Wednesday February 3rd, 2016

It’s one of soccer’s ancient tactical truisms that it’s easiest to score on turnovers. Teams change shape when they have the ball. Hitting opponents with a fast counter-punch exploits the space and confusion as defenders desperately back-pedal and reorganize.

Everyone knows it. Yet Leicester keeps doing it.

At home against Liverpool on Tuesday, the Foxes had barely a third of possession yet won 2-0.

Leicester is particularly well equipped to launch quick long-range raids. N’Golo Kanté, Riyad Mahrez, Marc Allbrighton, Shinji Okazaki and Jamie Vardy are all fast. They are all smart. They can all pass. Best of all, Vardy is currently the best finisher in the Premier League (and given the varied goals Sergio Agüero, Harry Kane, Deli Alli, Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial scored on Tuesday, that’s saying something).

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​Vardy’s first goal was a dazzling example of the rapid counter-attack. Danny Drinkwater won the ball on the edge of the Leicester box and played it forward to Mahrez. He wriggled and spun and hit a lofted 60-yard ball into the path of Vardy. With the defenders hanging back, terrified of his pace, Vardy smashed a first-time half-volley over Simon Mignolet. In two passes, Leicester had turned deep defense into one of the goals of the season.

Yet opponents keep pushing forward and playing into Leicester’s trap. The logical thing would be for visiting teams to “park the bus,” in the words of the dear departed José Mourinho–himself a great fan of the counter-attack–and challenge Leicester to show how good they are by breaking down a mass defense.

There are tactical reasons why Liverpool did not do that. Jürgen Klopp is known for gegenpressing basically the same thing as the “high press” his predecessor, Brendan Rodgers, preached. Turning the ball over in your opponents’ half, close to their goal is even better than doing it 50 yards further back, as Leicester does. It did not work on Wednesday.

Yet Leicester also dangles a carrot. Its defense has conceded 26 goals, more than any other team in the top five. Even with Drinkwater and Kante screening the back four, Leicester allows space and looks porous. Opponents feel they can score.

Klopp praised Vardy’s “world-class goal” but the Liverpool manager could not quite believe what he had seen. He blamed the defeat on his team’s poor decision making.

“When you can win, you should do it,” Klopp told the BBC. “I think today we were enough in the game to win it. We had the moments. We had the moments when we could be more clear.”

Ranieri, meanwhile, smiled like a veteran huckster who has again pulled off the same old con and is not about to explain it to the latest sucker.

Can Leicester pull off the unthinkable? Manchester City is still in three cups, and Arsenal and Tottenham are in two. The Foxes, who have suffered significantly fewer injuries than any of their rivals, have just 14 league matches to worry about.

Their next two of those are away to City and Arsenal. Neither of them is going to park the bus. If Leicester’s ropey defense can absorb enough blows, its attack has the pace and power to deliver a couple of knockout blows in the title battle.

Pellegrini feels the love 

In the first match since Manuel Pellegrini confirmed he would be leaving Manchester City in the summer, his team eked out a 1-0 victory at Sunderland, to remain in second place in the standings.

Sunderland dominated for long stretches. City won thanks to a series of saves by Joe Hart in goal and a single, cool, predatory strike by Agüero. It was not pretty, but Sunderland was at home it has been one of City’s bogey sides in recent years.

The British media is tremendously excited by the impending arrival of Pep Guardiola at City. Through all the frenzy, Pellegrini, nicknamed “the charming man,” remains dignified.

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In the stands on Tuesday, the club’s fans serenaded their manager. They have a song about Pellegrini arriving in a Lamborghini. Irving Berlin it ain’t, but it shows their affection. In recent weeks on the road, City has looked anything but title-worthy, particularly at the back, which has been involved in a series of car crashes. On Tuesday the defense somehow held firm.

After the game, Hart the hero, told the BBC: “We love having Pellegrini as boss.”

That Hart-felt love probably grew even stronger on Wednesday morning when Spanish media reported that Guardiola wants to spend £32 million ($47 million), on Barcelona goalie, Claudio Bravo.

Hart will not be the only City player feeling nervous. City, the British tabloids are reporting, will spend £150 million refurbishing the team for Guardiola. That money won’t do much good if City’s scouts do not rapidly learn to recognize good center backs.

On the other hand, if City adds £150-million of talent to what is already the second-most expensive squad in world soccer – behind Real Madrid – and Guardiola then wins trophies, will it prove he’s a great coach?

Whatever happens, don’t expect Pellegrini to carp or criticize.

Arsene gets angry

Fraser Forster, the Southampton goalkeeper, is 6-foot-7, but he does not look as if he simply grew big. He moves like something bolted together from spare parts in a back street chop shop. Forster is neither pretty nor graceful, but he shifts his huge frame with uncanny speed to fill the space in front of a striker. Time and again on Tuesday night at the Emirates, Arsenal shots rebounded off Forster’s hulking frame. Clang. Clang. Clang.

The Gunners dominated Southampton. Arsenal took 21 shots, 11 of them on target, some from very close range, but could not score. The game ended 0-0. Forster had a lot to do with it but it was the third straight league game in which Arsenal failed to score. The Gunners are firing blanks.

“It’s not only luck. I don’t believe in luck,” Wenger told the BBC. “Finishing is a bit cyclic but we created enough chances to win the game.”

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As recently as the morning of January 23, Arsenal was top of the table. Now it is fourth, behind Tottenham on goal difference. Apart from the bit about being below Spurs, this is beginning to look like a familiar Arsenal script. After the game, the BBC interviewer put it to Wenger: “People will say same old Arsenal, it’s slipping away.”

Wenger pretended not to understand.

“Look I don’t know why you say same old Arsenal,” he said. “We are for 20 years at the top of the Premiership.”

That’s true, but Arsenal has not won the league since 2004. One reason is the annual spring fade.

Those “people” don’t only include nameless media pundits and the most unsupportive of supporters such as Piers Morgan, who tweeted that the club should fire Wenger and hire Mourinho.

British tabloids reported on Wednesday, that outside the locker rooms after the game, Wenger confronted the referee, Lee Mason, and the fourth official, Craig Pawson. Wenger complained that Mason had missed offenses that were also mostly invisible to everyone else watching.

“It’s always the same with you,” Wenger reportedly told the officials.

With timing as good as Forster’s, Ronald Koeman intervened.

“And it’s always the same with you,” the Southampton manager reportedly retorted. “You had 10 chances to score and couldn’t take any of them so why have a go at them?”

This is a good Arsenal team. Alexis Sánchez sparkled on his return. Mesut Ozil produced some sumptuous touches. But other good Arsenal teams have inexplicably faded in recent seasons. Wenger’s tetchiness is both a symptom and a cause.

Chelsea frustrated in Watford draw

The Chelsea veterans have climbed off their deathbed, but they are not walking with authority. The military pensioners who live in retirement at the nearby Royal Hospital move more convincingly as they shuffle up the Kings Road to collect their free match tickets at Stamford Bridge.

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The 0-0 draw at Watford on Wednesday may have stretched Chelsea’s unbeaten run in the league to eight games, but five of those were draws.

The Blues have climbed to 13th, which seems about right. They are now mediocre rather than awful, and while they are eight points clear of the relegation zone, they are 16 points shy of the Champions League places.

One man who seems to be liberated by the change of managers is Diego Costa. Remarkably, he seems to have gained a yard of pace. It’s as if Guus Hiddink has removed a ball and chain from Costa’s ankle. He’s running better, passing better and posing more of a scoring threat. Costa just missed the far post in the first half and drew a typically flashy save from Heurelho Gomes with a mistimed header, more a shoulder really, late in the game.

Yet if the striker is happier, it’s hard to tell. He remains permanently angry. Costa threw Sebastian Prödl to the ground, for no apparent reason, early in the first half. Just before the break, Costa became embroiled in a pathetic pushing and flopping contest with Juan Carlos Paredes. Even after referee Mike Dean whistled, Costa seemed determined to carry on the feud, and then, like a naughty child, refused to approach the referee to receive a dressing down and a yellow card.

USA's Howard sits with knee injury

After starting the first 23 league games this season, Tim Howard was absent as Everton entertained Newcastle on Wednesday.

Howard reportedly injured a knee in training on Monday. Watching Everton beat Newcastle, 3-0, Howard might have reflected that he could have played in a wheelchair and kept a clean sheet, so toothless was Newcastle.

While Howard’s injury was convenient in the short term for Roberto Martínez. The result will only make the Everton manager’s dilemma it worse. Everton’s victory was its first in the league since Christmas and its first at home in the league since late November. Fans have been making Howard the scapegoat, and rumors of his imminent departure to MLS have not helped.

Everton ended the slide with Joel Robles in goal, even if the Spaniard had little to do. That makes it harder for Martínez to recall Howard. A little knock on the knee might do long-term damage to Howard’s seemingly dwindling Everton career.

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