Leicester moved back to the top of the Premier League after beating Stoke 3-0 at the King Power Stadium. What was meant to be a challenging game against a tricky opponent ended up being a comprehensive win. Here are three thoughts on the game.
1. Drinkwater and Kante establish base for win
The goals and assists provided by Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have understandably grabbed most of the headlines during the Foxes fairytale season. Most supporters of the team however have long acknowledged the importance of Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kante in their success. The midfield duo are a key cog in implementing Claudio Ranieri’s counterattacking strategy.
Stoke’s own midfield duo of Ibrahim Afellay and Glenn Whelan have played a crucial role in enabling their team to be effective in possession. Depriving them of rhythm would be necessary for Leicester to gain a foothold. It was here that Kante’s boundless energy came to the fore once again. The Frenchman had the most tackles and interceptions in the game, completely neutralizing Stoke’s threat in the attacking third while setting the base for his peers to start attacks.
Meanwhile Drinkwater was calm in possession, almost always finding the right pass. He had a team high 78 touches during the match and crucially he also scored the opening goal just before half time. The goal was a great way for Drinkwater to get the recognition he deserves and he topped off his performance with a delightful through ball to assist Vardy for Leicester’s second goal.
That Leicester have managed to stay in contention despite Vardy and Mahrez’s recent blip is a testament to the solidity that Drinkwater and Kante bring to the Foxes. With the two midfield stalwarts managing things on their end, it was time for the usual suspects to return…
2. Vardy and Mahrez back in the thick of things
It is the ultimate compliment to how far Vardy and Mahrez have come along that a stretch of four games without a goal or assist for either was considered by some to be a slump. That Vardy still remains the league’s leading scorer speaks of his prowess in the first part of the season. While this is clearly a team that is the sum of all its parts, no manager will ever say no to a hot striker who can guarantee goals.
Thus Ranieri would have been extremely happy to see Vardy find the back of the net again. The best part about the goal was that it demonstrated a sense of freshness returning to Vardy. After latching on to Drinkwater’s excellent pass, Vardy still had to run with the ball and then finish accurately. He did both calmly.
That returning freshness was also evident in a lot of Mahrez’s play. The trickery and cute passes were on full display against the Potters, culminating in a jinking dribble and a scuffed shot assisting Leonardo Ulloa for the team’s third goal.
It still seems unrealistic to expect the pair to maintain their form through to the end of the campaign. However, Ranieri doesn’t need either Vardy or Mahrez to replicate their form from the first half of the season. There are only 15 games left in the season with no cup distractions. If Mahrez and Vardy can get half the numbers they had till December, Leicester will almost certainly finish in the top four.
3. Inconsistency stifling Stoke’s upward progression
Stoke and Mark Hughes have been getting a lot of praise this season. Stoke-a-lona have outclassed both Manchester clubs at the Britannia. They have also defeated Chelsea and just last weekend Arsenal were arguably lucky to escape with a point. However, that has been mixed with home defeats to Watford and Crystal Palace, as well as away losses at Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion. This latest reversal means they have won only one of their last five games on the road.
Of course, losing to Leicester in their current guise is hardly a disgrace. Nevertheless, Mark Hughes claimed he wanted to take Stoke further up the table this season and the club have backed with him some marquee signings. In those signings lay some hints as to why Stoke’s longest winning streak this season stops at three. The likes of Shaqiri, Arnautovic, Bojan and Afellay may well belong in the end of season highlights reel, but the reason they are not at the elite clubs anymore is because they are comfortable performing to a high level on an average of once every three games. A glorious goal against City here, a mesmerizing assist against Chelsea there, but nothing in those defeats against the bottom ten clubs.
The ambition to progress while playing an entertaining style is laudable at Stoke. However, for the project to truly blossom, Mark Hughes has to get his talented bunch of former Champions League winners to perform consistently week in, week out. In this season of opportunity, the Potters have got as good a chance as any to sneak into Europe. Whether they do, comes down to a question of mentality, not talent.