1) You should never take a manager who enjoy cup competitions for granted
Maybe I’m doing some of our former managers a disservice here, but looking at Brendan Rodgers team selection and tactics for this FA Cup Third Round tie, there’s no argument of whether he’s taking it seriously. It’s refreshing because for so many years, this fixture has been one to have concern over. Whether it’s been a lack of appetite, or feeling our squad isn’t strong enough to produce a good changed side, there’ve been some terrible matches as we’ve ambled our way through a ‘cup run’.
Newport sticks out most recently in the mind, but Millwall back in 2017 sticks out too. Our entire approach this time feels different though. Perhaps it helps to start the FA Cup in a new year where we’ve finally got some nice gaps between matches and a temporary break from Europa commitments, but this was as strong a side as the Foxes could line up. We knew James Maddison and Jamie Vardy would miss out from slight niggles, but did any of us expect an unchanged side otherwise?
This had potential tricky fixture written all over it prior to seeing the line-ups. Yes, Stoke have some injuries but they’re a side with a lot of Premier League experience and a very good manager. It’s so pleasing then to see such a measured, calm approach from Rodgers and his side. A lot of the first half was about patience, trying to get that opening goal that would swing the pendulum in our favour. We showed flashes of pace, of beautiful pieces of football, but it wasn’t until James Justin’s wonderful goal that it all began to click consistently.
A professional performance with four well worked goals and not a bad display from any of our players. This is what you can have when your manager is hungry for success whatever the competition.
2) Ayoze Perez leading the line is an experiment I’d like to try again
What do you do when Vardy can’t play and backup striker Kelechi Iheanacho has struggled recently? You remember we have an actual striker in our squad that we’ve largely just not allowed to play there. After his hard work, his patience and some impressive outings playing more centrally, Ayoze deserved his chance to lead the Leicester line. It was never going to be an easy afternoon for him, the Stoke back-line are three big guys which doesn’t favour the Spaniard and they’re all comparable with him for pace too. Ayoze will never lead the line in the way Vardy does, but then who will?
I’m biased, sure, I’ll happily defend Ayoze and flag the things others don’t (or don’t want) to see, but he deserves more chances like this. Playing through the middle is his best position. Not convinced by me? See the Who Scored ratings that have the Spaniard ahead of all our players.
Playing him centrally doesn’t necessarily have to be in the lone striker role, but it really is time we stopped trying to force Ayoze to play on the wing and just let him thrive through the middle. After Kelechi Iheanacho’s recent performances, and Ayoze’s hard work when he has been granted opportunities, he’s earned it. I like that he’s so rarely selfish too. The Spaniard’s decision making and movement didn’t always come off against Stoke, but it felt positive.
It wasn’t a perfect performance, but there were some positives and in a pretty comfortable 4-0 victory where he also got a goal, it’s worth trying this again. We have to find a viable solution for games where we don’t have Vardy, and we didn’t miss him this time. One of my favourite moments involved some superb interplay between Dennis Praet and Ayoze who then tried to cue in Harvey Barnes, who was very unlucky not to get his name on the scoresheet in that first half.
3) Belgian class helped see off Stoke
For the first time in some months, Rodgers was able to select all three of our Belgians. Pre-match I hoped for some Belgian magic and they did not disappoint. Our trio linked up well with each other and their teammates.
Once the Foxes opened the scoring, the Premier League class in the squad shined and a huge part of that was Youri Tielemans. He’s not the only one, but Stoke just didn’t have the means to deal with him. I mean no disrespect to Stoke as I felt they did challenge us in the first half, but they were no match for our Belgian maestro. So often it looked like he was in a training match, picking up the ball and consistently threading it through for one of our many attacks.
There are so many specific moments you could call out to demonstrate just how good Tielemans was: that first touch in our own box, his vision to always find one of our players and the ability to deliver a perfect weighted ball. His best ball of the afternoon could have been the one late on to Dennis Praet, who deserved a goal and really didn’t deserve the hamstring injury he picked up trying to notch a fifth goal. It was the only sour note on an otherwise excellent afternoon from Praet.
Just keep showing me that touch.
Praet was granted a number ten role in Maddison’s absence and it’s one that seems to grant him the chance to have enjoy himself. He’s a superb attacking threat, so clever in the way he plays and so skilled. Case in point with a loose ball that he masterfully used his first touch on, knocked it ahead and displayed some impressive pace to outwit Stoke, before passing it to Timothy Castagne who unselfishly put it on a plate for Ayoze. The link up play that Praet offers us, and the way he overlapped with Castagne was a lot of fun.
It’s hard to do when Maddison is back in contention but having the three Belgians together seems to produce some superb pieces of football. With all three getting an assist today, and two of them unfortunate not to be on the scoresheet, we’re blessed. It’s just gutting to potentially be without Praet now.
Unpopular opinion:— CAL (@Calcfcz) January 9, 2021
The Belgians are lowkey running our club! pic.twitter.com/up7ZvuQlqZ
Not an unpopular opinion of this Fosse Posse writer. I’m fully onboard with the Belgian domination!
4) Swapping Castagne and Justin on the flanks worked perfectly
It’s both excellent recruitment from Leicester City, but also a stroke of luck that Rodgers has the luxury to decide which flank to play both Castagne and Justin on. He’s spoken before of selecting this with our opponents in mind. Whether that’s to nullify an attacking threat or capitalise on some defensive weakness (or a slow full-back). Swapping the pair for the FA Cup proved to be another excellent tactical decision from Rodgers.
When Castagne joined, I’d naively assumed it was to be the Ben Chilwell replacement, so seeing him start on the right had been a little surprising. Perhaps it’s the way that we play, or the opponents he’s had to face in his few games on the left, but he is able to play more as a winger when we’ve had him on the right. Something Stoke just didn’t know how to defend yesterday as we consistently overloaded them with attacks down that flank.
It’s beginning to feel like I say this a lot (I just really love the majority of this squad, I’m sorry), but Castagne is such a likeable addition. He’s perfectly suited to the style Rodgers wants us to play and he has slotted straight into the squad too. His assist for Ayoze is the shining example of just how dangerous he can be down the right. He got himself into the box on multiple occasions. Something he didn’t really do when playing on the left.
Some will tell you that it’s an issue, but the amazing thing is we still aren’t at full strength on the right. Ricardo Pereira is yet to be fully fit and available. As fantastic as both Castagne and Justin have been, I’m in no doubt that Ricardo is still our best right-back and can therefore get a spot in this side. There will be a question though of can we just play him, or maybe Castagne as a winger instead to solve the problem of who you’d have to drop? I wouldn’t want to be a left-back facing this Leicester side.
5) Justin’s wonder goal ensures he continues to defy all expectations
Not content with just being an early front runner for player of the season, Justin has now thrown his hat into the ring for goal of the season too. It was a superb solo effort from the youngster, adding to what is already an excellent season for him. Still the only Foxes player to have started every single game this campaign, not that you’d know for his work rate and how energetic he consistently looks. His development this season started as one of necessity but his progress shows that there really is no substitute for match experience. Surely one of the first names on the team sheet at the moment, he’s surpassed any expectations. Luton fans told us we’d signed something special in Justin and we’ve really seen that in the last couple of months.
Yes, Justin is clearly a talent and we’re nurturing that talent well but he has two absolutely key attributes. His tireless work rate, on display yet again against Stoke with an excellent recovery to close down a Potters counterattack, and his willingness to do adapt. Fosse Posse’s own Jake has called it out a few times that he looks like the workhorse heir to Marc Albrighton in that respect and he’s not wrong. Versatile, willing to do what his side need and more than happy to run himself into the ground.
If James Justin carries on this form he goes to the euros. A full back as comfortable on either side and capable of playing in a back 3 is a managers dream. He’s been the best full back in the league this season— Danny Harrison (@WhitwickFox87) January 9, 2021
I don’t think anybody would disagree that Justin looks his strongest, defensively anyway, at right-back. He’s ever improving when asked to step in on the left though, and it never seems to hamper him getting forward. Despite some early defensive wobbles, he grew into the game. His goal came from his determination to roam, to push and overlap with Harvey Barnes. He’d already started adding assists to his game, and now that he’s proven he can chip in with a spectacular goal as well, he’s really cementing a spot in this line-up.
Bonus Lesson: I ran out of lessons and so many players deserve a nod from this game, but the bonus lesson has to go Marc Albrighton and how people continue to underestimate him. You can see just how delighted the entire team was when he got his goal. His job against Stoke was a little different, not quite so reliant on him just distributing crosses into the box, but working with the Belgians to occupy space, find players and help provide danger. It took a few minutes for us to warm to this approach but when we did, goals were never in doubt. After a pretty painful performance two years ago in the FA Cup (that display against Newport) this felt like perfect vindication.