Leicester City saw off 10-man Newcastle by a score of 3-0 Saturday afternoon at St. James Park. First half goals from Ayoze Perez and James Maddison, plus a late stunner from Hamza Choudhury, were more than enough to get past the toothless Geordies. Newcastle had already used all three substitutions when Fabien Schär suffered a hamstring injury in early in the second half and was unable to continue.
Brendan Rodgers changed things up again, both in terms of personnel and tactics. Kasper Schmeichel got the start in goal behind a back three of Jonny Evans, Çaglar Söyüncü, and Christian Fuchs. Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira lined up as wing backs flanking a midfield three of Youri Tielemans, James Maddison, and Wilfred Ndidi. Ayoze Perez slotted in just behind striker Kelechi Iheanacho.
The Foxes nearly made a dream start from an early corner. The ball was swung in from the right and Evans met it sweetly, but could only direct it at keeper Martin Dubravka who parried it back to Evans. The Northern Ireland defender knocked it across the face of the goal, but Dubravka was just able to punch it away before Ayoze met it at the far post.
The game was being played at a canter with some meaty challenges but little in the way of goalmouth action. Neither keeper was troubled again until the quarter-hour mark. The defense opened up for Tielemans to take a pop from distance. His low drive was parried but not held by Dubravka, but Federico Fernandez just beat Ayoze to the rebound.
Leicester were fortunate not to be a goal down on 22’. Newcastle played a perfectly-weighted ball over the top to Joelinton who was one-on-one with Schmeichel. The Danish stopper did will to get down and turn the shot onto the bar before gathering the rebound.
The visitors were bossing possession with 75% of the ball, but struggling to break down the packed Geordie defense. Maddison tried to twist away from his markers in the area and finally went to ground under the attention of Jetro Willems. Referee Martin Atkinson staring right at the incident and saw nothing in it because there was, in fact, nothing in it. Somewhat surprisingly, VAR quickly made the right call and confirmed Atkinson’s decision.
It turns out that a packed defense is difficult to break down regardless of the formation, but a gift is another matter altogether. Trying to play the ball out of defense, Florian Lejeune played a long pass across his own box that found Ayoze. The former Newcastle man still had plenty of work to do, twisting away from one defender and taking a kick in the shin from another, but he did well to stay up just long enough to lash a shot into the far corner and give the Foxes a deserved lead.
Santa Lejeune wasn’t done handing out presents yet. He had yet another pass picked off by Ricardo, who found Ayoze in the area. He quickly picked out Maddison all alone just outside the box. Everyone in the stadium knew what was coming, but there’s a wide gap between “knowing” and “being able to anything about it”, at least where Madders is concerned. He struck it sweetly with his left foot, finding the top corner at the near post and giving Dubravka absolutely no hope.
That was it for the half, as Leicester went into the tunnel with a 2-0 lead. It was a fair reflection of the run of play as the Foxes controlled the proceedings from the opening whistle and the Magpies offered almost nothing going forward.
Newcastle made one change at the half, which was their third substitution, all due to injuries. Willems and Javier Manquillo came off in the first half, and Jonjo Shelvey was unable to start the second. This was almost immediately relevant as Fabian Schär pulled up with a hamstring injury only two minutes after the restart. He came off for treatment but, obviously, couldn’t be substituted. He returned a few minutes later but was clearly continuing to struggle, coming off again on 50’.
The Foxes were in cruise control with Newcastle down to ten men. There’s always the risk that a lapse in concentration will let the other side back into the match and, had it been any side but Newcastle, that may have happened. A loose ball in the Leicester box fell to Joelinton 14 yards out, but he scuffed his shot, sending it almost 90 degrees from the intended direction.
Leicester should have increased their lead on the hour mark. A through ball found Ayoze in full flight in the Newcastle half along with Iheanacho and two Newcastle defenders. The Spaniard did well to draw both defenders and then cross for the Nigeria striker, but the pass we behind him. Iheanacho managed to cut back inside and get the shot off only to see it well-blocked by Dubravka. The rebound fell to Ayoze, whose first-time effort was just kept out by the busy Newcastle stopper.
That proved Iheanacho’s last action of the match as Rodgers sent Demarai Gray on in his stead. Gray had a marvelous opportunity to put the match out of reach when Ricardo got to the end line and pulled it back for the former Birmingham man. As he was about to pull the trigger, Ayoze decided he fancied the opportunity for himself and wound up blocking the shot. This made Ayoze the most valuable Newcastle defender on the afternoon.
The sting had long since gone out of the match by the 75’ mark when Hamza Choudhury was introduced for Maddison. Leicester were just playing keep-ball at this point, knocking it around the Newcastle half with Fuchs, Evans and Söyüncü closer to the Newcastle goal than their own. It was quiet enough in St. James Park that you could literally hear pick out individual voices in the crowd.
The final change came on 83’ when Wes Morgan replaced Evans. You might notice that the majority of the “action” in this second half has been describing substitutions. In truth, there was very little else going on. On the rare occasions when the hosts got a boot to the ball, it was swiftly recovered by a swarm of blue shirts.
The third goal came as a bolt out of the blue, almost literally. A patient move kicked into another gear when Fuchs sent a defense-splitting pass to Ayoze. He touched the ball to Gray, who pulled it back for Ndidi in the D. He squared it for Choudhury, who ran onto the ball and struck it as sweetly as anything he’ll ever hit. It went in off the joint where the upright meets the cross bar. No keeping on the planet would save it.
"I'll answer that, it's definitely Hamza!"— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) January 1, 2020
James Maddison and Hamza Choudhury both scored brilliant goals, but who's was better?#BTAllDayer pic.twitter.com/sz67UDv1p8
It’s a testament to how good Madders’ strike was that they would even ask this question.
The last seven minutes, including injury time, were short on incident. Gray did send a rasping drive just wide, but that was the extent of it. Martin Atkinson, who did his job well by being almost invisible for long periods of time, blew the whistle on as comfortable a win as you’d want to see.
“Comfortable” might be an understatement when describing this match. The Foxes had 77% of the possession and Newcastle, aside from one Joelinton chance, never really looked like scoring. It was an unfamiliar formation and a somewhat makeshift staring XI, but it did the job nicely. That’s two away wins on the trot without Vardy which goes a long way to erasing the memories of the Manchester City and Liverpool matches.
Vardy: Right..Ayoze...and you Hamza...so I'm not coming today, but when the #NUFC fans boo you, this is what you do! #LCFC pic.twitter.com/C5rHSNL2IF— Glenn the Foxile (@gloriousglenn) January 1, 2020
That’s five goals from five different players in two matches without Vardy in case you thought we were too dependent on the best striker in English football.
Ayoze is starting to show a little of why we spent big for him. He doesn’t have Vardy’s pace, but he’s clever and gets into difficult-to-defend positions all over the pitch and he was rewarded for that today. Madders was back to his unplayable self again, and Ndidi did Ndidi things in abundance. He’s so consistent that you just expect that he’ll win everything that comes near him. And, of course, he does.
The win gives the Foxes 45 points from 21 matches. We’ve also opened up a 14 point lead over 5th placed Manchester United with only 17 matches to play. It feels a little unambitious to talk about finishing 4th when we’re 2nd on the table, but if we can’t win the league, top four is the job and we’re in good position to get it done. We host Wigan in the 3rd round of the FA Cup this Saturday and then Aston Villa a week from today in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final. Our next league match is a week from Saturday, at home to Southampton.