Typing the words “a lesson in football” into your search engine of choice yields a YouTube video as the top result. “Manchester United 0-4 Nottingham Forest: A Lesson In Football” features just over two minutes of highlights from the December 1977 game that turned the many doubters of Brian Clough’s newly-promoted side’s title credentials into true believers. With a devastating display of rapier-quick counter-attacking, Forest ripped apart their more monied opponents with consummate ease. Despite barely scraping promotion from the old Second Division the previous season, Forest went on to wrap up the league in April. United finished tenth.
Clough’s 4-4-2 featured the ambidextrous Scottish playmaker, John Robertson, on the left of midfield, complemented by the more industrious Martin O’Neill on the right. His joint-top scorer in that incredible 1977/78 season was Peter Withe, a 27 year old who had taken a fairly circuitous route to the top, via Southport, Barrow and Portland Timbers of the NASL. The early-season signing of the combative Scottish midfielder, Archie Gemmill, was arguably the crucial final piece of the unlikely jigsaw.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? On Saturday afternoon, Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City – bottom at this juncture last season – took apart the petro-fueled title favourites in their own City of Manchester backyard, with a characteristically magnificent display of resolute defence and counter-attacking verve. For Robertson, O’Neill, Gemmill and Withe, read Mahrez, Albrighton, Kanté and Vardy. For those predisposed to using the word “since” in the analysis of Leicester’s success this season, Clough’s Forest side of the late seventies are the obvious touchstone and the parallels are seemingly endless.
For this observer however, there is no “since”. As impressive as Clough’s feat was in an era of a relatively even financial playing field, there is no precedent in English football for what this Leicester City side seem poised to achieve.
The nearest comparison from this century may well be Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, who won La Liga and reached the Champions League final in 2013/14 by employing a similar narrow, compact, counter-attacking, 4-4-2 system. Simeone triumphed over the far more expensively assembled units of Barcelona and Real with this super-effective, throwback strategy. But in truth, the collective market value of Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester side stands at a mere fraction of that Atletico squad.
Ranieri, who had erred in selecting a 4-1-4-1 shape for December’s reverse fixture at the KP Stadium, stuck to his 4-4-2 guns today, selecting the same side that had eviscerated Liverpool in midweek. Pep Guardiola’s seat-warmer-in-chief, Manuel Pellegrini, employed the same surprising tactical gambit that he plumped for in that scoreless encounter, opting for a narrow 4-4-2 of his own, with Raheem Sterling again paired with Sergio Aguero up top. As in the reverse fixture, David Silva was employed in a wide role, a move that rendered Ranieri’s December decision to field Gokhan Inler as an anchorman completely moot.
Despite failing to penetrate the Leicester rearguard with this tactic in the previous game between the two sides, Pellegrini again instructed his side to create overloads on the left, with Aleksandar Kolarov tasked with providing the resulting cutbacks. Although nominally fielded on the other flank, Silva spent a lot of time drifting over to the left to increase the pressure on Leicester’s right side. Apart from winning a series of unproductive corners, this approach was largely for nought, with Leicester blocking a massive 28 of City’s 35 cross attempts; Danny Simpson led the charge with eight of these, while the omnipresent N’Golo Kanté bagged five.
Meanwhile, Leicester sought to exploit City’s undermanned right-hand side on the break, through playing numerous balls down the inside left channel for Vardy to chase. Early counter-attacking opportunities fashioned down this flank could feasibly have trebled Leicester’s third minute lead, with Hart winning an 8th minute one-on-one against Vardy after Albrighton’s lofted through ball and an 11th minute 4-on-5 break seeing Hart palm Danny Drinkwater’s cross-shot behind for a corner.
When Shinji Okazaki prodded Vardy’s cross wide in the 22th minute, after one of several Kanté-prompted counter-attacks, the decision by Pellegrini – whose City side are well renowned for their vulnerability to fast breaks – to go with a 4-4-2, with Yaya Touré one of two holding, looked like a huge misstep.
Although City would go on to dominate the remaining 25 minutes of the first half without incision, it was no surprise to see Touré strolling back into his own half as Kanté fed Mahrez for his fantastic 48th minute solo effort (see below). Touré was immediately hooked in favour of the far more reliable Fernando, who went on to head City’s second shot on target from a 54th minute corner. Fabian Delph was also removed from the fray, after appearing lost in a narrow left-of-midfield role, where he misplaced a woeful 26% of his passes.
City now looked fractionally more dangerous with Sterling stretching the play in a left-wing role, but they soon fell further behind; Huth beating the hapless Martin Demichelis, as he had done for the first goal, to head in Christian Fuchs’ corner. Minutes later, the Argentinian was beaten to a long Drinkwater pass down the inside-left by Vardy, only to see his goalkeeper again triumph in the ensuing head-to-head. Only Kolarov – with his shin-breaking crosses and silly foul for the opener – could challenge Demichelis in the worst defender stakes this afternoon.
Meanwhile, Leicester’s Robert Huth was comfortably the best, even without considering his two goals. Huth was at the forefront of limiting the quality of City’s chances today, with the home side managing to find the target with only four of their 22 efforts; six were blocked by Leicester players, with a game-high three provided by the German.
Huth also pulled off arguably the best interception of the match, with a crucial faint header denying Aguero a certain 27th minute goal from Raheem Sterling’s left-wing cross. Bearing in mind Aguero’s 88th minute consolation from an offside position and notwithstanding Danny Simpson’s almost disastrous near-”assist” for the Argentinian striker a minute later, Huth and his comrades richly deserved yet another clean-sheet here.
A final word for N’Golo Kanté, the 24 year old French midfielder who was playing Ligue 2 football only two years ago. The league’s top interceptor and second-top tackler was imperious again today, troubling almost every metric that a football analyst might care to examine. Kanté was the game’s joint-top tackler with eight, while also managing a 91% pass completion ratio in an ultra-direct side that lies 20th in the Premier League table under that heading. The fast break instigator also completed four successful dribbles, one behind the game-leading Riyad Mahrez, including rounding Fernandinho to set up Leicester’s crucial second goal.
Dimitri Payet, Petr Cech et al must take a backseat. N’Golo Kanté, at €8 million, is unquestionably the signing of the season. He and his comrades made believers out of even the most doubting of Thomases on Saturday afternoon. To paraphrase the title of Jonny Owen’s acclaimed 2015 documentary about Clough’s aforementioned Forest side, we all believe in miracles now.