Just before kick-off at the King Power Stadium an image is flashed up on the large screens that hang high at each end of the ground. It is of a mean-looking fox with piercing blue eyes. The message is obvious and on Saturday it proved apt, given the hosts performed like a team with the scent of blood in their nostrils.
Leicester’s dismantling of Manchester City was a throwback to last season, when they stormed to the title playing with togetherness, intensity and a killer instinct on the counterattack. They were 3-0 up inside 20 minutes and delivered the reaction Claudio Ranieri had demanded following recent poor results. But as Wes Morgan and Jamie Vardy revealed, it was also a planned exploitation of their opponents’ weaknesses, the champions returning to their ravenous best because they knew City would allow them to.
“They [City] like to build from the back and get forward through quick passing. We studied them and decided to sit back and be effective on the counterattack. It worked,” said Morgan. While from Vardy came this: “We’d been watching videos and they like to use their keeper. So once you’ve got them in the corner you have to press the keeper. Luckily the ball came across and he wasn’t ready for it.”
That last point was in reference to Leicester’s fourth goal, with which Vardy sealed his first hat-trick for the club after Riyad Mahrez – who was outstanding throughout – persuaded John Stones to play a weak pass back to Claudio Bravo, who indeed was not ready for it. Vardy then took the ball round the Chilean and squeezed it over the line. Stones hung his head in despair, Bravo looked equally crestfallen, both aware of the personal criticism that was to follow. Yet, as Morgan outlined, it was City’s entire defensive structure that Leicester targeted, and the manner in which they succeeded means the harshest spotlight should focus on Pep Guardiola.
After all he is the architect of a side that has kept only two clean sheets in 15 Premier League games, conceded at least three goals in the last two and on Saturday reached a collective low when it comes to the basics of stopping the other team from scoring.
City’s back three of Bacary Sagna, Stones and Aleksander Kolarov were rarely if ever a cohesive unit, with the latter two badly at fault for Leicester’s first and third goals, scored by Vardy. Ahead of them Pablo Zabaleta looked utterly lost in right-back-cum-central-midfield role while Bravo was as exposed for Leicester’s second goal, a thumping finish from Andy King, as he was for their fourth.
It was shambolic and Jamie Carragher summed up the mood of many onlookers when he tweeted: “Defensively Man City are one of the worst teams in the league, all over the place.”
City cannot mount a title challenge if they continue to defend in this manner and a worry for their supporters must be that Guardiola is not overly concerned by the way his team is responding to his instructions, structurally as well as tactically. He spoke here of never compromising his values – “I will be the same. I feel what I feel” – and raised eyebrows after being made aware City had not won a single tackle in the opening 35 minutes of the contest. “I’m not a coach for the tackles,” he said. “What’s tackles?”
Guardiola is an ideologue and his dismissive approach to tackling is one shared by others who steadfastly believe in the refined style of play that has made Spain a dominant force in football. Xabi Alonso, for instance, describes tackling as a “last resort” while Javier Mascherano, who played under Guardiola at Barcelona, once said making a tackle meant he had failed as a defender.
It is undeniably fascinating to have a man who believes so strongly in a progressive way of playing on these shores but, having come to England, Guardiola has to recognise some need for compromise given the full-blooded nature of football here, and certainly while he does not have the players to pull off such a high-risk, technically demanding approach.
Kolarov for one looks ill-suited for his role in this City side. And then there is Stones, who continues to look like a central defender who does not want to defend. He either needs to change position or play alongside a reliable partner. In that regard, Vincent Kompany’s return from injury cannot come soon enough. Without the captain Stones looks like Bambi without his mother.
City’s flaws should not totally overshadow Leicester’s display in what was their first league win since late October, and one that would have been more comfortable had they not allowed City to score late on through Kolarov and Nolito. “We wanted to get back to basics,” said Vardy, whose 16-match goal drought is well and truly over. “We knew we were still the team of last year and we’ve got that back.”
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