Leicester City fell to AFC Bournemouth 4-2 Saturday afternoon at the Vitality Stadium. The Foxes dug themselves a 3-0 hole at the half and left it too late to come from behind. It was an eventful afternoon, full of flowing play, clinical counter-attacks, goal-mouth action, cynical fouls, and cards aplenty. For the neutral, it may have been a brilliant match. For Leicester fans, it was anything but.
Manager Claude Puel made only one change from the starting XI that lost to Liverpool two weeks ago: Jamie Vardy returned from suspension to lead the attack at the expense of Marc Albrighton. Kasper Schmeichel started between the sticks behind a back line of Ricardo Pereira, Wes Morgan, Harry Maguire, and Ben Chilwell. Nampalys Mendy and Wilfred Ndidi continued their partnership in central midfield, with Rachid Ghezzal, James Maddison, and Demarai Gray lining up behind the returning Vardy.
The opening exchanges would best be described as “cagey”, with the first real chance falling to the visitors. A bright team move saw Ghezzal find Vardy behind the defense with a well-weighted through ball, but the striker’s touch was just a bit heavy and Begovic was able to get enough to ball wide.
A defensive let-off led to a a nervy moment at the back for Leicester. Ryan Fraser beat Pereira to the line in the area and the Portugal man made a clumsy effort to impede him that probably should have been a penalty, but referee Craig Pawson gave the incident a long look and decided there was nothing in it. To everyone who wants VAR in the Premiership, we should be thankful this once that it’s not here.
City didn’t heed the warning and went down 1-0 just before the 20 minute mark. A Leicester move broke down in midfield and the ball fell to Josh King, who nutmegged Mendy to set Fraser free down the middle. Morgan recovered well, but Fraser was able to turn inside and fired a low ball inside the post that left Schmeichel no chance. You might argue this was against the run of play, but it was a quality move and a quality finish.
Leicester had another bit of luck when Harry Maguire, already on a yellow, clattered into a late challenge right in front of the Bournemouth bench, In honesty, it was probably worth a second yellow but Pawson felt it was only worthy of a “super-mega-ultra-totally-last-warning” instead of a card and City avoided being reduced to ten men with an hour to play.
The Foxes were unlucky not to be level when Maddison won the ball in midfield and laid a beauty of a pass in the path of Vardy, whose shot was well-saved by Begovic. The rebound fell to Maddison, whose goal-bound shot was touched onto the crossbar by the Bosnian keeper.
Moments later, the hosts doubled their lead, again through Fraser. A long clearance found Callum Wilson just across the halfway line, who slid a pass to set Fraser one-on-one with Harry Maguire. The Scotland international held off his England counterpart and slotted the ball under Schmeichel giving the Foxes a hill to climb to get anything from the match.
That hill became a mountain just three minutes later when Josh King flicked a ball up into Ricardo’s arm at close range. There was nothing he could do about it, but it was directly in front of the referee and Pawson pointed directly to the spot. King sent Schmeichel the wrong way and City were down 3-0 at the half despite having created the lion’s share of the chances.
Don’t worry #LCFC fans, Aaron Rodgers is coming on for the 2nd half...— Arlo White (@arlowhite) September 15, 2018
Arlo White’s statement notwithstanding, City emerged from the tunnel unchanged to start the second half, which would normally be puzzling when you trail 3-0, but the Foxes created enough chances in the first half to offer some encouragement. There was no immediate reaction to Puel’s half-time talk as Bournemouth provided all the early pressure, forcing Schmeichel into his first save on a deep cross that was just going sneak into the corner without the Dane’s intervention.
Leicester’s personnel remained the same, but the formation seemed to shift slightly, with Gray going up top alongside Vardy and Maddison taking wider positions. The next quarter hour, City had all of the possession, but little in the way of threat beyond a tame Maddison shot, an Ndidi header over, and an unconvincing penalty shout from Gray.
The manager threw the dice on the hour mark, bringing on Marc Albrighton and Kelechi Iheanacho for Ghezzal and Gray. Little changed in the run of play, as City were bossing possession (78% in the second half to this point), but chances remained at a premium.
Leicester’s task became insurmountable on 70’ when Wes Morgan was given a second yellow for...honestly, I can’t tell you what. He clumsily danced through two challenges and went 50-50 into a third with a slight lunge, but Pawson felt what was at best a questionable call for a foul was worthy of a second yellow, reducing City to ten men for the final twenty minutes.
City nearly got one back on 75’ when Maddison’s corner found the slab of Maguire’s head. Begovic made a hash of coming for the ball, but he was bailed out by his defenders clearing the line. The Cherries were immediately back on the attack and should have added a fourth when a long ball found Josh King. He shot wide when he should have scored or simply rolled the ball to Fraser for a hat trick.
City once again failed to heed the warning as the hosts added a fourth on 80’. A simple throw in led to a cutback for Adam Smith, who blasted the ball past the stranded Leicester keeper. Puel responded by sending on Jonny Evans for Vardy, giving the visitors two central defenders again.
City were gifted a fortunate penalty on 85’ minutes when Ricardo was needlessly fouled by Rico on the edge of the area. Maddison made no mistake from the spot and the Foxes had a consolation goal. A couple of minutes later, Leicester got a second when Iheancho’s cross found a late run by Albrighton, who glanced a header past the stranded Cherries’ keeper.
If you’ve lost count, that made it 4-2 to Bournemouth and that’s how it ended. Newly-minted England international Chilwell had a late chance that he dragged just wide, but there was to be no comeback for the Foxes this time.
This kind of match is the most difficult to summarize because the scoreline may have ultimately reflected the run of play, but how we got to that scoreline was unrelated to the flow of the match. City played reasonably well in the first half, at least in attack, and found themselves down 3-0. We weren’t really any better in the second and wound up cutting a goal from the margin in spite of being down a man.
The refereeing was bizarre and inconsistent at times. At least it was bizarre and inconsistent in both directions, but it’s frustrating to watch poor calls have such a massive impact on the match because you lose the sense of how the match should have played out.
One thing that there’s no covering up is that the Leicester centre-halfs were exposed by Bournemouth’s direct, central play. Even with the Leicester fullbacks playing deep in their opponent’s half, Eddie Howe’s men eschewed wide attacks and went mano a mano with the big City defenders down the middle to worrying effect. They were left alone against the King and Wilson too often and the hosts were clinical in exploiting those opportunities.
On the plus side, this was Maddison’s most-influential match by far. His ability to receive the ball in the pocket between the midfield and the striker and create havoc was on full display. He provides the central creative threat Leicester have been missing since their return to the top flight. We could, and probably should, have had a couple of goals or more in the first half, largely due to the former Norwich man’s efforts.
City return to the King Power next weekend to face Huddersfield Town in a fixture that the Foxes must win if they’re to be taken seriously as a threat for European football. It’s never too early for the “Puel crowd” to start making noise, and anything but three points against the Terriers will bring them out in force.