Four Thoughts on… Leicester City 2-0 Blackpool

Tuesday night saw Ian Holloway return to his former club Leicester and leave empty-handed after a 2-0 defeat, much to the enjoyment of the home supporters. Here are my observations on the match:

1. Harsh first half scoreline

Leicester led 1-0 at the break courtesy of Andy King’s goal from a Lloyd Dyer through ball, but ‘Pool had certainly deserved more. With the same starting line-up that had taken to the pitch in the weekend’s 2-2 draw with Birmingham, it was Ian Holloway’s side that sought to dictate the pace of the game and the short sharp passing we have become accustomed to in recent weeks. Having the better of the possession and on the whole looking comfortable, Blackpool had largely restricted the hosts to playing on the counter-attack.

Where Blackpool failed in the first half was with their inability to convert possession to genuine goalscoring chances. A number of players had shots from distance, but there was only one real gilt-edged opportunity to speak of, when Gary Taylor-Fletcher was unable to guide his header past Kasper Schmeichel following an excellent Neal Eardley cross. However, despite seeing less of the ball than the visitors, Leicester were still able to ask questions of the ‘Pool defence, primarily through the use of the ball over the top.

The pace and guile of David Nugent and Jermaine Beckford was always a threat lurking in the shadows and when they did get on the ball they looked dangerous against a high Blackpool line, but it was generally the Seasiders who did most of the running. When a goal did come it was a little against the run of play, but Leicester had earlier forced Matt Gilks into a good save, so the warning signs were there for ‘Pool who should have made their possession count. Still, Holloway will have been frustrated to give his half-time teamtalk to a trailing team.

2. Problems for Evatt and the defence

At the start of the season, the defence looked as if it would be the foundation of the side with no turnover of first team players in this area following relegation from the Premier League. Matt Gilks has backed that statement up with a string of fine performances in goal, particularly in recent weeks, but the back four is starting to appear a little more precarious, through a combination of injury and below-par performances. Craig Cathcart’s injury struck at a bad time, as the former Manchester United man was beginning to recapture his form from the first half of last season. Last night’s injury to Alex Baptiste only compounds the problem.

One man ‘Pool can normally rely on is Ian Evatt, but his displays of late have been a little below his usual standard. Evatt’s positioning could be questioned for both of Birmingham’s goals last weekend, and his role in Leicester’s strikes should be examined too. The first goal came down Evatt’s side, and in the build up to the second he was pulled all over the pitch and could be accused of ball-watching. For some balance though, on neither occasion did the defence receive much help from the midfield, so the blame can’t entirely be placed on Evatt’s shoulders.

Chris Basham came on for the injured Baptiste, and on reflection did fairly well, one panicked moment aside once the game was already lost at 2-0 down. Basham looked good in the air, and particularly in attacking situations looking to get on the end of free-kicks and corners. Whether Holloway sees centre back as Basham’s long-term position is unclear however. Should the injury situation be serious, it may mean a recall for Ashley Eastham as Miguel Llera just gone on loan to Sheffield Wednesday and ‘Pool won’t be able to call him back until 28 days of the loan have elapsed. The only other option would be Matt Hill, but anyone who saw his performance at West Ham would be reluctant to see him return at the heart of the defence. Strengthening in this area in January may now be a priority.

3. Midfield? What Midfield?

Despite a fairly positive first 45 minutes for Blackpool, the second half saw a change of approach from the restart. Taylor-Fletcher began the half in midfield, with Jonjo Shelvey pushing further forward. Soon after, Ludovic Sylvestre was then taken off – fatigue cited as the reason post-match – with Callum McManaman replacing him. This resulted in Shelvey dropping back into midfield alongside Barry Ferguson and Taylor-Fletcher.

This was not an ideal scenario as Shelvey has already been known to struggle positionally in a midfield three and Taylor-Fletcher is also attack-minded. In some ways Holloway had few genuine midfield options, with no Angel Martinez on the bench and Basham already utilised in defence due to Baptiste’s injury. This meant Blackpool’s midfield consisted of too many attackers in an unbalanced second half, the shape of the ‘Pool side crumbling.

Since the Leicester game, Liverpool have recalled Shelvey, which makes the return of Keith Southern all the more important. Tuesday night was the sort of game made for Southern as there was nobody in the Blackpool side in the second half who really looked to take the game to Leicester’s midfield. Holloway looked to have hit on a strong combination with Ferguson, Southern and Sylvestre, and the sooner he can return to this trio the better. Another player to consider is Elliot Grandin, who is nearing a return from injury, and has been a big miss for the Seasiders.

4. Functional Leicester
Nigel Pearson’s return to Leicester has certainly given the club a lift, and over the course of the 90 minutes it’s hard to argue that they were anything other than good value for their 2-0 win. Referring to Leicester as ‘functional’ may seem something of a back-handed compliment, but it is said with good intentions. So many teams in the Championship struggle for any kind of consistency, so the way Pearson looks to have set up his team in such a short space of time is to be commended. Being functional with the quality of players they have should see Leicester be realistic automatic promotion contenders.

Leicester set up in a 4-4-2 formation, with the full-backs encouraged to push on, and Richie Wellens sitting deep pulling the strings. Wellens’ midfield partner, Andy King, is a player clearly capable of playing in the Premier League and assisted by their wide men, Leicester appear to have a team that know their roles very well – again a considerable feat given the recent managerial change. There’s every chance Leicester can catch the current top two, and a play-off place is surely a given.

Pearson spoke very fairly post-match by saying that Blackpool had had better of first half. When asked how he spoke to his players at half-time, Pearson stated that he just asked for nothing complicated, but to work harder. This, combined with a downturn in the performance levels of Blackpool, was highly effective. It’s not to say that Leicester’s performance was purely based on graft and bereft of quality though, with their class shining through for their second goal, a lovely well-worked move which cut ‘Pool wide open. Leicester could possibly even have scored a few more goals, but some near-misses and Gilks saves limited the score to 2-0.