Leicester City will be satisfied to retain top spot after recent tough assignments, but a simpler run of fixtures now poses different problems for Claudio Ranieri.
The last 12 days were billed as the biggest examination of Leicester’s title credentials, and though that period concluded with heartbreak on Valentine’s Day, the Foxes have still emerged from three devilish fixtures with two wins and a two-point cushion at the top of the table.
After beating Liverpool and Manchester City and proving they are a match for Arsenal, Ranieri’s men now await a far kinder-looking run of fixtures but one that will present a completely different test.
Three weeks around the beginning of March bring meetings with Norwich, West Brom, Watford, Newcastle and Crystal Palace, with all but one of those sides currently languishing in the bottom half of the table. Against the league leaders, none of that quintet will face Leicester with the same ambition or expectation as the Foxes’ most recent opponents, and Ranieri has to prepare his team for a shift in approach.
Against Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal, Leicester could put into action the same devastating counter attacking plan that has taken them to the Premier League summit and surprised so many opponents on the way. The Foxes sucked in Liverpool and the Citizens and defeated them with only 35 per cent possession. Against Arsenal, that figure was even lower – unsurprisingly, given they played almost 40 minutes with 10 men – at 28 per cent.
That game plan has formed the platform for the most unlikely title challenge in Premier League history. Leicester are top of table despite having the third-lowest possession rate in the division. But their next set of opponents are unlikely to take the bait.
With Norwich and Newcastle both deep in the relegation mire and West Brom, Watford and Palace under no obligation to defeat Leicester, each side would be more than happy to take a point off the leaders. All of these opponents sit with the Foxes in the bottom six of the possession table, and Leicester will have to find a different way to win against sides happy to sit and play them at their own game.
Ranieri has enough individual attacking quality at his disposal to be confident of breaching porous defences such as Norwich and Newcastle no matter how deep they defend, but the rest of the Premier now know what to expect from Leicester – the element of surprise can no longer be relied upon. The Foxes must now show they can dictate games and win on the front foot.
First, Ranieri has to pick his players up from their last-minute devastation at Arsenal. Fortunately, the Foxes have a fortnight to recover, physically and mentally, and we’ve seen plenty of evidence so far this season and after going down to 10 men at the Emirates to suggest they won’t be found wanting for character and mental strength.
Ranieri will have to make at least one change to his XI, with Simpson suspended against Norwich and Danny Drinkwater looking over his shoulder in case the FA decide to punish the midfielder’s naughty challenge on Aaron Ramsey in the second half.
That was the only mark against Drinkwater at the Emirates after another superb display in the heart of the Leicester midfield. Like I wrote last week, he and half man, half machine N’Golo Kante proved again at Arsenal that modern midfielders don’t have to be exclusively defensive or attacking.
Kante's first half touch map.
What a player! pic.twitter.com/k4YN6Vkfq5
— BreatheSport (@BreatheSport) February 14, 2016
With Liverpool, City and Arsenal behind them, it is now time again for Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy to re-take centre-stage. Devastating though defeat to the Gunners was, it does not have to be decisive, as long as Leicester know more than one way to win.