Leicester City are hot – hot on the heels of league leaders Liverpool and, well, just very hot.
Having secured seven straight wins in the Premier League and a firm grip on the second spot in the process, Brendan Rodgers’ Foxes are beginning to look a lot like the only side that can challenge the Reds.
However, given the fact that they are chasing a flawless Liverpool, the margin for error here is non-existent.
They will have to treat each game like a cup final, which means more pressure and more jitters. Therefore, Aston Villa away at such a time is by no means the kind of clash you would not be nervous about.
As the Foxes prepare for this tricky trip to the West Midlands, we spoke to Bleacher Report Galactico, Sam Tighe, for a comprehensive preview of Sunday’s encounter.
First season back in the big time for Aston Villa, what is the general feeling like around Villa Park as we approach the festive period? Have Dean Smith’s Villa been able to enthuse the fans enough? Or is there a sense of foreboding that is breeding discontent?
“The feeling is largely optimistic and rightly so. There are minor quibbles here and there—Wesley’s form, away points totals etc.—but for the most part, people are enjoying what is a good team playing some good football under an extremely likeable manager. The song ‘We’ve got our Villa back’ has been sung throughout 2019.
“There are no feelings of discontent. Most Villa fans believe this is a squad clearly good enough to stay up, will do so, and are on the right track thanks to Dean Smith (and the new DoF/chief executive combo).”
Forget about the points tally, forget about the league position, what is your own personal opinion of the displays so far? Do you see any progress underpinning the campaign that you feel is going to be more discernible towards the back end?
“The displays have been mostly good. Positive, attacking, a little open at the back at times – but that’s the risk you run.
“When Smith took the reins at Villa in the Championship, the team got better and better as the season wore on, famously culminating in a 10-game win streak and the playoff victory, and the feeling was that the more time the manager spent with the players, the better they got.
“In the summer, Villa signed a huge number of new players and now that process restarts somewhat. So the prevailing feeling is that this team only gets better as time passes on and that’s probably fair.”
Leicester City up next for the Villans. Seven Premier League wins in seven for the high-flying Foxes, two wins in seven for Sunday’s hosts. Needless to say, Villa need a special effort to be able to get even a point. Where – or who – is this special effort coming from?
“A special effort is indeed required. Leicester City have been machine-like, so impressive, and Brendan Rodgers’ tactical nous is really coming to the fore at the moment. Props to him.
“Leicester’s passing combinations just outside the box are so difficult to cope with, particularly when Ricardo Pereira makes those inverted runs, and Villa’s midfield three will need to protect those areas so well.
“In Douglas Luiz (very alert, very cool), Marvelous Nakamba and Conor Hourihane (covers a ridiculous amount of ground) or John McGinn (about as combative as they get), they do have the personnel for it, but Villa have consistently tired after around the 60/70 minute mark this season, meaning it’s difficult to have faith in their concentration levels all game long.
“Then, going the other way, it’s an open secret this team runs through Jack Grealish. He’s been moved to a shallow LW role because when he played as a CM, he was doing too much defending, and the front three (without him) lacked the required quality.
“He’ll see plenty of touches, look to combine with Hourihane/Luiz, set Targett off down the left to cross, or just weave forward himself.”
Let’s say you are the Villa boss. Keeping in mind Leicester’s style of play, what’s that one weak link in the team that is more likely to make you lose your sleep?
“Wesley is a hot topic among Villa fans right now. He hasn’t scored for two months and some are starting to get on his back, while others are pleading patience.
“What makes him difficult to assess is that while he’s not a particularly natural goalscorer, he does have games where he bullies centre-backs, links play and works tremendously hard for the team. Then he’ll follow that up with an anonymous showing where he falls to the floor over and over (which he shouldn’t – have you seen the size of the man?)
“As the lone, big striker, he’s the one Villa are looking to launch counter-attacks and run off, but he can be so, so wasteful with the ball at times. Villa as a team have been pretty poor on the counter so far this season, and he’s a factor in that.
“So considering the likely gameflow and possession split (in favour of Leicester), Wesley’s struggles to string together counters and struggles to finish chances are the biggest concerns.”
Don’t step out of the gaffer’s shoes yet. You are well aware that you’re up against a team that has the best defensive record in the league to go with the third best offensive record, too. Out of this world-class bunch, who do you instruct your players to specifically be on the look for?
“Haha, how do you pick just one? If we place the obvious ones aside, like Jamie Vardy’s predatory instincts and Youri Tielemans’ playmaking, I’d go for Ricardo.
“He’s a crucial part of the attack and is key in breaking teams down at times. His intelligent runs and athleticism are going to cause all sorts of problems. Matt Targett’s going to need some help.”
You are still the chief. It is December and many have tried and failed to find a definite flaw in Rodgers’ Leicester – except the fact that they are a small club. Is there a flaw? A weakness? Something? Anything Villa can look forward to exploiting?
“I genuinely can’t see one, other than perhaps becoming the first side to actually profit from Caglar Soyuncu’s carefree attitude with the ball in deeper areas.
“He takes a fair few risks, and one day, surely, someone will profit from one?”
It’s that time, Sam. Make your call. Aston Villa or Leicester City?
“Leicester. Villa are really strong at home and the crowd make a big difference, but the best teams in the league have been beyond Villa so far this year, and Leicester are certainly one of those.”