How the East Midlands was won: Leicester City 1 Nottingham Forest 0
Blue. Red. And a dash of white, which had little impact on proceedings. No, not El Clasico. An East Midlands derby at the Walkers Stadium with the blue of Leicester City taking on the red of Nottingham Forest, with added snow. Barcelona versus Real Madrid, it was not. But there were, nevertheless, areas of interest.
On a slightly lesser scale to the hype afforded to the meeting of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in Catalonia, all the talk prior to this Championship clash was of two young goalscoring midfielders – Andy King of Leicester and Nottingham Forest’s Lewis McGugan. Born just four days apart in October 1988, the pair had registered sixteen goals between them prior to the game. Their collective tally is now seventeen following King’s match-winner, which closed the gap between the sides to just two points.
While both have netted on a regular basis this season, King and McGugan have different stocks in trade. King is known for his late runs into the box, inviting comparisons with Premier League stars such as Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes. His all-round play and ability to retain possession also carries echoes of those household names, but, at this level, it is his goalscoring which sets him apart from other tidy Championship midfielders.
McGugan, meanwhile, is carving out a reputation for the spectacular. After netting several long-range strikes in recent weeks, much of the focus concentrated on Leicester’s ability to close down the Forest youth product outside the box. In fact, he was never offered the opportunity thanks to the hard work of the home side’s Japanese workhorse Yuki Abe.
Leicester’s main strength is their midfield trio of Abe, King and man of the match Richie Wellens. The addition of Abe in place of club captain Matt Oakley has taken their play to a new level thanks to the newcomer’s tireless energy and understated quality on the ball. Forest, without Paul McKenna, struggled to retain possession in the first half and opted to play quickly on the break instead. It was a ploy which worked well early on and Leicester’s back line looked threatened but Sven-Goran Eriksson’s men soon gained control of the game and, once Forest’s early flurry had subsided, the midfield battle went firmly in favour of those in blue.
Forest’s plan of attack
Reds manager Billy Davies was cautious in his team selection, with no pace in the centre-forward area but plenty out wide in the form of Garath McCleary and Paul Anderson. The remit looked simple: contain Leicester’s patient passing and hit them on the break when possession was won. As stated, this looked likely to bear fruit early on.
Although Eriksson has improved his defence both in terms of personnel and through shape and discipline, there are still errors. Jack Hobbs gave the ball away in a dangerous position on more than one occasion early in proceedings and Kyle Naughton’s calamitous back header provided subsitute Robert Earnshaw with the best chance of the game.
It looked a stifling tactic to hand to players of obvious talent. Davies admitted after the final whistle that he had adapted his team’s style of play in respect to Eriksson’s side, but the selection of Adebola was particularly baffling up against an aerially dominant centre-back such as Curtis Davies. The pace and movement of substitutes Earnshaw and Nathan Tyson posed more threat late on as a relatively inexperienced home back line was pulled out of position. It was this ploy which nearly reaped an undeserved reward when Leicester left-back Greg Cunningham clipped Earnshaw’s heels in the box and a penalty was somehow not awarded.
Both clubs added Premier League quality to their ranks ahead of last week’s loan deadline, Leicester procuring Roman Bednar from West Bromwich Albion and Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey joining his best friend Chris Gunter on the banks of the River Trent. Bednar started this encounter in place of Leicester’s regular targetman Steve Howard, while the former Cardiff man’s continuing recovery from that infamous broken leg meant a place on the bench for the Welshman.
Ramsey’s introduction soon after King’s winning goal supplied Forest with a more reliable midfield passer but he played too deep to have the desired impact, his role restrained to collecting the ball from the back four and attempting long balls into wide areas for the likes of Earnshaw and Tyson to run onto.
Bednar started the game very slowly, wasting possession on numerous occasions and failing to hold the ball up. Nevertheless, it was his run which eventually resulted in the only goal of the game. With Wes Morgan and Luke Chambers, both largely excellent throughout, pulled out to Forest’s left side, the visitors lost their shape and Darius Vassell’s jinking run decisively broke the Red rearguard.
Gallagher v Gunter
Forest right-back Gunter is one of the most accomplished players outside of the top flight, a consistent and reliable defender who often snuffs out left-sided opposition threat with ease. Last season, Leicester would have fielded the rapid winger Lloyd Dyer against him, but this season is different.
Eriksson’s first choice left-sided attacker is Paul Gallagher, a predominately right-footed player who will rarely go on the outside. While sometimes lacking in workrate and overall effect, Gallagher’s bright passing and superlative first touch is well-suited to this role, particularly given the tendency of left-back Cunningham to overlap at every opportunity.
As Leicester gained a strangehold on the game, Gallagher’s willingness to drift inside from the flank and provide an extra body in the middle of the park posed a problem not only to Forest’s midfield but also Gunter. With their right-back dragged out of his usual berth, there was space in behind to exploit and Leicester nearly struck a second goal when King took advantage of the reduced numbers in the opposition defence to twice burst towards goal.
Three points, fourty-six games
In the greater context of the season, this result is not a major setback for an otherwise improving Nottingham Forest. For Leicester, however, the three points were vital.
Last season saw the East Midlands and South Wales dominate the upper reaches of the Championship – Cardiff City being beaten in the play-off final, Swansea City missing out on a top six spot on the last day and Forest and Leicester both failing at the play-off semi-final stage – without any club achieving promotion.
This time around, both regions have been strengthened even further by enhanced showings from the Welsh duo as well as Derby County’s introduction to the East Midlands promotion push. Leicester’s slow start under previous manager Paulo Sousa threatened to derail their own contribution but the tight nature of the division as a whole, combined with their excellent recent form under Eriksson, means they are right back on track. The gap to Forest is now two points, when defeat would have made it eight.
Both sides will play a lot better than this, and both sides should finish higher than they sit at the moment.