Harry Maguire

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 by 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.

PL Sunday preview: Leicester, Newcastle, Sheffield Utd, Wolves in action

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There will be no shortage of action and subplots during Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures, as Aston Villa host in-form Leicester City; Newcastle look to continue their winning ways against an improving Southampton side; Norwich City look for a way out of the relegation zone as they take on Sheffield United; and Wolverhampton Wanderers aim to continue their spectacular, unbeaten run against Brighton.

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Aston Villa vs. Leicester City — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBCSN

December is upon us, and the team putting some form of pressure on top-of-the-table Liverpool is second-best Leicester City. Who would have thought?

In similar fashion to what the masses thought of the Foxes prior to the start of the 2015/16 season, the answer is that not many were sold on the notion that Brendan Rodgers and his team were going to be a flat-out success this season, especially after dealing out Harry Maguire to Manchester United.

Whether the onlookers believed or didn’t believe is a conversation that surely doesn’t bother the majority associated with the once-Premier League champions. The Foxes are on a seven-game winning streak and Rodgers was rewarded for his accomplishments thus far, signing a new contract on Friday that keeps him at the helm until 2025.

Aston Villa’s Dean Smith recognized that his opponents on Sunday are in stellar shape but also cautioned that playing his team at Villa Park will not be a walk in the park, despite only being a point above the red line.

“They are on a fantastic run of form but there aren’t many teams who will come away from Villa Park and think they’ve had an easy game,” Dean Smith said.

It’s not the blockbuster game that will freeze the soccer community, but from the sounds of it, Leicester’s visit to Birmingham will be an authentic battle between two teams that are on the opposite sides of the spectrum.

INJURIES: Aston Villa — OUT: Keinan Davis (hamstring), Jed Steer (achilles)| Leicester City — OUT: Matty James (calf) 

Newcastle vs. Southampton — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Southampton haven’t won three consecutive league matches since May of 2016.

That can change on Sunday at St. James Park, mostly if Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s gamble of starting the same lineup for a third straight game over the span of eight days pays off. But just as it can pay off, it can certainly backfire at the hands of a slowly-but-surely improving Newcastle side.

“It’s a huge month for us,” Steve Bruce said about his Magpies ahead of the match. “It’s season defining, I think it is for every team because there are so many games.

“I have always said that a few results along the way helps everybody, so we’ve given ourselves a nice platform going into the busy Christmas period.

“The spirit among the players, and their attitude and the way they are playing has delighted me.”

That said, as expected, Hasenhuttl likes his side’s chances after demonstrating to him that they’re more than willing to follow order and fight for the crest at all costs.

“In the last three games… the team [has been] playing much more committed,” he said. “When we play like this we create chances, we don’t give the opponents chances, we are defending higher and then keep the opponent far away from our goal and this is more our style we want to play.”

INJURIES: Newcastle — OUT: Lascelles (Knee), Ritchie (ankle) | Southampton — OUT: Armstrong (calf)

Norwich City vs. Sheffield United — 9:00 a.m ET, on NBC Sports Gold

Just a couple of months ago, Daniel Farke and his players were touching the clouds.

A 3-2 win against the defending champions Manchester City was the root cause of that state of hysteria that is now nowhere to be found. With one win in their last 10 matches, the Canaries have been grounded and more. In fact, Farke’s rhetoric on his team and their future in the league says it all.

“We are a newly-promoted side who have not spent any money, so in each and every second at this level we must be at our best,” he said leading up to Sunday’s match. “We told everyone before the season this would be a difficult challenge.”

Promoted with them last season, Sheffield United, too, didn’t let lavish spendings over the summer do the talking. But even then, Chris Wilder‘s men have done a lot with a little, putting together formidable, team-oriented performances. The Blades have surprised many with their 19 points after 15 matches.

Sunday presents itself as a game in which Sheffield has the upper hand, but Wilder knows Norwich far too well. In fact, it’s a team they were constantly chasing in England’s second division this time last year.

“They were the outstanding team in the Championship last season,” he said. “I was delighted to get as close as we did to them.”

INJURIES: Norwich City — OUT: Hanley (groin), Drmic (hamstring), Timm Klose (knee) | Sheffield United — OUT: None

Brighton Hove and Albion vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers  — 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBCSN

Very few teams in the league have overcome adversity this season like Wolves.

A team that surprised many last season, started the season off in a way that was unlike anything Nuno Espirito Santo had put forward before: a sluggish, disjointed brand of play. Wolves have been participating in European competition for the first time since 1980, however, and have 28 games under their belts this season.

Riding a 10-game unbeaten streak (the best active streak in the league), Espirito Santo decided to give his players a rare Thursday off from all training ahead of Sunday’s showdown against a hungry Brighton.

“I hope [the players] enjoyed their day off [on Thursday],” the Portuguese manager said. “It was well deserved and they needed it. It was important they understand it’s a day to rest, recover, stay at home and be with family and join us today to be ready for Sunday.”

Coming off an emphatic win at the Emirates, Brighton are aware of the tough task that will be defeating a red-hot Wolves. But as Graham Potter says and just experienced against Arsenal, anything and everything goes in the Premier League.

“Anything is possible in this league, that’s the way you have to think or else it becomes boring,” Potter said. “We have to keep working towards what we’re trying to achieve and maintain the spirit around the group.”

INJURIES: Brighton  OUT: Izquierdo (knee) | Wolves  OUT: Boly (leg), Gibbs-White (back), Shabani (knee)

Player Ratings from Man City 1-2 Manchester United

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It was even closer than it looked, but Manchester United held on to defeat Manchester City 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday.

[ MORE: RecapJPW’s 3 things ]

It’s a significant jolt for the Red Devils and boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who bewildered City’s backs with lightning quick counters.

Were it not for Ederson, it might’ve been the sort of result that raised worldwide eyebrows. Heck, it probably is, anyway.

Here’s how the players fared as City out shot its guests 22-11 and held onto 71 percent of the ball only to lose the match.

Manchester City

Ederson — 7 — Kept City in the match early, but would’ve liked to have gotten his paw to Martial’s goal.

Kyle Walker — 7 — Quite effective at both ends, including a great intervention in the first half.

John Stones (Off 59′) — 6 — Not involved in either conceded goal before leaving with injury.

Fernandinho — 5 — Not his day.

Angelino — 6 — Lively, but will have wanted to do better on Martial’s goal.

Rodri (Off 86′)– 7 — City’s best player, with four interceptions, more tidy passing, and decisive wins in some big 50-50 challenges.

David Silva — 7 — Four key passes and two shots on target as a promising part of the attack.

Kevin De Bruyne — 7 — A fairly brilliant performance that would normally have netted an assist or two; Five key passes to go with 117 touches.

Bernardo Silva (Off 65′) — 5 — Conceded a poor penalty to Rashford; Won some duels but didn’t manage shot on target.

Raheem Sterling — 6 — Lively, but not his starring self.

Gabriel Jesus — 5 — A pretty terrible day filling in for Sergio Aguero.

Subs

Pep’s subs made a difference, led by goal scorer Nicolas Otamendi (59′). who gets an 8.

Riyad Mahrez (65′) — 7. Ilkay Gundogan (86′) — N/A


Manchester United

David De Gea — 6 — Four saves, one of them great, but failed to claim the corner that became Otamendi’s goal.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka — 8 — United got it right when they splashed the cash to bring this one from Crystal Palace. Might’ve saved a goal off a bad Lindelof giveaway.

Victor Lindelof — 7 — A couple of very dicey moments including a bad giveaway, but overall played his part.

Harry Maguire — 7 — Eight clearances, three interceptions, two tackles, and a blocked shot but to blame along with De Gea for the goal.

Luke Shaw (Off 89′) — 6 — A little wobbly and weary as the match wore on, but credited with six clearances.

Fred — 7 — Had a banner day offensively, dribbling well in tight spaces (4-for-4). Amazing he kept his composure while being racially abused and pelted with objects. Reprehensible.

Scott McTominay — 9 — Outstanding. Won 12 of 15 duels, drew five fouls, and made three interceptions to go with three tackles.

Daniel James — 7 — An efficient day, with some early moments of attacking power.

Marcus Rashford — 7 — Coming into his own.

Jesse Lingard (Off 89′) — 5 — Did very little on the day, one of the only odd and unrewarded decisions from Solskjaer

Anthony Martial (Off 74′) — 7 — Did well to get his shot away for United’s second goal, but that really his only moment of influence on the match.

Subs 

Andreas Pereira (74′) — 5 — Pretty poor from the Brazilian, who had a petulant foul or two on the day.

Ashley Young (89′) — N/A; Axel Tuanzebe (89′) — N/A.

Three things we learned: Man City v. Man United

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MANCHESTER — Manchester United beat Manchester City 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday, with the Red Devils ripping apart the reigning Premier League champions on the counter.

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Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial scored the goals for United in the first half as City huffed and puffed but uncharacteristically failed to have a cutting edge in the final third, as Nicolas Otamendi’s late header was no more than a consolation.

Pep Guardiola‘s side are now 14 points off leaders Liverpool, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s Man United are five points off the top four and have basically ended the title hopes of their crosstown rivals.

What did we learn from a wild Manchester Derby?


UNITED’S COUNTER ATTACK UNSTOPPABLE

Daniel James, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial were all denied by Ederson in the first 15 minutes and Marcus Rashford was the chief architect of United’s rapid counter attacks. It was a sign of things to come. Rashford dazzled throughout as his pace and killer passes took City’s entire defense out of the game.

United plan to be a counter-attacking team under Solskjaer and this was the perfect example of what they can become under the Norwegian coach. Everything clicked going forward as the movement and pace of Martial, James, Rashford and Lingard was a thing of beauty. United were unstoppable.


VAR CONTROVERSY ONCE AGAIN

For Man United’s penalty kick which led to their first goal VAR worked a treat. Rashford was clipped by Bernardo Silva and replays showed there was clear contact. You can have no arguments that a penalty was awarded, even though a decision going against them seemed to totally put them off their game. Then, for City, they felt even more aggrieved.

For a penalty decision right on half time VAR didn’t work so well…

Fred handled the ball in the box with his outstretched arm while he was on the floor and his hand clearly blocked the path of the ball which would have gone into the box and towards Man City’s attackers. Pep Guardiola and his players were livid, and rightly so, as VAR was put in place for key moments like this. In the first half it delivered, in the second half it did not.


CITY’S TITLE HOPES OVER; AGUERO BADLY MISSED

Man City are now 14 points behind leaders Liverpool and that is pretty much that for their hopes of winning the Premier League title for a third-straight season. All season their defensive injuries and general shoddiness at the back has suggested a title win was unlikely, and that come to the fore on Saturday as Man United ruthlessly exposed their defensive weaknesses.

At the other end, scoring goals is never usually a problem, but they missed all-time leading goalscorer Sergio Aguero. His injury meant that Gabriel Jesus was thrust into the spotlight and quite incredibley the Brazilian striker hasn’t scored in any home game this season. All seven of his goals have come away from the Etihad and his movement was just off as Man United’s center back pairing of Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire marshalled him with ease.

Jesus sent a diving header wide from Kevin De Bruyne‘s superb cross in the first half, then David Silva missed a chance off balance at the back post and Riyad Mahrez couldn’t bundle home from a similar position. Usually Aguero finds a way, especially in the big games, and nobody stepped up to fill his shoes on Saturday. City are now probably best set on focusing on winning the UEFA Champions League this season and to finish in the top four.

Premier League storylines: Matchweek 15

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Midweek Premier League action is coming up on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Hook it to our veins.

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December is here and that means one thing: PL games by the boatload. Oh yeah, family and presents and food and stuff too… but mostly, Premier League.

Here’s a look at the top storylines heading into the next three days of PL action with two games on Tuesday and Thursday and six on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Need Premier League tickets? ]


Mourinho returns to Man United with Tottenham

  • Man United v. Tottenham, Wednesday (Watch live, 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Jose Mourinho returns to Old Trafford as he aims to make it four wins out of four as Tottenham’s manager. If you read that sentence to someone this time last year they likely would have fallen off their chair. A lot has changed in the last 12 months since Mourinho was fired by United, but mostly for him. United are still sluggishly pushing for a top four finish and look no closer to achieving that this season than they did last season. In fact, after 14 games last season Mourinho’s United had 22 points on the board. This season they have 18, despite heavy investment in Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Dan James.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side have coughed up leads against Aston Villa and Sheffield United in their last two games and now sit eight points off the top four, while Spurs are two points ahead of them. Harry Kane against Harry Maguire should be an epic battle and Mourinho knows this United team better than most and will no doubt have a very specific gameplan to edge his team further ahead in the race for a top four finish. Mourinho has received a pretty positive reception on his recent returns to Old Trafford as a TV pundit, but that will quickly evaporate if he’s sliding down the touchline on his knees in celebration on Wednesday. Spurs have momentum but both teams are conceding plenty of goals. This should be box office and if Mourinho wins, ex-Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino will surely move closer to taking Solskjaer’s job. The wild managerial merry-go-round continues.


Arsenal, Everton in freefall

  • Arsenal v. Brighton, Thursday (Watch live, 3:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN)
  • Liverpool v. Everton, Wednesday (Watch live, 2:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com)

Unai Emery has gone and Marco Silva is hanging on by a thread. All is not well at Arsenal or Everton. Both clubs have spent a lot of cash over the past few years but not in the right areas. Arsenal continue to buy talented attackers and neglect their defense, while Everton focus on wingers and midfielders instead of buying the top striker they needed to replace Romelu Lukaku. Aside from issues on the pitch, there a plenty off it for both clubs. Arsenal don’t seem to have a plan for the future as majority shareholder Stan Kroenke has his son Josh talking about the Arsenal DNA and how Freddie Ljungberg is the right man for now. Things didn’t look any different under Ljungberg on Sunday at Norwich as Arsenal were good going forward but a shambles at the back.

There is no clear plan for the future at Arsenal and the same can be said for Everton. Majority owner Farhad Moshiri is sticking with Silva, for now, but with different opinions behind-the-scenes and a team woefully underachieving, it’s a case of who can Everton attract to do any better than Silva currently is? A jolt in the right direction for Arsenal and Everton, who face Brighton and Liverpool respectively in midweek, is badly needed but it is the long-time plan which needs more attention. That has been badly neglected in recent months and both are paying for short-sighted splurges in transfer window rather than transformative philosophical changes. Everton will do well to get anything at Anfield, and although they’ve been unlucky in recent weeks, a heavy defeat to their rivals would be the end for Silva. As for Arsenal, a heavy win is the least Ljungberg will want as he aims to stake his claim to take the Gunners over for the rest of this season at the very least.


Can Leicester, Man City stay in touch with Liverpool

  • Leicester City v. Watford, Wednesday (Watch live, 2:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com)
  • Burnley v. Man City, Tuesday (Watch live, 3:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Liverpool are looking lonely atop the Premier League table. Leicester City are doing their best to stay in touch with them, and their dramatic 2-1 win against Everton on Sunday proved they have momentum, and perhaps fate, on their side in their unlikely title bid. Of course, Man City are still the favorites to hunt Liverpool down, just as they did last season, but Pep Guardiola‘s battered and patched up defense head to Burnley knowing that they really can’t afford to drop any more points… this season. An 11 point lead over Man City is an incredible achievement at this stage of the season but anybody who has watched Liverpool regularly will admit they’ve been far from their best this season. They’re grinding out win after win but unless their form improves, eventually they will slip up. Leicester host struggling Watford and Man City head to Burnley knowing they have to win to put the pressure on Liverpool. It is that simple.

Relegation six-pointer at St Mary’s

Southampton breathed a huge sigh of relief after their late comeback win at home against Watford on Saturday but Ralph Hasenhuttl knows they are still in deep trouble. Saints’ first half display was one of their worst of the season as the pressure of not having a home win since April weighed heavy on the shoulders of his players. There was a negative vibe among the home fans at St Mary’s as they booed their players throughout, but the arrival of Sofiane Boufal off the bench in the second half swung the game in their favor. Hasenhuttl has called on his players to be brave and he must be brave with his team selection too.

Neither Saints or Norwich can defend but both teams have shown they can score plenty of goals and in a key relegation scrap, it’s all about which club can hold their nerve in front of goal on Wednesday. Saints are under pressure but face Norwich, Newcastle, Aston Villa and West Ham in their next four and they know they need momentum at this key point of the season. As for Norwich, there is no pressure on them. Everybody knows they have the smallest budget in the PL but they continue to punch above their weight and should have beat Arsenal on Sunday. Southampton and Norwich will be in a relegation battle all season and this game is crucial in deciding which team finishes above or below the dreaded dotted line.