1) Exiting the Europa League with a whimper, guess that’s what Slavia meant by fox hunting
Ok, I understand that when we missed out on the Champions League and ended up with a Europa League spot that it probably felt a little like asking for a Tamagotchi at Christmas (showing my age here as a 90s kid) and ending up with an action figure and chocolate. Perfectly fine but not what you really wanted. But as the new season began, I was still pretty excited. It felt like we had a tangible chance at progression and in another world, there could have been some intriguing away trips.
Perhaps I’m naïve but I’m not sure I’d clocked that in our list of priorities, Europa League was a firm bottom until the line-ups of this round. Sure, Premier League comes top but I can’t say I’d thought about the FA Cup so much. For most Leicester fans, an FA Cup final would usually always be a coveted ambition. Maybe it’s Covid related why it hadn’t felt so desired this year? Or maybe I’m just hugely out of step with our fans in hoping we might have gone harder in Europa instead.
Leicester have lost nine games this season in all competitions, and seven of those have come at the King Power stadium. #LCFC— Spreadex Sports (@SpreadexSport) February 26, 2021
For the fifth time in five attempts Brendan Rodgers has failed to make it past the last 32 in the #EuropaLeague pic.twitter.com/PfiPu2wBEj
Wish I’d realised this stat earlier, BR really doesn’t love Europe.
Let’s get the few positives out of the way. The main one being our somewhat stretched looking squad has one less set of games, and travel, to factor in. We can concentrate on the Premier League and there’s still the FA Cup. The other big positive? Commentators will stop saying “Leicester fighting on three fronts”. Maybe it’s just me but for some reason it sounded irritating. That’s pretty much it for the positives though. Spin it how you want but right now (the hangover the morning after) it feels like a missed opportunity.
We didn’t go out all weapons firing like when Atletico knocked us out of the Champions League. We went out with a whimper, showing none of our qualities. That’s the most disappointing part.
2) For our experienced heads, there’s a lot of young or inexperienced heads who will learn from this
The usual dissection of quite where we went wrong began long before the match ended. The players came under fire from the social media majority, along with Rodgers’ selection. Being angry or disappointed at the manner in which we went out sure, but it feels wrong to see some suggesting there was a lack of effort from our players. This isn’t a squad of hangers-on, you either work hard or you don’t play. If you want to accuse them of anything, maybe it’s showing their inexperience.
The starting eleven on paper should have had enough quality to see off Slavia Prague so that’s a whole other matter, but in terms of European experience it’s really only Jonny Evans and Youri Tielemans (how many can say they debuted in the Champions League at 16?) that have it. We still have some heads from the Champions League run in 16/17 but that was brand new for all.
It goes with the territory of having a relatively young and upcoming squad. It’s exciting but sometimes we have to remember that they are learning. A work in progress. A team like Slavia Prague are not pushovers and they’re in these competitions every year. We can be forgiven for a little naivety in our own approach. Hopefully their disappointment can be channelled into pummelling Arsenal?
3) Speaking of youth, it was pleasing to see Sidnei Tavares make his debut
We’re not quite at conveyor belt levels of academy production just yet but we have had more solid output in the last three years than in many before. While it may not be the perfect moment to make your first team debut, we literally subbed Sidnei Tavares on when their second goal went in, it’ll still be memorable for the nineteen year old.
If history can repeat itself, maybe Tavares is our next Harvey Barnes. You’ll remember that a certain very young Barnes made his debut in a disappointing European outing (the 5-0 loss at Porto). Cousin to once Manchester United star Nani, the youngster Tavares has previously had Barcelona sniffing around and is seemingly yet another weapon in the reserved for Portugal.
It’s incredibly early to be speculating but hey it’s fun, We’ve needed a standby for Tielemans in the squad (at least whole Praet is out) and maybe Tavares will get more opportunities before the season is done. He certainly did nothing wrong in his cameo. In some ways, with the game already lost, he had zero pressure on his shoulders. Some have suggested he’s a possible option to fill in the number ten role as Maddison’s absence rumbles on.
4) Foxes really lacked a creative edge
How much did the Foxes miss James Maddison? Quite a bit. We all love Youri so it pains me to say this but despite his best efforts, he is not a number ten. Or at least it didn’t work out against Slavia Prague. We really missed him in the middle because of this too, no disrespect to Hamza Choudhury either, they’re just different players.
Rodgers admitted playing Youri Tielemans higher up the pitch didn't work as I would have liked: "Youri’s better when he’s deeper, he allows us to link the game to the front players. That’s my responsibility. I pick the team to get the result."— BBC Leicester Sport (@BBCRLSport) February 25, 2021
Our set piece taking ability continued on in disappointing fashion proving there’s bigger issues afoot there considering it no longer seems to matter who takes them, it’s the same outcome. We missed the outfield spark though of a Maddison. Somebody to help try and find pockets in-between a heavily packed defence.
It wasn’t just in the ten role that we lacked creativity though. We’ve become almost expectant of having creativity coming from both the left and right flanks. For large portions of the second leg we just looked a little lost. Despite some early bright moves from Cengiz Under, he soon found himself contributing more defensively than forward. Despite some efforts from Luke Thomas, who felt like one of the brighter players going forward, the service to Vardy was pretty poor and the Slavia goalkeeper had a very relaxed game.
Things sped up almost instantly with the triple introduction of Barnes, Ricardo and Castagne. We looked more lively and more likely to do something but we already needed two goals by that stage. The changes felt needed, but fifteen minutes too late.
It’s not easy to impose your style when a team set up so deep, and it was a similar story in the first leg so it can’t have been a surprise that they’d operate similarly with a focus on countering. For a team who so often look like scoring is easy, we had no opportunities of real threat.
5) Rodgers has really got this side looking more resilient but this feels like a key few weeks to really put that to the test
It’s clear that it’s not just football and technical ability that Rodgers has improved within the club, but their mentality and strength to bounce back. You need to look no further than some recent points or wins that wouldn’t have happened during the restart for example. This is the biggest test the squad have faced yet with this new look resilience. There’ll be disappointment to lose any games, especially a knockout one. It’s all about how they react.
The good news, or bad, depending on your outlook levels is that games continue to come back around quickly. We really should have one or two players back fit again soon (Fofana and Perez) to help bolster us. The more pessimistic among us will note that it was about this time last year that it started to fall apart. The Aston Villa cup defeat felt like the catalyst. Another big game.
If there’s one thing that Rodgers will hopefully have notes on is that we have struggled in high pressure games. If not for the full game then for a half or for seventy minutes in the case of the recent Liverpool game.
I hate the phrase ‘must win game’ but it does feel like there’s a bit of pressure on this Arsenal game. The Foxes need a reaction, even if it’s just a performance worthy of our fairly high standards this year.
Bonus Learn: Fair play to Slavia Prague, they were the better team and in that sense they fully earned their progression. It’s a shame they won’t have many Foxes fans cheering them on though, because between the weird social jabs before the first leg and their general sporting behaviour (or lack thereof) they’re hard to actually like. It’s not entirely their fault, the refereeing standard over both legs was pretty painful and played to their tactics but it doesn’t feel like this was a tie that will have inspired a mutual admiration for years to come.