the future in terms of his own playing career, he is certainly a great person for younger strikers like Jamie Vardy, Chris Wood and Jeffrey Schlupp to learn from in their development.

Leicester’s only other incoming player during this transfer window so far is Riyad Mahrez, a 22-year old French-Algerian winger who transferred from a French Ligue 2 side.  Mahrez made his debut for the Foxes last weekend as a substitute in a 2-0 win against Middlesbrough, and, after just eleven minutes of playing time, fans already seem hugely excited to find out exactly what he is capable of.

This Leicester City squad is well-balanced; some may call it traditional – a 4-4-2 line up, speed on the wings with full-backs capable of pushing forward, strong central defenders and two strikers who are starting to forge an effective partnership in front of goal.  However, if Lloyd Dyer or Anthony Knockaert were to pick up an injury, it would prevent Nigel Pearson from utilising this preferred formation and line-up to its desired effect. Pearson would have the option of switching to a 4-3-3, or possibly playing Jamie Vardy out wide, but Vardy has been so effective in front of goal that to play him out of position could have an adverse effect.  The addition of Mahrez provides cover – and depth – on the wings.  It also prevents a negative knock-on effect from potential injury or dip in form.  Dyer and Knockaert have both been excellent this season; Dyer, in particular, has surpassed expectation, while Knockaert is learning a more disciplined game – in the sense that what he doesn’t do is equally as important as what he does do.  Foxes fans will be incredibly excited to see Mahrez and Knockaert on either flank.  Opposing full-backs may not be relishing this opportunity.

While Leicester City have been eliminated from both cup tournaments this season, it might actually be a blessing in disguise as it allows them to give their entire focus to achieving promotion to the Premier League.  There are five Championship teams who still have an extra FA cup game to play (Nottingham Forest may have to play two more, if they are successful against Preston in a week’s time).  Leicester were one of only two teams to pick up three points in the Championship last weekend, which allowed them to open up an eight-point cushion at the top of the league.  The pressure is now on QPR and Burnley to keep pace.  That being said, fans will know it is too early to pop open the champagne.  This season has been hugely successful so far, but in the back of Pearson’s mind will be last season’s collapse.  It is his job to ensure that the players stay focused on the job at hand.  Phillips and Mahrez offer just a little something different in terms of options during the business end of this season.

An assessment of Leicester City so far this season – part two

23 games into the 2013/14 Championship campaign is as good a time as any to reflect on Leicester City’s season so far.  The Foxes have now faced every opponent in the division, and while tough fixtures certainly await Nigel Pearson’s men in 2014, it is fair to say that Leicester are where they are in the league – first – on merit.

Since the October international break, Leicester City have played twelve league fixtures.  They have won eight, drawn one, and lost three, picking up 25 points along the way.  As such, the Foxes are the only side in the Championship to average more than two points per game (2.1) throughout the first half of the season.  Impressively, Nigel Pearson’s side have only once fallen below a return of two points per game, which occurred after Leicester’s draw with at-the-time table-toppers Burnley.  Leicester also broke their December curse by winning three consecutive games to close out the calendar year – the Foxes had only won three games out of nineteen in December from 2009-2012 before that.

While the Foxes suffered back-to-back defeats in the league for the first time this season during this run of twelve fixtures, they also recorded three consecutive wins on two separate occasions.  This demonstrates an ability to bounce back from disappointing results, something that plagued Leicester during the final third of the 2012/13 season.  Every team will be looking to take points from the league leaders in the second half of this season, and it will be down to Nigel Pearson’s men to make sure that doesn’t happen.

One statistic which will have gone relatively unnoticed is that Leicester City have only drawn three times during the first half of this season.  They are on course to draw just six games this year, compared with last year’s eleven.  The Foxes have recorded a league-best fifteen wins so far this season (they had won eleven times at this point last year), which is indicative of a more positive mentality that this side is more than capable of taking all three points, be it home or away: Leicester also have the second-best away record in the Championship so far this season, having already won six times (the Foxes only won six league games on the road throughout the entire 2012/13 season).

A huge testament to Nigel Pearson’s focus on a top-two finish in the Championship this season is his team selection for Leicester’s fifth-round League Cup match against Manchester City, which was scheduled between two huge league games against Burnley and Queens Park Rangers.  Leicester lost 3-1 to the Premier League giants, but picked up four points from those two league games, which Pearson correctly deemed to be more important, and was able to utilise Jamie Vardy in the trip to Loftus Road who would go on and score the winning goal.  Facing a side such as Manchester City at home in a cup competition will always be a big deal for a Championship side, but the team selection for those three fixtures indicated that Nigel Pearson has his sights set on playing Premier League sides every week in 2014/15.

As it was in October, it is still too early to be thinking about putting the champagne on ice.  However, Leicester must now be considered serious contenders, given their impressive league position and ability to grind out important results against other promotion hopefuls, be it a narrow 1-0 win or a bizarre 5-3 thriller.   The next stage of the season could prove to be much more of a challenge if visiting sides consider more defensive tactics against the Foxes, in order to contrive an important away point (only three out of twelve teams that have made to the journey to the King Power Stadium this year have left with one point or more).

History is on Leicester’s side, in that each team that has topped the Championship on Boxing Day since the 2007/8 has gone on to achieve automatic promotion.  But this league is unpredictable, and a very tough one to escape from.  The Foxes need to continue to work hard in order to stay at the top of the table, and there is a lot of football to be played between now and the start of May – but things couldn’t look much better than they do right now.

December could define Leicester’s season

After suffering two consecutive losses for the first time this season, Leicester City will aim to pick up where they left off at the King Power Stadium with a first-versus-third clash with top-of-the-table Burnley this Saturday.  Just days later, the Foxes will host Premier League giants Manchester City in a League Cup quarter-final tie, before travelling to Loftus Road to take on fellow promotion rivals Queens Park Rangers.

The Foxes face two more top-six sides after Christmas – Reading the visitors on Boxing Day, before East-Midlands-rivals Derby County make the short trip down the M1 in early January.  The games come thick and fast in this league, and it goes to show how impressive Leicester’s start to their 2013/14 Championship campaign has been that the game against Manchester City is arguably the least important this month.

Leicester’s form home and away has been very good – Nigel Pearson’s men are averaging two points a game in the Championship – which suggests that back-to-back defeats at the hands of Sheffield Wednesday and Brighton last week were more a blip than anything else.  But with five games still to play in December, the Foxes must return to winning ways in order to keep pace with Sean Dyche’s Burnley and promotion-favourites QPR.  The next three weeks will be a real test for Leicester, but with four of the five games remaining this calendar year being played at the King Power Stadium – where the Foxes have won nine out of eleven in all competitions – Nigel Pearson will see this as a fantastic opportunity for his side to pick up points.

Leicester have been in this position before – as recently as last year, and, as Foxes fans will recall having watched their side slipped from top spot in the Championship and outside the play-off places during a torrid run of form, actually needed help on the last day of the season in order to reach the play-offs.  Nigel Pearson will not want to see his side squander an opportunity like that again, and, with a similar squad to last year, his players should have the mental strength to push on at this stage of the season.

This December could really define Leicester’s season – not only will it mark the half-way point of this campaign, but the Foxes will have played some tough opponents who are where they are in the league on merit.  There is some breathing room between third and sixth in the Championship right now, but Leicester should still be looking up and aiming for one of the two automatic promotion spots.  Building on their impressive home form would go some way to achieving this.

Old Haunts?

Leicester City’s start to the season would certainly indicate that they have moved on from the events that unfolded at the beginning of May, during which their promotion hopes were shattered in a matter of seconds. Six months on, the Foxes lie second in the Championship, averaging more than two points per game, and they possess the strongest home record of any team in this league. At the end of a positive seven days at the King Power Stadium, in which Leicester City kept their unbeaten home run alive with a 2-1 win over Bournemouth and a thrilling 4-3 League Cup victory over Premier League side Fulham, the Foxes now have the opportunity to exorcise any remaining demons from their last visit to Vicarage Road.

There is no doubt that the build-up to this one will focus on Anthony Knockaert’s penalty miss and Troy Deeney’s winner, which broke Leicester hearts back in May. But since then, the Foxes have moved on, and have won an impressive thirteen of seventeen games in all competitive competitions. There does not seem to be any hangover from that playoff loss. New players have come into the side that will not have to think about last season as they were not involved. Nigel Pearson has done a fantastic job of keeping his players focused, but some may just need to show that little bit of extra mental strength this afternoon, and remember that this is just one game.

Leicester fans certainly don’t need constant reminders about what happened at the end of last season, and they don’t need any comparisons to be made with today’s fixture. It is very unlikely that the outcome of this one match will have any direct bearing on either Leicester’s, or Watford’s, end-of-season standing in the Championship. For the Foxes, it should be seen as an opportunity to build on what has already been achieved so far. Nigel Pearson’s men have another tough match next weekend against local rivals Nottingham Forest, but they must first get through today.