So it looks as if Chris Wilder was not the problem at Sheffield United. Fancy that. In their first match for nearly five years without the manager who inspired their rise from League One to the top flight, the Blades fell to their heaviest defeat of a harrowing season. Leicester, eager to solidify their position in the top four, could have won by even more, as Brendan Rodgers’ team royally outclassed their visitors. Kelechi Iheanacho scored his first hat-trick for the club and Ayoze Pérez chipped in with a fine goal before Ethan Ampadu turned a shot by Jamie Vardy into his own net.
United were under the temporary charge of their under-23s coach, Paul Heckingbottom, who made his name at Barnsley but, more recently, endured short and unhappy reigns at Leeds and Hibernian. There was little scope for him to make radical changes to Wilder’s formula before this game so it was no surprise to see the Blades set out in their tried and decreasingly trusted style. If United’s players were dismayed by Wilder’s departure, they did not show it, as no lack of effort could be detected. Quality, on the other hand, was in short supply.
With their first touch United kicked off, their second was a piece of miscontrol by Ollie Norwood. That set the template for a first half that Leicester dominated, partly because on the few occasions when United had the ball, they frittered it away. Vardy was the first to threaten. He dragged a shot wide from 20 yards but the fact it came after he dispossessed one of United’s strikers, Billy Sharp, midway inside United’s half encapsulated the pattern of play. Leicester were hungry, the visitors were sloppy.
Vardy got involved again in the 12th minute, spraying the ball wide for Timothy Castagne to cross in from the left. Pérez darted into the box and flicked a header beyond the goalkeeper but against the foot of the post. Pérez, returning to the side after a month out with injury, was assigned an interesting role by Rodgers, deployed just behind the front two of Vardy and Iheanacho in an effort to help fill the creativity deficit caused by the absences of James Maddison and Harvey Barnes. The plan worked well.
Although United defended tenaciously, they could not eradicate mistakes. Vardy nearly broke through after nicking the ball off Kean Bryan in the United box, but Aaron Ramsdale saved with his legs. At the other end, Kasper Schmeichel must have felt like an extra in a movie being filmed on another set.
Leicester needed to avoid a repeat of the story they have seen too often at home this season, the one where they hog the ball for long periods but end up dropping points. So there was relief as well as joy when they finally turned possession into penetration in the 38th minute. Pérez created the goal by flipping a clever pass behind Chris Basham and into the path of Vardy, who supplied a perfect cross from the left, leaving Iheanacho to slot into the net from close range.
Leicester never looked like letting their lead slip. Iheanacho presented Vardy with a chance to make it 2-0 just after half-time, unselfishly cutting the ball back for his teammate when he could have take a shot himself. Vardy whacked the ball towards goal from seven yards but Basham repelled it with a terrific header off the line. Moments later Ramsdale denied Vardy after another cute pass by Iheanacho.
Leicester eventually got their second on 64 minutes thanks to a rapid counterattack and another demonstration of their superior sharpness. After a United free-kick at the other end was cleared, Marc Albrighton caught George Baldock dawdling on the ball and raced downfield before feeding Pérez, who guided a fine shot into the net from 20 yardas.
Iheanacho claimed his second goal of the game – and his fourth in three matches – by applying an emphatic finish after another cross from the left by Vardy, who had been released by Youri Tielemans. The Belgian nearly got on the scoresheet himself moments later but was foiled by another goalline clearance.
Soon Iheanacho completed his hat-trick, ramming a shot into the net from distance after Ampadu had the ball robbed off him in midfield.
All that was missing for Leicester was a goal for Vardy. He had to settle for another assist when he blasted the ball across the face of goal and Ampadu diverted it into the net.