Leicester begin Claude Puel era with a comfortable win vs. Everton
LEICESTER, England -- Three quick thoughts from Leicester's 2-0 win over Everton at the King Power Stadium...
1. A fine start for Puel
After a short, but uncomfortable period considering the implications of relegation, Leicester City are on the rise again. Those who feared that new manager Claude Puel would usher in an era of slow, boring football can relax -- for the moment at least. The Foxes won this game the same way they won the title, with brutal counter-attacks that left their opponents reeling.
Puel's side made all of the early running against an Everton team that really should have known better than to leave so much space behind them that could be exploited. Leicester cut through their lines three times in just two minutes. Twice on the right through the irrepressible Demarai Gray, once on the left through Jamie Vardy. On every occasion, Everton were guilty of pushing too far up against an opponent renowned for lightning strikes and after 17 minutes, the inevitable happened.
Everton squandered a free-kick, Gray picked up the ball on the edge of his own box, turned and then roared up through the gears, leaving Everton players trailing in his wake. Arriving in the final third, he played a smart ball out to Riyad Mahrez, who drilled a low cross into the box and Vardy smashed the ball home from close range.
It could have been two midway through the first half as Everton steadfastly refused to learn anything from the experience. Another truncated move, another quick transition and Vardy was rolling the ball into Mahrez. Ashley Williams intercepted, but quickly lost it again and Jordan Pickford was forced into a low save.
But it was two after 29 minutes; a horribly farcical goal that no-one saw coming, least of all Pickford. Gray, causing mayhem on the left this time, fired off a weak shot that Jonjoe Kenny tried to boot away. Sadly, the youngster mistimed his clearance and somehow sent the ball spinning behind him into the net. Kenny's misery was compounded when the goal was replayed twice on the big screen to roars of mocking laughter from the home supporters.
Leicester were unable to increase their advantage, but were never seriously tested by an Everton side painfully low on confidence. As the end approached, their fans mocked the travelling supporters with chants of "Going down, going down, going down!"
How quickly things can change.
2. Everton in trouble
Some caretaker managers, with a firm eye on the security of their future at the club, go to great lengths to distance themselves from the big job. But not David Unsworth. He knows (quite rightly) that this could be his best chance of managing Everton and he's been quite clear that he wants to take it. But if this was the job interview, it did not go well.
Everything looked sensible enough on paper. Unsworth went with a back four, two combative midfielders and a bit of pace and experience on the flanks with Aaron Lennon and Kevin Mirallas coming in from the cold. Wayne Rooney was where he should be, in the hole behind Dominic Calvert-Lewin, but it didn't work. Everton were a goal down before they had their first moment of note, a shrewd reverse pass from Rooney that put Lennon through on goal, but it came to nothing. Mirallas rifled a couple of shots past each of Kasper Schmeichel's posts but did little more than keep the Dane on his toes.
Everyone looks slow against a team that counter-attacks as quickly as Leicester, and so Everton had no hiding place. With six outfield players over the age of 30, perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise that they looked so out of sorts. Mirallas and Lennon were withdrawn at the break and Everton looked a little better for it as a diamond midfield, with Beni Baningime at the base and Rooney at the tip, with Oumar Niasse joining Calvert-Lewin up front, gave them a presence they'd lacked.
But while the improvement was palpable, Schmeichel was rarely threatened. Perhaps in an effort to demonstrate his willingness to make brave calls, Unsworth withdrew Rooney with 20 minutes to go -- much to Rooney's displeasure -- but even that move went without reward.
It is alarming that the most generous spending spree in Everton's history could have left them as unbalanced and slow as they've looked since the pre-David Moyes era. Someone has a lot of work to do in January but on the evidence of Sunday's defeat, it may not be Unsworth.
3. Gray's chance to shine
Leicester City's supporters have been baffled by the treatment of Gray for months. Fast, technically adept and dangerous, his chances in the starting line-up have been limited since he arrived from Birmingham in 2016. Claudio Ranieri didn't seem to trust him as anything more than an impact substitute. Neither did Craig Shakespeare. But Claude Puel appears to think differently.
Deployed on the right flank, Gray was given the freedom to run with the ball and he used it to bring wave after wave of devastation to Everton. He had a hand in both of the first-half goals, the first being almost entirely of his own making, the second having his name on it but belonging exclusively to the future sweat-drenched anxiety dreams of Kenny.
Gray has been highly rated for years but has been denied the chance to deliver consistently on that promise. It will be fascinating to see if he can do so under Puel.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.