In Leicester City’s first 18 minutes of action under new manager Claude Puel, Foxes fans were treated to a few things they were unaccustomed to seeing. Demarai Gray in a starting role. Ben Chilwell not only starting, but playing in an attacking role. And a departure from the signature 4-4-2 formation Leicester had deployed during the club’s entire current tenure in the Premier League.
Puel was obviously not going to be constrained by the Nigel Pearson, Craig Shakespeare, Michael Appleton lineage vision of what Leicester should be. And in these first 18 minutes of Puel’s debut match, the boss’s changes seemed to provide a spark for the club. The Foxes were on the front foot, but had yet to find the back of the net.
Then came an Everton free kick in the 19th minute, and that beautifully lethal Leicester City counterattack made its first appearance under Puel at the King Power.
But how did a free kick by Leighton Baines from about 40 yards out turn in to a Jamie Vardy goal a short 17 seconds later? Upon closer examination of the play, three things stick out that helped take a scoreless tie to a 1 - 0 Foxes lead.
1. A poor delivery by Baines. (0:17 - 0:21) Everton lined up four players in the box in preparation for the kick (Wayne Rooney, Ashley Williams, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, and Kevin Mirallas) with Phil Jagielka just outside. Right before Baines kicked, Jagielka spun away from where the ball was placed, and made a deep run toward the far post. Once Baines kicked, Calvert-Lewin and Williams both moved a few yards straight toward goal, and Wayne Rooney, the deepest Everton player before the kick was taken, remained in place, leaving him now furthest from the goal, but completely unmarked.
This set piece left Everton with several options depending on Baines’ delivery. A shorter ball could be flicked on by Rooney. If the delivery went beyond Rooney, Calvert-Lewin or Williams could either head back to Rooney, for an open shot, or flick-on to Jagielka, who made the run far post. Even an extremely overhit delivery could still give Jagielka a shot on goal. Unfortunately, for Everton, Baines’ delivery was none of these.
The ball was too long for Rooney, but too short for either Calvert-Lewin or Williams to make a play on it. (In the video, you’ll see both abruptly stop forward movement in an attempt to get back to the ball.) Instead, Baines hit the ball almost directly to Wilfred Ndidi, who headed it to Gray, and the break was almost on.
2. A half-hearted foul and a poor tackle. (0:21 - 0:29) When Gray received the pass from Ndidi and chested it down, he was facing his own goal, with a defender, Tom Davies, closing in. Not an ideal set up for a counterattack.
But Gray trusted his speed, pushed the ball 10 yards upfield, and proceeded to turn and run up Davies’ outside shoulder. Davies, sensing a counterattack could very shortly be on, attempted to either block or grab Gray.
Davies didn’t commit to either, and his lackluster attempt at a stop left Gray tearing up the pitch with only one defender in his path, Idrissa Gueye. The midfielder lunged for the ball, but his attempt to stop Gray was not much better than Davies’ effort, and Gray was nearly free. A hard-charging Rooney was Everton’s final defender with a chance to halt Gray’s advance before the winger reached top speed, but the forward also chose not to foul Gray, instead choosing to run around Gray in an attempt to somehow mark Riyad Mahrez.
The aftermath of all this was Davies completely out of the play, Gueye prone on the pitch, Gray with 20 yards of space in front of him, and Vardy and Mahrez running full speed down the channels. The counterattack was definitely on.
3. Demarai Gray: The seasoned veteran. (0:29 - 0:36) When Gray broke free from Davies and Gueye, he was to the near-right side of the pitch. Mahrez had filled the right channel, Vardy, the left. In order to optimize his options, Gray needed to move center. This seems like a minor point, but it was the key to the entire attack, and a player making only his third Premier League start since April was the one who needed to execute at full speed.
Two touches later, Gray was almost directly mid pitch. On his next touch, Gray played a perfectly weighted ball to Mahrez. One touch to Vardy. Next touch, back of the net.
At a club whose fans were unsure of their owners’ latest choice of manager, things could not have gotten off to a better start than they did under Claude Puel. But it wasn’t just the win. And it wasn’t just the score. It was that first goal. That full speed, Great Escape, Fox Run of beauty that has Leicester fans worldwide excited for what’s to come.