Cod Army battered*

Leicester City 4 v 0 Fleetwood Town

Report by Stuart Dawkins

(* – with apologies for the title to all Fleetwood Town fans – I just couldn’t resist it)

The last time I paid money to see as big a mis-match as this was the Champions League away match at Porto.  In each case the visiting mangers, Claudio Ranieri and Joey Barton (and how often will you ever see those names linked in one sentence?) made wholesale changes to their teams and suffered the consequences on the pitch.

Puel had also rotated players, making eight changes from the Southampton game, compared with the eleven made by Fleetwood.  The result was that a City team made up mostly of fringe players had a chance to impress, but would they?  Moreover, it was a chance to impress against a team which required two matches and England’s first VAR-assisted goal to beat as recently as January.  So, would the City ‘squad players’ rise to the task?

The answer was a resounding ‘yes’.  Whilst the opposition provided little real threat, you can – in the words of the old cliché – only play who is in front of you, and City played this match with a good degree of confidence and ability.  They deserved to win by more than four, and it would be hard to pick out any home player who did not play at least pretty well.

By coincidence, this match marked another VAR first, with the use of specific announcements on the big screens to inform fans when an incident was being reviewed.  This is a welcome improvement and worked well during this match.

The stadium was only one-third full, and the impression that this was little more than an early season training match increased when The Birch made his usual pre-match announcements about five minutes earlier than usual.  After a wait of several minutes the players then came out and lined up for kick off, only for the referee to hold them in place for over a minute before giving a signal to start – some three minutes after 7.45.  The fans duly whistled and made hurry-up noises, in good spirits, but it was all a bit amateurish.  Maybe the cause was waiting for a signal that the VAR team in London (headed by none other than Jon Moss) was ready?  We may never know.

Once the match kicked off, City repeated the same habit as in all three Premier League matches so far: they gave the opposition a good chance to score in the first couple of minutes.  Fleetwood’s shot, from 20-yards, was not a difficult save for debutant Ward in the City goal, but nonetheless that slow start needs to be watched, it is a bad habit to get into.

What differed from the three Premier League matches, though, was that that shot on target was to be the only one recorded in the entire match by City’s opponents.  Fleetwood set up with a rigid 5-4-1 formation and stuck with it through thick and thin.  City played with a 4-4-2 which, at times, was reminiscent of the glory days of the Premier League-winning season.  Albrighton and Fuchs were taking turns to set each other up to make pinpoint crosses, Silva and Iborra completely dominated the centre of midfield, and Ghezzal did a decent Mahrez-impression by taking on defenders whenever he could and getting in some decent shots too.

In truth, City had so much time and space almost whenever they had the ball that they could pick their passes with relative ease.  The wingers and full backs on each flank pushed forward as there was nothing really to defend against.  The central defenders – Morgan in the right-hand slot and Evans in the left – had very little to do defensively, but generally got the ball forward effectively when they could.

After the first-minute scare, City quickly took over the game.  In the seventh minute, Ghezzal took a good in-swinging free kick which was just cleared over the bar.  The resulting corner was cleared to Fuchs 20-odd yards from goal and his first-time half-volley flew into the net – an early contender for shot of the season, even if not perhaps goal of the season, to make it one-nil.

It was all very comfortable for the home team, with Albrighton, Ghezzal and Okazaki particularly lively and creative.  Yet another pin-point Albrighton cross to Iheanacho was bundled away for a corner in the twentieth minute; there was a short pause as the big screen showed “VAR check in progress: penalty”, then the game continued.

Fuchs attempted another long-range effort, but this time a defender blocked it.  A while later Fuchs turned provider, crossing from inside the box for an unmarked Iborra to head home a straightforward chance.  A two-nil lead was the least City deserved, and that was almost added to before the break when a well-worked move finished with a short-range Okazaki shot that was very well saved by the Fleetwood keeper.

Iheanacho had three decent chances in the first half and was particularly unlucky when hitting the inside of the post early on after a one-on-one chance with the keeper.  He made some amends less than 15 seconds into the second half.  An Albrighton flick cleared the Fleetwood defence and an unmarked Iheanacho rounded the keeper to score a deserved goal and, hopefully, one that will have boosted his confidence at least a little.  He was replaced five minutes later by Gray in what was, presumably, a pre-planned move.  Puel does seem keen to try Gray out as a central striker although, whilst he played well in this match, his instincts do still take him to the by-line more than one might want from a Centre Forward.

I lost count of the number of chances City created in the second half, many resulting in shots on target.  It was almost completely a game of ‘Attack versus Defence’.  Morgan was replaced by debutant Benkovic around the hour mark, with the Captain’s armband going to Albrighton and Evans switching to the right-hand centre back slot.

Ghezzal had been creative and assertive throughout the match.  He got his reward in the 77th minute, receiving yet another long cross-field ball on the right wing, cutting inside and firing a curling left-footed shot into the top corner of the Fleetwood goal from 20 yards – an impressive piece of play to cap an impressive performance.  He was loudly applauded a few minutes later when he was replaced by Diabaté.  I’m not sure that a straight “replacement for Mahrez” could ever be found, but Ghezzal has looked a lively player in each of his substitute appearance to date and in this match, so here’s hoping he can build on such a good start in City colours.

There was another VAR penalty check, but otherwise the game continued in the same pattern it had throughout – although Fleetwood did force a corner in the dying minutes in a very rare attack.  Eventually, the two minutes of stoppage time passed and the final ended a convincing four-nil win.

Despite the limited opposition, every City player could be pleased with their performance.  Beating a League One team’s second-eleven is never likely to mark a career-changing milestone, but each of those appearing in a blue shirt today will not have harmed their chances of pushing into Puel’s first team, although some – notably Ward and the centre backs – were barely tested to any great extent.

It’s hard to criticise Fleetwood for prioritising the league over the Carabao Cup in their team selection.  I do hope that the 84 (or was it 86? The count by two of my family members disagreed on this point) hardy members of the Cod Army who watched the match from the Away Corner enjoyed their trip South and they have a good and rewarding season overall.

Finally, a brief mention of Jamie Vardy’s announcement today that he is retiring from the England team.  That seems a dignified and sensible decision from a player who has conducted his career in a very professional way.  It was disappointing that the new rule which means that yellow cards in the league are separate from those in the cups does not also apply to red cards, as otherwise surely Vardy could have played today against his old club and made the long trip by the away fans somewhat more memorable for them!

Leicester: Ward, Morgan, Evans, Fuchs, Ghezzal, Adrien Silva, Amartey, Albrighton, Iborra, Okazaki, Iheanacho. Subs: Gray, Maddison, Benkovic, Jakupovic, Mendy, Diabaté, Knight

Fleetwood: Jones, Jones, Sheron, Spurr, Dempsey, Bolger, Long, Maguire, Biggins, Grant, McAleny. Subs; Cairns, Holt, Eastham, Burns, Madden, Hill, Wallace

Referee:  Lee Mason                      Attendance: 10,671

The views expressed in this report are the opinions of the Trust member nominated to file the report only and do not represent the views of the Foxes Trust organisation