Leicester City – Manchester City: Manchester City: human after all? (2-1)
Leicester City’s famous recipe from their title winning season – compactness and quick breaks – proved enough to beat Manchester City at home. Once again, the away side showed they have some offensive problems, which are not a staple for Guardiola teams. This must be solved in order for Manchester City to compete in this season’s vicious Premier League title race.
Tactical analysis and match report by Erik Elias.
For multiple reasons, this was a big game for Manchester City. The first Premier League match of 2019 will be against Liverpool, and as we have seen from their earlier clash, Guardiola has become a bit scared of Liverpool’s counterattacking prowess (perhaps rightly so…). You therefore do not want to play against Liverpool in dire need of three points to close a gap, so winning against Leicester and against Ralph Hasenhüttl’s Southampton was a must for Manchester City.
Considering the busy period and the on-going injuries of nominal starters Fernandinho and Benjamin Mendy, Guardiola rotated relatively little, only resting Kyle Walker. It remains to be seen which one of the Silva’s will take up the attacking midfielder spot alongside De Bruyne, as it also is not clear who will be City’s go-to striker in the business end of the season. Against Leicester, Bernardo Silva and Sergio Agüero were picked, and İlkay Gündoğan played as the holding midfielder.
Leicester City’s manager Claude Puel decided to go with the flow and made no changes to the team that beat Chelsea. That meant a 4-3-3 formation was picked, albeit with midfielders James Maddison and Marc Albrighton acting as wingers.
Leicester pack the field with central midfielders
In the opening stage of the match, it became clear Leicester would use the same tactic as the rest of the league when put up against the champions. Defend very deep, jam-pack the middle of the field and try to hit City on the break. They did so in a 4-5-1 formation, effectively deploying five nominal midfielders in front of the defense, all capable of carrying the ball forward and pick out a pass into counterattacking striker Jamie Vardy.
Leicester City defended very deep in their 4-5-1 formation against Manchester City, who attacked in their 3-2-4-1 shape.
Manchester City operated in a 4-3-3 formation that very quickly became a 3-2-4-1 shape when the ball was on Leicester’s half. Guardiola sets his teams up this way to cover all five horizontal lanes of the field in a logical and coherent attacking way, while also having two holding midfielders instead of one to help the counterpress. After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva do have the freedom to collect the ball a bit deeper, or go on the outside and interchange with the wingers.
The fact Fabian Delph used to be a midfielder makes him a good fit for the hybrid role of part left back, part left central midfielder. When Benjamin Mendy returns from injury, do not expect these fancy fullback finesses to change, because the French international has also shown he can fill in the part if necessary.
Both teams let their first shot on target count
From the opening whistle, it became apparent that it was not going to be an easy game for City. In the first ten minutes, Guardiola’s men mostly recycled possession outside of Leicester’s defensive organization. In order to break through a compact defense like Leicester’s, you either need to switch sides very quick to create one-versus-one situations for your wingers, or play vertical passes between Leicester’s midfield and defense.
The first time Manchester City found one of their players between the lines was in the 13th minute, when a dropping Agüero was found just in front of Leicester’s defense. He immediately passed the ball in the direction of Bernardo Silva, who calmly scored the opening goal. Classic example of the quite deadly combination of a dropping striker and a midfielder going behind the defense. It was City’s first shot of the match, their first genuine penalty box entry.
Leicester had done a fine job defending and containing City up to that point, but had not offered anything in terms of attack. After a bit of jostling in midfield, Leicester’s James Maddison got on the ball and immediately looked for Vardy. The English international cut back to his right foot, picked out Marc Albrighton at the far post, who coolly headed in the equalizer. Albrighton had completely lost his marker Delph in the box, thanks to a simple, yet effective set of movements: first towards the ball, then away.
Leicester switch to 4-2-3-1 and become better team
Subsequently, the game returned to its old pattern. After thirty-odd minutes, Puel slipped on a note in the hands of Maddison. Instead of being satisfied with the level standings, Puel showed a proactive approach and changed his team’s formation. Instead of 4-3-3, Leicester now operated in a 4-2-3-1 formation, while the defensive formation changed from 4-5-1 to 4-4-1-1. Maddison became a true number ten, Albrighton was switched over to the left, while young Hamza Choudhury became the right winger.
Leicester’s slightly altered 4-2-3-1 formation against City’s defensive 4-1-4-1 shape.
This produced arguably the most enjoyable fifteen minutes of the game, as the game became more open, with more chances as a result. Leicester started to play out from the back a bit more, and City were pressed back into a 4-1-4-1 shape more often.
City created some promising attacks in this phase, but were not able to provide the final pass, while Vardy had Leicester’s biggest chance five minutes before the interval, after a horrible back-pass from City’s midfield. One minute later, another cut-in cross by Albrighton surprised Delph at the second post again, but this time Choudhury could not convert.
City cannot create shots
After what must have been a fiery speech by Guardiola, City did not play very well in the second half. Their inability to create shooting opportunities was on full display for the entire second half. The match ended with ten shots for Leicester and eleven for Manchester City, even though City average seventeen per game normally. You can explore these advanced statistics for all teams on our stats page.
Young wingers Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané are a constant threat for opposing defences normally, but both had quiet games. It is easy to point out that they simply ‘did not show up’. As is often the case in football, things might be a bit more complex than that.
Wingers in Guardiola’s system are specialists, like goalkeepers. They have to be the ones that maintain width up front, especially when one fullbacks is a de facto central midfielder and the other one plays as a third center-back. The trade-off being that because of quick switches they can get the ball in one-versus-one situations and wreak havoc from there on. City did not manage to put their creative specialists in said positions, as Sterling and Sané would usually be confronted with two or more opponents.
In theory, the danger should come from the halfspaces If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. in those situations, but oddly enough, both De Bruyne and the Silva’s – no shabby players to say the least – could not capitalize from the spaces in between.
Perhaps symbolic for Manchester City’s offensive ineptness was that both Delph and Danilo at one point in the second half dribbled inside and took a shot from outside the box with their wrong foot. Extremely low probability of going in, and a sign of despair as the clock kept ticking in Leicester’s favor.
Pereira steals the game for Leicester
Perhaps a draw would have been more appropriate, but Leicester managed to nick the game, ten minutes before the final whistle. A corner kick fell into the feet of Ricardo Pereira, who striped the ball into the side netting, unreachable for Ederson.
Fabian Delph added to what had been a shoddy performance by getting sent off for a horrible tackle on the goal scorer Pereira. A direct red card means a suspension, which means another thing for Guardiola to scratch his head over. With ten against eleven, City never mustered a serious offensive storm in the finale minutes and Leicester City claimed a second win over a top-six club in a week.
Over the past couple of months, there have not been dramatic changes in style or personnel. City’s results have been dropping, however, and it is backed up by some less impressive defensive statistics. Teams are getting to the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. more often, City have a harder time pressing and give up chances of bigger quality.
The busy Christmas period also does not help. You can divide Manchester City’s nominal starting 4-3-3 lineup in five more attacking spots and five more defensive spots. Guardiola possesses amazing squad depth for the offensive side of his team, but the other half is quite questionable. Delph and Danilo – both the second-choice fullbacks – in this roster, epitomized that with their performances against Leicester. Gündoğan does not feel at easy at the number six position, a role he sparingly occupied for Dortmund and the German national team.
Manchester City have now lost three of their last four Premier League games, which is one more than last season altogether. It might just be time to stop comparing this team to the team that gathered 100 points last year, and start wondering whether City can surmount the seven-point mountain that now stands between them and Liverpool.
Guardiola’s woes aside, Leicester City deserve all the credit for this performance at home. In Maddison, Pereira, Maguire and Chilwell, they have a couple of players that would be perfect additions to the Premier League’s stable of top clubs, as squad players or perhaps even as starters. If they continue like this, they will be a serious contender for the best-of-the-rest trophy.
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