Brendan Rodgers has Leicester City whirring

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Leicester City is a top Premier League club.

Say it again with me. We’re doing this Good Will Hunting style, until you truly believe the words you are repeating.

Leicester City is a top Premier League club.

Four years after winning the title against astronomical odds in one of the most historic seasons in sports history, Brendan Rodgers has cemented Leicester City as anything but a fluke. This club is for real.

[ MORE: Leicester City tops Aston Villa ]

After three mid-table finished that allowed the club to institute a sustainable model of player acquisition, talent development, and asset maximization, the Foxes are back near the top of the table and look a club that has the ability to secure itself as a leading force in the English top flight.

This summer, the club put the finishing touches on two critical components of the plan, two moments that may prove defining decisions in the club’s history. The first was selling Harry Maguire and replacing him with young Caglar Soyuncu, a move which not only netted the club a massive sum of money, but also cemented Leicester City as a talent development hub capable of producing talent, offloading for a huge profit, and not losing a step on the pitch.

The second was replacing Claude Puel with Brendan Rodgers. Puel, in charge of Leicester City for two years, was caught in between instituting his preferred possessional style of play and changing the culture of the squad, a hesitation which cost the Frenchman his job. Last season, Leicester City was seventh in the league in passes per game but fifth in accurate long-balls per game, a testament to his inability to decide the squad’s identity. This season, Leicester City is fourth in passes per game behind Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool, and fourth in total shots per game, all while sitting ninth in accurate long-balls (for what it’s worth, Liverpool is 1st in that category while Man City is third, largely down to their exorbitant possessional advantages). This team has completed the transformation Puel wanted but never achieved – they are a dominant Premier League side that wants to dominate its opponents.

Even deeper, the numbers agree. Jamie Vardy is scoring at otherworldly levels, especially for a player at 32 years old. His 16 goals lead the league by six, and even with his outrageous finishing ability (he has a +5.47 differential between actual goals scored and expected goals scored, nearly double anyone else – Harry Kane and Teemu Pukki are second at +2.92), he is still second in the league in total xG behind Marcus Rashford.

James Maddison, Ricardo Pereira, and Wilfried Ndidi are all among the top 5 in WhoScored player rating this season, while Vardy sits seventh. Soyuncu ranks sixth in the league by WhoScored among central defenders in his first full Premier League season at just 23 years old, while his center-back partner Jonny Evans is eighth in his 13th campaign in the English top flight. Pereira is a tackling machine who gets far less screen time than new Manchester United signing Aaron Wan-Bissaka, owner of a reputation for that exact skill which earned him a big-money move. Ndidi, meanwhile, continues to rise in prominence as he leads the Premier League in tackles and ranks third in interceptions.

Sure, Rodgers inherited a fantastic squad, but the list of players falls well short of screaming “second in the table” and the former Liverpool manager has metamorphosed them from budding talents to world-class players. He has mixed young talent with veteran experience flawlessly, making sure to keep title veterans Wes Morgan, Cristian Fuchs, and Marc Albrighton involved despite their declining roles.

The club has also found itself the beneficiary of a few unique circumstances. Most notably, they have avoided significant injury to this point in the season. A large part of that has been Vardy’s international retirement which (at least, for the time being) has kept him fresher than most, whereas double duty has weighed down other top goalscorers in the league. Only Matthew James is currently sidelined for the Foxes who remain one of the healthiest teams in the league. They also don’t have European play to worry about, a proven ingredient for domestic success.

Still, Rodgers is the source of much of their continued improvement. The Foxes have conceded just nine total goals all year, the least of any English top flight side, and are the only team in the league not to have conceded from a set-piece this Premier League season, a testament to their rigid and well-drilled discipline. And they have scored gobs of late goals under the current boss – they scored 10 goals inside the final 15 minutes of his first eight games in charge of the club, and this season they lead the league with five goals inside the final five minutes (even with Manchester City). Against Aston Villa he managed to pair Vardy with Kelechi Iheanacho up front, a prospect that left Puel utterly baffled.

It’s a shame this team isn’t among those competing in Europe this campaign, as they could surely challenge the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich for a spot in the Champions League quarterfinals, but they will almost certainly get the chance next season. They get a chance to play with the Premier League big boys soon during the holiday season, with back-to-back matches against Liverpool and Man City just after Christmas Day.

Claude Puel just couldn’t get it right. Vardy said earlier this season that Puel’s training sessions were “too slow” to the point where it was consequently “difficult for us to be fast and aggressive in matches.” That’s not a problem any longer. Brendan Rodgers has this team absolutely soaring at breakneck speeds towards a long-term place among the Premier League’s elite. The Foxes’ transformation from one-hit wonder to sustainable elite-level success should be a case study for other clubs looking to is still in progress, but has reached the final phase.

Eight games in a row they have won now, the most in team history. Brendan Rodgers called Sunday’s win “a historic day for the club,” but the picture is much bigger than that.

“Leicester City is a top Premier League club.” Say it again until you believe the words you are reciting. Know that they are true.

Bentaleb joins Newcastle; Blades sign Robinson; Campana to Wolves

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Three Premier League clubs made signings on Tuesday as Nabil Bentaleb has joined Newcastle United, Leonardo Campana has arrived at Wolves and Jack Robinson has signed for Sheffield United.

Bentaleb, 25, has initially joined Newcastle from Schalke on loan with an option to make the deal a permanent one at the end of the season.

The former Tottenham midfielder will add extra quality to the engine room as Steve Bruce‘s side continue to sit pretty in midtable despite a laundry list of injuries to deal with.

“I’m very happy to come back to the Premier League, especially with a club such as Newcastle,” Bentaleb said. “The project really interested me. I wanted absolutely to come back to the Premier League. The coach had some trust in me and the club also – I saw that straight away – and I think it’s the perfect move for me.”

Bentaleb has so much promise and showed that as a youngster for Spurs and for Algeria at the 2014 World Cup and he was a regular at Schalke over the past few seasons before falling out of favor during the 2019-20 campaign as he is yet to make an appearance due to suffering a torn meniscus in September.

Wolves have been trying to complete the deal for Campana for some time but everything is now sealed for the Ecuador international to arrive in the Premier League.

Campana, 19, has been a star for Ecuador at youth international level and he’s signed a three-and-a-half year deal with Wolves to become the understudy to Raul Jimenez. He rose to prominence at the South American U20 Championships last summer as the top goalscorer at the tournament as Ecuador won the title. He has already graduated to the full national team and he is ready to get going in England.

“I am excited about the work the team has achieved this season. I know they support each other, their relationship with the manager is a good one and I know all the players get along really well. That motivated me to come here and to be part of this big family,” Campana said.

As for Robinson, 26, he arrives on a two-and-a-half year contract from Forest for an undisclosed deal as Blades boss Chris Wilder revealed he tried to sign the left-sided center back when he previously played for QPR.

“It’s a big confidence boost coming somewhere you know you’re wanted,” Robinson said. “The gaffer has done an unbelievable job over the last 3 years and I’m really excited to play under him. It’s a privilege to sign here, excited to be back in the Premier League I’m ready to show the fans why the gaffer has signed me.” 

Robinson, a Liverpool academy product who made his debut for them as a 16-year-old, will be one of Wilder’s three center backs and is keen to perform the overlapping role in Sheffield United’s quirky but hugely effective system.

Both of the signings are fairly prudent ones but bolster squads which need it after fine starts to the season as both Wilder and Bruce need extra players as they aim to push for at least a top 10 finish in the Premier League.

Mourinho denies bust-up with Rose

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Jose Mourinho has denied he has had a training ground bust-up with left back Danny Rose.

Reports had circulated that Rose and Mourinho were involved in a heated argument in training on Monday after the England left back was unhappy to be left out of the squad for the 0-0 draw at Watford on Saturday.

Mourinho had said that Rose was out injured with a back problem but the left back has since denied he wasn’t fit to play against the Hornets.

Speaking to the media ahead of Spurs’ home game against Norwich on Wednesday (Watch live, 2:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com), Mourinho wasn’t having any of it.

“I don’t know what you mean by tension in the air, I don’t have a problem with him,” Mourinho said. “On the Thursday before Watford late evening I got a call from my medical staff saying that Danny was calling them with a problem in his back and he wouldn’t train the next day. Friday it was a bit of a surprise to see him training, but even so I decided to play with (Japhet) Tanganga and have Ryan (Sessegnon) on the bench. That is the situation.”

Mourinho added that Rose’s display against Liverpool was “not phenomenal” and reading between the lines, he was dropped.

If there wasn’t an incident or at least some anger between Rose and Mourinho, why would reports of this nature surface?

With youngster Japhet Tanganga starting at left back for Tottenham, and doing a very good job as Mourinho praised him afterwards, it is understandable that Rose would have his nose put out of joint a little.

The England international has less than 18 months left on his current contract at Spurs and has already spoken publicly about his plans to run down that deal as chairman Daniel Levy hasn’t offered him a new deal.

It will be intriguing to see how this plays out as Tanganga now seems to be Spurs’ first choice left back and Rose will have to be happy with playing a bit-part role between now and the end of the season.

His experience and quality is undoubted but with Spurs’ defensive unit all over the place this season, Mourinho is well within his rights to mix things up with formations and personnel as he tries to make Tottenham tough to beat.

Solskjaer: United have made “strides forward”

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Ole Gunnaer Solskjaer believes his Manchester United side have taken “strides forward” following their 2-0 defeat at bitter rivals Liverpool on Sunday.

United were outplayed for the vats majority of the game and were lucky to be only 1-0 down heading into the 90th minute but the grit and determination they showed impressed Solskjaer who lauded his young team.

Without the injured star duo of Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba for the daunting trip to the Premier League leaders, United’s manager was in a positive mood ahead of their clash against Burnley on Wednesday (Watch live, 3:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

“We lost to Liverpool. A team that you all say are fantastic and we’ve been in the game until the last kick of the ball. For me, that’s strides forward,” Solskjaer said. “Of course we’re disappointed about losing the game. We don’t want to be behind them in the league. But there are signs there that we’re on the right track, definitely.”

Is Solskjaer’s positivity misplaced?

Some would argue that United were lucky that Liverpool’s finishing was lackluster and that is true but the Red Devils hung in there and should have equalized in the second half but Anthony Martial blazed over.

They were missing at least four or five players in key areas for the trip to United as Rashford, Pogba and Scott McTominay were out injured and they badly need another attacking midfielder (ahem, Bruno Fernandes) to help with their play in the final third.

Solskjaer is right, there were positives for United. Fred played extremely well in midfield and both Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka stood tall defensively out wide. But the main takeaway from their trip to Liverpool was that United were delighted to not lose by three or four goals. The gulf in class between the two teams was clear for all to see and although United are trying to sort out their disjointed and confused squad by signing young, talented players, they are so far off Liverpool it is scary.

USMNT youngster Vassilev praised by Villa boss

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18-year-old USMNT youngster Indiana Vassilev has been praised by Aston Villa boss Dean Smith after making his Premier League debut at the weekend.

Vasillev came on for the final 25 minutes at Brighton and Hove Albion with Villa 1-0 down and helped them rescue a point as his run opened up the chance for Jack Grealish to score a late equalizer.

The lively attacking midfielder/forward has excelled in Villa’s reserve side after his arrival in England in the summer of 2018 following impressive displays for the U.S. youth national teams.

With Villa struggling with injuries up top after main striker Wesley went down with a season-ending injury early this month, Smith is clearly ready to put his faith in Vassilev.

“He is definitely ready to start,” Smith said. “The kid’s a bright spark, and we’ve seen that when he’s come on so far. He gave them (Brighton) problems on Saturday when he came on. It was a super ball from Douglas but, unless Indi makes that run down the side, he doesn’t drag Webster across, and Jack get in for the goal. He knows what he’s doing up there, he’s got a lot of pace, and he can run all day as well.”

Villa’s boss didn’t stop there though, as he also revealed that the young striker born in Savannah, Georgia has the backing of the senior players around him to go on and become a regular contributor in the Premier League.

“I’ve never been afraid to go and put young kids in if I feel they’re ready. I congratulated him after the game and said, ‘You’re a Premier League player now.’ He’s surprised me in a good way,” Smith added. “Sometimes when you give an opportunity to a young player they can sink or swim. He is certainly a swimmer. He has looked really good so far. You can always tell how the reaction is through the other players, in their relationships with them. You can see them all behind him. He goes in and puts a shift in for them. If you do that and have quality to add to it you will do alright in the dressing room. He’s got a goalscoring ability, he knows where the back of the net is, he knows what runs to make. Tactically he’s intelligent. Physically he’s impressive as well.”

Vassilev comes from a long line of soccer players and his father, grandfather and great-grandfather all played in Bulgaria and he was born and raised in the USA after his parents emigrated from the eastern European country in the early 1990s.

It looks like the USMNT have another top talent breaking through in Europe which is great news for Gregg Berhalter and potentially even better news for Villa as they badly need a forward to deliver goals in their fight against relegation from the Premier League.

Expect to see more cameos, and maybe even starts, from Vassilev in the final months of the Premier League season.