Tottenham 3 Leicester 1, Wembley.
It could easily be argued that Leicester are on the cusp of being an excellent side. With few exceptions, they’ve spent their season playing artful football, creating chances and exuding the kind of promise which, with some refinement, suggests that should be threatening the Premier League’s top-six.
It would be just as reasonable, though, to depict them as existing in a curious sporting purgatory, rendered incapable of realising their potential by a maddening habit for self-destruction. The positive spin draws on the pretty attacking patterns and the gentler tones of their play, but the negative is never far from relevance: they squander opportunities like no other in the league and when they do, inevitably, there’s a further price to pay.
Their defeat to Tottenham on Saturday adhered to all those rules and, in so doing, was really Leicester’s season in microcosm. They spent the game creating the better opportunities – Harvey Barnes should have scored in each half – and even found time to miss a penalty, with Jamie Vardy denied by Hugo Lloris.
By the time Vardy had spotted the ball, Spurs had already benefitted from his side’s charity. Towards the end of a first-half during which they were largely outplayed, the hosts took the lead from a simple corner routine: Kieran Trippier cut the ball back to Christian Eriksen, who had been left bafflingly unattended, and his cross was headed home by Davinson Sanchez.
Given that Leicester look so well structured in other phases of the game, and are anchored by two international centre-halves and an experienced goalkeeper, the cheapness of the goal was difficult to rationalise. Where was the pressure, where was the marking; it was Sanchez’s first goal for Tottenham and, as well as he may have taken it, a startlingly easy one.
Goals two and three were no prettier. Eriksen’s bending shot was sweet enough, but it came from a position gifted to him. And, while Son Heung-min 60-yard charge to goal was circumstantially understandable, it came – naturally – from a missed interception and another error. 3-1. A result which somehow flattered Leicester and still managed to do them a disservice. What a riddle they are.
In the background rages a debate about Claude Puel’s job security. It’s a conversation which has existed for some time and, as a result, has evolved into a binary issue. Leicester fans seem either vehemently for or against Puel, with few caught between. But given how familiar it felt and the contradiction at its heart, this really was a defeat to illustrate that issue’s complexity.
Leicester, playing like this, are a threat to any side in the division, and Puel has recorded wins over Manchester City and Chelsea this season. But Puel has shown a consistent failure to cure his side’s flaws and, quite amazingly, his players haven’t won a game of any sort since New Year’s Day.
That really is a damning statistic, the kind which could easily be grounds for dismissal, but within the detail lies plenty of mitigation. On form, Leicester are among the division’s worst sides, but that is so obviously misleading. James Maddison has played well, Wilfred Ndidi has shown signs of further growth, and Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Perreira are one of the better full-back tandems in the country. Youri Tielemans has arrived, too, and if his YouTube highlights are anything less than a complete fabrication, then that should prove interesting as well. More importantly, it has been possible many times this season to look down on this side and be impressed. Make sense of that if you can.
Puel is not an effusive talker at the best of times. He spoke for longer than Mauricio Pochettino after the game, answering questions with dignity and in detail, but even his summation couldn’t add any clarity. He just repeated all the contradictory truisms to which everyone is already wise.
“I have had the same feeling as after our game against United. We made a good collective performance, good quality, good moves. We need to find a clinical edge”.
Yes, yes, and yes. Who could disagree?
Leicester have lost to Tottenham and Manchester United in the past week, but might have beaten both. Previously, Liverpool were held at Anfield and, in one of the games of the season, they shared seven goals with Wolves and still left Molineux with nothing. They’ve lost at home to Cardiff, away to Newport, and managed to lose at home to Southampton as well. Those are the results of a hopeless side under hapless management and yet it persists, this nagging sense that a corner is approaching and losing faith now would be a terrible mistake. Maybe Leicester are just the unluckiest team in the land, losing each week with a Queen and 9, but it’s really impossible to say for sure.
In fact, it’s impossible to be definitive about any aspect of their situation or identity. They are a side who refuse to learn, but who would be wonderful if they ever did. They play with imagination and invention, cutting crafty angles through their opponents and promising so much. When it really matters, though, those minds turn dull and any momentum is vented away with a careless ball, bad marking, or just a plain refusal to capitalise on their work.
Should Puel go? Yes and no, at the same time and in equal measure.