Pep Guardiola’s insistence upon fielding players out of position within a bewildering array of tactical systems that they scarcely understand led to a facile evisceration by Claudio Ranieri’s under-fire champions.
Suspensions accrued in Saturday’s cataclysmic 3-1 defeat to Chelsea forced the tactically bold Guardiola to jam even more square pegs into round holes than usual.
Persevering with a 3-2-4-1 formation meant asking career full-back Bacary Sagna to replace Nicolas Otamendi on the right of the back three, with fellow right-full Pablo Zabaleta also drafted in to partner Fernando in the Fernandinho-less holding midfield area.
Jamie Vardy’s third-minute opener owed much to the distance between the positionally-culpable Zabaleta and his isolated partner, allowing Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani to freely claim and exchange the second ball from Robert Huth’s headed clearance.
Vardy exploited the chasm that Aleksandar Kolarov allowed between he and Jon Stones to score, and the Serbian again demonstrated how ill-suited he is to a central defensive role when he allowed Slimani the penalty-box freedom to collect Huth’s near-post flick-on and lay-off to Andy King.
Huth’s aerial dominance in a half from which Leicester won 75% of the aerial duels on offer is a familiar story for Guardiola, and the frantically incoherent tactical tinkering that followed his side’s second concession is becoming an equally familiar one to observers of his work.
False full-back failure
Two down within five minutes of play, Guardiola was observed gesticulating wildly on the sideline to prompt the first of many tactical lurches. Re-organising his reeling side into the 4-1-4-1 shape with which he started his Etihad reign, the Spaniard appeared to instruct his new full-backs, Zabaleta and Kolarov, to sporadically tuck in and form a 2-3 defensive barrier in the attacking phase.
Alas, the Serbian looked no more capable of excelling in the new role than the old, getting caught infield when Mahrez availed of his right-wing freedom to convert Christian Fuch’s long ball into an assist for Vardy.
Indeed, City’s grateful hosts, 16th before this afternoon’s fixtures, could and should have led by five at the break, as more loose marking from the visitors afforded Slimani two wasted gilt-edged chances; the first of which was teed up by yet another Huth header.
In attack, Guardiola’s side were almost as dysfunctional, failing to muster a single shot on target until Kolarov’s 82nd-minute free-kick consolation. Cheap giveaways were frequent, as Leicester’s compact and narrow defensive unit rolled back the year by frequently intercepting predictable gambits from City’s congested attack.
Dropping Leroy Sané after a disappointing midweek Champions League showing, also encouraged Guardiola to move Kevin de Bruyne from an inside-right position to the left-wing role that Sané occupied in the Chelsea defeat, thus robbing City of the Belgian’s whipped deliveries – that so troubled Antonio Conte’s side last weekend.
Perhaps in acknowledgement of this error, the City manager made his second tactical change of the evening at half-time, instructing de Bruyne and Jesus Navas to swap wings, in what looked like a 4-2-3-1 (who knows, really?), with David Silva seemingly promoted to a number ten role behind Aguero’s understudy Kelechi Iheanacho.
Navas fared better on an unfamiliar flank than his Belgian colleague, producing an early second-half cross from which Iheanacho should have scored.
On the hour-mark, the Spanish winger was unlucky to be hooked in favour of Raheem Sterling, who became the hosts’ latest fish out of water, floundering on the left of Pep’s reinstated 3-2-4-1 (change number three, for those keeping count), and managing to comfortably become the game’s most dispossessed player in his half-hour on the pitch.
Sterling’s arrival, and the concurrent return to 3-2-4-1, also brought with them the simultaneous introduction of Yaya Toure up top, but even that particular tactic failed to last even ten minutes, as Nolito was sprung from the bench to perform the false nine role in the 68th minute.
Nolito’s late consolation underlined the persistent failure of Guardiola’s insistence upon playing a right-footer alone on the left-flank, as Kolarov overlapped from centre-back to cross for the Spaniard to marginally spare his manager’s blushes.
Leicester’s high-pressing in response to defensive-third City possession indirectly led to the opener – Huth’s header returned a rushed Kolarov long ball – and it most certainly led to their fourth goal too, when Slimani forced
ball-playing ball-dropping defender Stones into an underhit backpass that Vardy snaffled for his first-ever Foxes hat-trick.
That wrapped up a richly deserved second consecutive league defeat for the professorial Guardiola, at the hands of Ranieri’s ultra-simplistic counter-attacking formula. It may now be time for Pep to consider that the tactical flexibility easily digested by the intelligent, adaptable footballers of Barcelona and Munich may be beyond a critical mass of his current playing cohort.