Leicester City will go into the New Year level on points with Arsenal at the top of the Premier League, after an uneventful – but tactically interesting – scoreless draw against Manchester City.
Both managers sprung tactical surprises here, by deviating from their preferred starting shapes. Rather than the narrow, ultra-compact 4-4-2 that he usually favours, Claudio Ranieri instead opted for a 4-1-4-1 shape, with Gokhan Inler holding. This change was presumably motivated by the Italian’s perceived need to pay extra attention to City’s number ten, David Silva.
Unfortunately for Ranieri, his opposite number did not start with a number ten – rendering his tactical tweak completely unnecessary. Instead, Manuel Pellegrini returned to his Malaga roots by selecting a 4-4-2, with Silva on the left and Raheem Sterling joining Sergio Aguero up top.
This decision from the Chilean made a lot of sense, particularly when you look at how much joy Divock Origi got from running the channels on Sunday, against Leicester’s slow centre-back pairing of Robert Huth and Wes Morgan. Pellegrini may have concluded that the best way to exploit The Foxes’ most glaring weakness was to play with two strikers – to ensure that one centre-back could not permanently play on the cover.
Like Liverpool before them, City augmented this strategy by adding a lot more directness to their passing style. By moving the ball quicker and over larger distances, City were aiming to both nullify Leicester’s fantastic counter-pressing and catch their slow defensive line on the turn before they dropped deep.
Witness Bacary Sagna’s contribution to chance-creation in the first half. The right-back played two chipped long balls to send Sterling through in behind the Leicester defence, with the first resulting in a half-chance for Kevin De Bruyne and the second providing Kasper Schmeichel the opportunity to dramatically deny the young English winger.
Meanwhile, Leicester’s usual counter-attacking verve was being hampered by the absence of a strike partner for Jamie Vardy. And, of course, with Inler finding himself with no-one to mark due to City’s change of shape, that Ranieri pre-match caution was looking pretty foolish.
Vardy’s only chance – a big one – stemmed not from a fast-break, but from his usual heroic work-rate, when he dispossessed Fernandinho, only to blaze over with the goal at his mercy. Otherwise, apart from a couple of hairy moments, Nicolas Otamendi was able to deal with Vardy single-handedly, with Elaquim Mangala more or less redundant on the cover.
It was no surprise therefore, when Ranieri finally reverted to 4-4-2 in the 67th minute, through the introduction of Leonardo Ulloa. Too little too late however, as the home side went on to create only one further half-chance – after the excellent Danny Drinkwater dispossessed Touré and played Vardy through down the inside-left.
Pellegrini’s major in-game tactical gambit was to introduce Jesus Navas on the right, in a bid to add some genuine width to stretch that compact Leicester defence. It didn’t pan out. Nor did the wide contribution of Aleksander Kolarov from left-back, whose deliveries were uncharacteristically below-par. Meanwhile, those dangerous first-half balls over the top had long been nullified by excellent counter-pressing and more restrained positioning from Leicester’s defensive unit.
All in all, this was a pretty attritional scoreless draw in truth, but certainly one worthy of analysis. Ranieri’s tactical variation to take David Silva into account hampered his side’s counter-attacking and was rendered redundant by Pellegrini’s designs on catching his centre-backs on the turn. Look for him to keep the 4-4-2 faith going forward.