Forwards hit four thanks to Leicester City's diamond geezers
For Matt Oakley, lining up in red and white stripes this weekend must have felt like a blast from the past. Oakley began his career with eleven years wearing those colours for his first club Southampton. And his debut for the fourth club of his career, Exeter City’s 2-0 win over Oldham Athletic, took place just hours before his third denied his second the chance to go level on points with Saints at the top of the Championship.
In placing four goals past Derby County without reply, Leicester City also showed exactly why Oakley – also linked with a loan move back to the Rams prior to his arrival at Exeter – was allowed to leave. Leicester’s midfield is starting to live up to its tremendous potential.
It is a pretty simple formula too. Whereas last season’s almost constant midfield trio of Yuki Abe, Richie Wellens and Andy King ran out of steam against the top teams, the diamond employed by Eriksson this season finally looked in perfect shape when Derby came to town. Like last year, Abe was the anchor and King the spearhead. Without the injured Wellens, however, there was an extra dimension of dynamism which City have often lacked when it most mattered. This was supplied by the two wide players in the diamond. Gelson Fernandes has been inconsistent thus far and Neil Danns used sparingly, but both contributed to an energetic display – including the two goals in the first half.
This mirrored events at the City Ground in August when Fernandes created a goal for David Nugent and then scored one himself, swept home after Danns won possession and saw his shot cleared off the line. This time Fernandes again supplied Nugent with the opener following one-touch build-up involving Abe and Darius Vassell. For the second, the Swiss seized a loose ball and gave it to Danns. When the former Crystal Palace man’s effort came back off a post, Vassell fired in from close range.
The difference this time was that the two second half goals made it 4-0 rather than 2-2. Clicking; gelling; a statement of intent – call it what you want but it was certainly progress for a side which finally looked like they had stumbled across the right balance between defence and attack.
It was assumed by some, including one particularly presumptuous author who should have known better, that Eriksson would persist with the 4-3-3 setup he favoured in his first season with Leicester. The diamond has looked far more effective though.
This was an important game for Eriksson to win, not least because of the underlying pressure to meet lofty expectations. The spectre of Leicester’s heavy spending this summer is looming larger than ever over the rest of the East Midlands with many Derby fans understandably pointing to the difference in investment between the two clubs as a reason for their defeat. Then, on Sunday evening, outgoing Nottingham Forest chairman Nigel Doughty made several references to impending Financial Fair Play regulations in a live interview with BBC Radio Nottingham. Leicester’s approach to their promotion challenge went unmentioned, but the undertone is always there.
While it isn’t a foolproof plan, there are signs that the pieces are beginning to fall into place. As a unit, Leicester are working harder defensively at the moment than they did for most of last season. That isn’t just the money talking; in the main, you can safely attribute it to a change in formation and a different use of personnel. But it would also be crazy to argue that the money doesn’t help. Most clubs in the Championship would struggle to put out a competitive midfield with players of the quality of Wellens and Michael Johnson unavailable through injury, but Leicester were still able to field three internationals in the middle of the park.
Two mobile, hard-working forwards seem to be integral to the success of a diamond midfield. Nugent and Vassell both worked the channels well, pulling Derby defenders out of position and causing enough panic to allow room for the likes of King and Danns to operate.
King has thus far failed to replicate his best form this season but there were flashes of it here, including the well-timed surges past opponents which were rarely seen earlier in his career. This is where he often looks most effective now, where previously he had been associated with ghosting into the box to score. There haven’t been as many goals for King this season, but his close control and football brain nearly led to a second Nugent goal just before half time. The ball ended up in the net but was rightly disallowed for handball.
The starting midfield did not create the two further goals scored by substitutes Jeffrey Schlupp and Lloyd Dyer – the former netting after Matt Mills flicked on a corner and the latter putting the ball between Frank Fielding’s legs after Steve Howard beat his marker in the air – but Abe and Fernandes had shown great industry to help quell Derby’s threat when the visitors were on top at the start of the second half. This demonstrated a level of fitness and organisation that was not present when Reading and Bristol City triumphed in Leicester’s first two home games of the season.
The question now is where Wellens, Johnson and Beckford could fit in when they return to full fitness. Johnson has always given the impression of being a “bonus” signing, a player on whom Leicester cannot rely to be fit for the entire campaign but with the potential to make a big impact. In a short cameo at Cardiff, there were glimpses of his ability to unlock defences outside the penalty area with a killer pass or long-range shot but a subsequent injury at Middlesbrough on his first league start for the club was a setback. Beckford is a big-money arrival but may have to work hard to shift Nugent and Vassell if they continue to complement each other as well as they showed this weekend.
Wellens poses the biggest question of all. Previously popular, the tide of opinion seems to be turning against his inclusion and Leicester certainly get the ball from back to front quicker without him than when he takes to the field. Perhaps Eriksson will settle on a slightly different approach depending on the opposition – Wellens is at his best when controlling the pace of a game against one of the division’s lesser teams, but slows the attack and there is no obvious fit for him in the current formation, for which the obvious blueprint is the quartet that turned out against Derby.
Eriksson recognised the quality of his side’s efforts. “It was probably our best performance of the season”, he said after the game. With a sharp diamond midfield finally bringing four goals to accompany a fourth clean sheet in a row, the winning formula looks crystal clear.