Leicester without a win in their last five league games. Their talisman without a goal since September. Their number one out injured. Their midfield general suspended. Their wizard’s magic deserting him. A refusal to shake up the squad or formation. Up against arguably the best squad in the league. You can’t blame Foxes fans for feeling rather apprehensive at 5:00pm on Saturday evening as they made their way to the King Power Stadium.
But little did they know what was to pan out over the next 90 minutes of football. Jamie Vardy scored his first hat-trick for Leicester City, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City team were swept aside and a thoroughly impressive performance was justified by a crucial 4-2 victory for the hosts which could have significant repercussions for both sides come the end of the season. But what was so good about Leicester and why were the visitors so poor?
First of all, I cannot take anything away from the Foxes who were absolutely phenomenal on the night as they quite simply blew their visitors out of the water with a performance reminiscent of their unforgettable title-winning campaign, in particular the famous win at the Etihad in February.
Despite not scoring for his club for 16 games, although he did bag an impressive flying header at Wembley for England against Spain last month, Jamie Vardy found his shooting boots again and boy did he find them in style, netting his first hat-trick since joining from Fleetwood Town in 2012 in typical Jamie Vardy style.
The first, latching onto a through ball in the area, getting in front and across the defender and firing the ball first time across goal into the bottom corner. This time, it was Aleksander Kolarov as the defender having to desperately avoid tripping the speedy forward and Claudio Bravo the helpless man between the sticks.
The second was another classic finish from the 29-year-old, another we have seen so many times before. Following Christian Fuchs long pass for Riyad Mahrez, the Algerian’s mesmeric touch played Vardy through one-on-one with Bravo. This time, he took a touch around the flailing goalkeeper and slotted home into the unguarded net before racing off to celebrate once again.
To complete the hat-trick, which he was unable to do against Everton in the final home game of last season when he blazed a penalty, Vardy used his tremendous work rate and pressure to intercept John Stones’ back-pass and somehow managed to squeeze a seemingly impossible finish from the most acute of angles in off the base of the post, with confirmation via goal-line technology required. Phenomenal and thoroughly deserved.
However, it was not just Vardy alone that stood out in what was an exceptional team performance across the pitch. PFA Player of the Year last term, Riyad Mahrez has struggled so far this season, having the occasional glimpse of magic but not hitting the heights of last term. Until today. Mahrez was superb from the first minute and evidently was enjoying his football once again following an understandably frustrating few months.
Mahrez’s touch in the build-up to Leicester’s opener was simply ridiculous. Running onto Robert Huth’s humungous header, the winger deftly flicked the ball inside to international team-mate Islam Slimani, who fed in Vardy to score. The touch was magnificent, but not only did he complete the touch but Mahrez, rather than appreciating it, ran round the back of Slimani to try and offer another option in case Vardy’s channel was blocked off. This desire and work rate has been somewhat lacking this term but the determination from the outset on Saturday was incredible.
It was a sensational piece of control but the winger-come-wizard only went and bettered it quarter of an hour later. Again, Mahrez latched onto a long ball forward, this time from Fuchs, and in one touch re-directed the ball along the turf and on a plate for Vardy’s second. It was a moment of sheer class and what makes it even more impressive was that it was made with the instep of his less favoured right foot. Unbelievably, that was Mahrez’s first assist for Vardy since February 2nd and THAT wonder goal against Liverpool.
Mahrez almost capped a truly brilliant performance with what would have been a trademark Riyad Mahrez goal. After another sloppy pass from Manchester City, Marc Albrighton intercepted and drove the Leicester counter-attack, playing in Mahrez down the right channel. In his unique, elegant manner, he ran with pace and purpose at Stones, who was left isolated, before performing a series of quick-fire step-overs on the edge of the area, nudging the ball onto that wicked left foot and curling an effort destined for the back of the net, only for Bravo to deny him with a decent, yet comfortable, diving save.
Two other notable performances among the Leicester City side were that of Islam Slimani and Christian Fuchs. Slimani, leading the line alongside Vardy, was strong, powerful and a nail in the visitors’ defence all game. One thing that some Leicester fans had noticed since his record-fee arrival in the summer was that although Slimani was great in the air and a goal-scorer, he didn’t naturally fit into the Foxes’ team ethos style as others have done, such as Shinji Okazaki. But at the weekend the opposite was true. Slimani linked up very well with those around him, clearly demonstrated by his assists for Vardy’s first, a neat through ball, and then for Andy King’s goal two minutes later, laying the ball back to the midfielder after using his strength to hold it up.
The one thing missing from Slimani’s performance was, of course, a goal. With the game at 3-0 on the stroke of half-time, Mahrez’s delightful pass down the right wing for Albrighton was duly met and the Englishman delivered the perfect, first-time cross for the big man in the middle. He was six yards out, unmarked, unchallenged, leaped well but, to the shock of everyone in the ground, the Algerian made a poor connection and the ball went harmlessly wide, to the evident frustration of the striker who would have backed himself to find the net.
Meanwhile, Christian Fuchs, one of Leicester’s most consistent players so far this term, was brilliant throughout the game, both defensively and offensively. It was Fuchs’ gigantic throw into the box five minutes in, flicked on by Robert Huth, which ultimately led to Andy King’s excellent goal. It was then his long, deliberate pass to Mahrez sparked the third Leicester goal in what was a sensational first half performance.
In the second half, though, Fuchs stood out for his defensive responsibilities. The Austrian left-back seemed to win just about every header he challenged for, averted danger effectively and made a series of blocks and challenges that prevented certain goals, including a crucial one to deny Pablo Zabaleta early in the second half which could have transformed the match had Fuchs not interceded. He then responded by pumping up the crowd by waving his arms frantically to the delight of the Foxes fans.
Fuchs had come under some criticism for being at fault for a couple of goals recently, possibly due to a lack of concentration, but the same cannot be said for the majority of today’s game. However, one lapse, where he dived in unnecessarily on David Silva, was punished by Kolarov’s superb free-kick. The only blip of an otherwise faultless performance.
But despite the outstanding performances from the individuals aforementioned, it was the true collectiveness of Leicester that won them this game of football, aided by Manchester City ineptitude and incapability to do the basics at times. It was very much a performance similar to that of last season for Leicester, working hard as a team for each other defensively then hitting the opposition quickly on the break, punishing them clinically.
Throughout the season so far, I have found myself frustrated with Leicester’s lack of pressing. In games where teams have come to sit back at the King Power, such as West Brom and Middlesbrough in November, City have seemingly sat off and not been applying the pressure to teams in the same way as last season, instead allowing them to advance through the pitch. This has partly been down to the absence of pivotal figure N’Golo Kanté following his departure to Stamford Bridge, but also partly due to a reduction in the pressing from the front, in particular from Vardy and Okazaki. Although they have continued to hustle and harry defenders, they haven’t been doing so in the same manner as last term and it has meant that the Foxes are winning the ball back much deeper towards their own goal, and are unable to hit teams on the break as effectively as they have a greater distance between the ball and the opposition’s goal.
However, Saturday was a different story. Largely aided by Guardiola’s insistence to play out from the back, Vardy and Slimani could apply pressure to the Citizens’ defensive line, knowing they would rarely hoof the ball clear. Vardy, in particular, looked motivated and inspired from the outset in a way that has been lacking in recent weeks as his goal drought continued, and this helped to drive on the rest of his side. This was one of the major factors in Leicester being able to hit and punish the visitors so effectively.
But this was not all. Leicester were undoubtedly aided by Manchester City’s passing philosophy. Yes, it certainly has its benefits and can lead to some breath-taking football, but sometimes it really is a bit too much and common sense really does need to prevail. I lost count of the amount of times Manchester City put themselves in problems on the evening when trying to play out from the back. Bravo, brought in for this exact reason, looked nervous and uncomfortable as did Stones, too. But what else could Guardiola have expected? Surely he must have known that Vardy and co were going to press and try to force mistakes. So taking a goal kick across the goal-line to the centre-half and then back across doesn’t seem the best idea; but that’s just my humble opinion!
This refusal to give in ultimately cost the visitors in the second half. Although they were already three down, they were not totally out of the game and certainly had chances to get themselves back into it. But Vardy completing his hat-trick put the game beyond the reach of the visitors and epitomised their performance in truth. The goal started from yet another sloppy pass in the middle of the park (again, I lost count of how many times this happened, too), and Leicester breaking quickly. Mahrez, though, lost the ball to Stones, who touched it wide to the touchline. The young centre-half had two options on, in truth. The first was to look up and play a left-footed clearance up the line and try and find a teammate downfield. The second was to put the ball into Row Z, clear the immediate danger and allow his team to drop back (something tells me this is what Huth or Wes Morgan would have done!). But no, Stones chose a different option, turning and playing a back-pass to his goalkeeper. The problem was Jamie Vardy realised this was going to happen before Stones had even made the pass and was already on his bike to pressurise Bravo; this, coupled with the lack of power in the pass, meant that Vardy intercepted and slotted home superbly.
But all of that could have been avoided. For all their possession (78% to be precise), Manchester City were so sloppy with the ball at times on Saturday evening, gifting the ball to their opponents in dangerous areas. And then Stones’ decision to try and play his way out of danger with a certain Jamie Vardy lurking was not the smartest choice, either. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for defenders stepping out of their backline, threading passes and starting attacks but there’s a time and a place for that and a time and a place for safety first; 3-0 down and looking for a route back into the game is definitely time for safety first!
However, Stone’s isolation and subsequent back-pass that led to Vardy clinching his hat-trick could also have been avoided by Guardiola’s choice of formation. The visitors started the game with a three-man defence of Bacary Sagna, Stones and Kolarov, with Jesus Navas and Kevin De Bruyne (another strange decision) occupying the wing-back positions and a midfield of Zabaleta, Ilkay Gundogan and Fernando behind Silva who supported Kelechi Iheanacho. Although it had been deployed by the Spaniard in recent games, it was still an incredibly brave, or naïve, decision from him to use it, especially up against Leicester’s strike force of Vardy and Slimani. The use of three-at-the-back with De Bruyne wide left meant that Riyad Mahrez was effectively one-on-one up against Kolarov all game, rather than being doubled up on and man marked out of the game which has happened on multiple occasions this season. This gave him the freedom to express himself in the manner he did last season and truly impact the game.
Kolarov, though, was intent on getting forward as much as possible, exposing the rest of his defence massively and leaving them totally vulnerable. This was particularly evident for Mahrez’s chance which was saved by Bravo, with Stones left isolated with a flying Riyad Mahrez enough to give the English defender nightmares. Guardiola at least recognised this and appeared to switch to a regular back four, shifting the original defence across and dropping Zabaleta in at right back, returning to a more familiar 4-2-3-1 formation. Even then, though, Kolarov continued to bomb on, as demonstrated when Stones had no option to pass to in the left-back position when he played back to Bravo.
Going into the game though, many Leicester fans were anxious with Claudio Ranieri determined to stick to the 4-4-2 formation that won them the title last season. On a positive note, this meant that the regular back four of Danny Simpson, Morgan, Huth and Fuchs lined up together once again, continuing that stability that has been built over the past year in stark comparison to Man City’s ever-changing line-up and, in particular, defence. Cohesion is key for any defence and so Guardiola’s continual chopping, changing and experimenting is likely to continue to cause major problems for his side until he finds the right formula.
However, some home fans were sceptical of the idea of a midfield duo of Daniel Amartey and Andy King being over-run by the compactness and class of their opponent’s midfield. But the pair stepped up to the plate remarkably well, tackling effectively and battling tenaciously, thus enabling the attacking four to do the business in the final third.
Overall, it was a thoroughly professional and complete performance from the hosts from the first whistle until Fuchs dived in on Silva (bar Slimani’s header, but I’ll let him off this time!) – virtually perfect in fact. It was also fantastic to see Matty James back playing first team football again following a nightmare 18 months for the midfielder, coming off the bench in the final moments to a rapturous reception.
But for all the credit Ranieri and his players deserve, question marks have to be raised over Guardiola and his side. They looked despondent, their passing was incredibly poor and they were the cause of their own downfall in many ways due to their stubbornness and refusal to keeping it simple. Although they did finish strongly and did have chances, defensively they were shambolic. To be blunt, it was ignorant and naïve from Guardiola. For all his praises, this was like watching teams play Leicester last season, getting picked off and punished time and time again. Guardiola either did not watch Leicester last season (especially at the Etihad), could not comprehend or work out how to beat them or simply thought he was above them and tactically far superior and that his tika-taka philosophy would be enough to overcome the champions…