Leicester’s season opener against Arsenal was eventful, to say the least. High profile debuts, seven goals, numerous lead changes, a couple of calls for missed handballs, and some colorful language picked up by the NBC microphones on the American broadcast, for which Leicester native Arlo White profusely apologized. Obviously losing the match after twice grabbing the lead is a huge disappointment, but there are many positives to be taken from the match. One of the less obvious ones was Matty James’ return to the Leicester starting lineup after more than two full seasons away.
James, who joined Leicester from Manchester United in 2012, quickly became an integral part of their quest for promotion to the Premier League. He started the excruciating playoff loss to Watford in 2013, and his midfield partnership with Danny Drinkwater was vital to Leicester’s Championship title in 2014. While he began the subsequent Premier League season injured, he worked his way into the starting lineup and was a regular with Esteban Cambiasso during the Great Escape.
That is, until he blew out his knee on May 9, 2015 against Southampton. Happening as it did toward the end of the season, the typical one year recovery dictated that he would miss the entire 2015-16 Premier League season. As it turned out, of course, it was a heck of a season to miss. It is hard to imagine how the season might have been different had James been available. Would he have pushed Drinkwater for a starting spot? Is it possible that Leicester wouldn’t have felt the need to pursue midfield reinforcements, and thus passed on N’Golo Kante? We’ll never know, but questions like that reinforce what an important player James was to the club.
After suffering some injury setbacks last year and finishing the season with a very successful loan spell at Barnsely, James entered the 2017 offseason with a desire to reclaim his spot on the Leicester squad. It got off to a somewhat rocky start, with James giving up (being forced to give up?) his number 8 shirt in favor of the number 22 shirt. In addition, rumors abounded that various clubs, including Derby, West Brom, and Watford, were preparing to make bids for him. Given the glut of central midfielders on the squad, including summer signing Vicente Iborra, it seemed like James’ time at Leicester might be coming to an end.
But fast-forward to the last pre-season friendly against Borussia Monchengladbach, in which James started for an injured Drinkwater. And THAT PASS. That beautiful, perfectly weighted lob that James put forward for Jamie Vardy that led to our first goal. It’s a pass we’ve grown accustomed to Danny Drinkwater making, but James executed it perfectly, sublimely even. And then came news that Drinkwater’s injury would keep him out for at least the opener against Arsenal and his rumored transfer to Chelsea might keep him out permanently. Days later, Iborra suffered an injury in training and suddenly James was a lock to start in midfield against Arsenal.
So more than two years, over 800 days after his last start for Leicester, Matty James walked out onto the pitch at the Emirates. He did not find another sublime pass to make in this game, but he seemed to be everywhere, closing down the ball, helping keep what little possession Leicester managed, playing an excellent central midfield role. It might not have been the storybook close, the exclamation point that would make for a Hollywood script, but the great thing about it is that it isn’t a close at all.
James looked strong, and it appears that he will have every opportunity to lay claim to a midfield spot in the Leicester lineup. His story is beginning again—here he goes. Fellow Foxes fans, with apologies to Mark Morrison, we are witnessing The Return of the Matt.