Hamza Choudhury: The key to Leicester's successful Christmas period
Not many football fans knew Hamza Choudhury before the Christmas period. The Leicester midfielder spent the season's majority captaining the U23s. He made his maiden first-team start in the December League Cup exit to Manchester City.
The midfielder took his chance with both hands and earned praise from manager Claude Puel.
I think it was natural to try Hamza because he has been training with the first team for a long time. We have a lot of midfielders but I think when a player like an academy player can have good quality, we have to give him a chance and give him game time.. We have extended his contract and it was important to show we have good academy players and they deserve game time and deserve to continue with us. I don’t know his future or whether he will remain with us or we put him on loan but it was important to give him confidence. He played a strong game and showed his quality at a high level. It was the same last season with Ben Chilwell and now he is with the national team.
Despite the manager’s hint at a loan move, the academy graduate was selected in the starting XI for Leicester’s trip to Stamford Bridge, replacing winger Demarai Gray to make a more defensive midfield three alongside Wilfred Ndidi and Nampalys Mendy. With Choudhury’s distinctive hair joining Chelsea players David Luiz and Willian's on the pitch, it may have been the most afros on display in the top-flight since the 1970s.
Choudhury and Leicester got one over on the Blues, walking away with a surprising yet deserved win.
It wasn’t a surprise when the 21-year-old retained his place for the rematch against Premier League Champions Manchester City on Boxing Day. This time he had only one superfly rival in Leroy Sane.
Choudhury again started as part of a three-man midfield but a tactical switch in the first half saw him play mostly on the right. Despite his inexperience, Choudhury adapted well to an unfamiliar position and nearly made the scoresheet. The England U21 international was substituted in the 63rd minute, receiving a standing ovation from all four sides of the King Power Stadium. Leicester won the game by two goals to one.
With Leicester expected to dominate the next game against Cardiff, Gray was drafted back into the side in order to provide a more attacking threat. Unfortunately for the Foxes, Cardiff’s backline held strong. Victor Camarasa’s 92nd-minute strike was enough for the Bluebirds to take all three points back to South Wales.
The loss sparked a debate among Leicester fans. Should Puel have stuck with Choudhury in the middle of the park or would playing three defensive-minded midfielders be a negative move by the Frenchman?
3/4 aerial duels
2 shots blocked
1 key pass
He has started three league games for Leicester City this season against Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton - all of which they have won. https://t.co/u5aCzQHAJy
One thing is certain. Playing Choudhury against teams who are not likely to sit behind the ball is an effective system for the manager. The 1-0 win at Goodison Park on New Year’s Day, where the midfielder was again selected as a starter, further proved the point. Leicester conceded just once against Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton, the three Premier League games that the 21-year-old has played this season. A small change in system could be responsible for three big results but for such a young player to step up and look so comfortable at the highest level of English football is impressive in itself.
Choudhury was always highly rated while coming through the Leicester youth ranks. In 2014, he was linked with some of Europe’s biggest clubs while still only 16. He spent time at Burton Albion on loan before making his Premier League debut in November 2017. He was called upon during an injury crisis late last season, proving he wasn't out of his depth at this level. Now 21, Choudhury signed a new deal in November with the club he has been at since he was seven.
The youngster's form forces manager Puel to make a decision. If he does keep his place for the majority of the Premier League matches, it might negatively affect another young English player. Demarai Gray has been unfortunate to miss out due to the system change of system. With three central midfielders used in the three Christmas wins that Leicester, there is one less space for an attacking player. Four, including Gray, battle it out for the two supporting roles behind Jamie Vardy.
The next question to ask is who is more effective against defensive teams? Leicester traditionally struggle against such teams as shown by the Cardiff loss. In that game, Gray was selected to add more attacking prowess. It didn't succeed. While playing another defensively minded player over the sometimes creative Gray, Choudhury could be used to support the back line, allowing more attack-minded Foxes, such as full backs Ricardo, Ben Chilwell and number 10 James Maddison the freedom to express themselves. Although counterintuitive, playing Hamza Choudhury could be the key Puel has sought to unlock resilient defences.