* Wow. Wow, wow, wow. After 25 games of this Premier League season, Leicester have a five-point lead at the summit. This really was not supposed to happen.
The most impressive thing at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday afternoon was Leicester’s performance. There was no fortune involved, no lack of luck on Manchester City’s part, just sheer simplicity from the visitors. Analytics and statistics have transformed the sport of football, but Leicester provide a throwback to a less complicated time. They were excellent in defence, they dominated the midfield, and they were potent in attack. Surprisingly enough, such a combination proved rather effective.
Finally, the tide has turned. Each previous Leicester victory had passed with disbelief, but qualified disbelief: ‘They will fall away eventually’, ‘wait until they play the big teams’, ‘Leicester won’t win the league; they can’t.’ Such an accomplished win away at their closest challengers is all it took for the Foxes to be taken seriously as contenders. Hell, contenders? Leicester are favourites. Favourites to win the Premier League. Christ.
More telling is that Leicester treated Manchester City as they have every other team they have faced this season. Claudio Ranieri made no changes, utilised his favoured 4-4-2 formation with his usual personnel, and Leicester played their usual game. Manchester City had 65.8% possession, but Leicester had more shots on target. The hosts played 267 more cumulative passes, but the visitors were more incisive, more intelligent, and more penetrating. Sergio Aguero and his army of expensively assembled talent were held at arm’s length by Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, while a £50million defence struggled to cope with Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and company.
Leicester have every right to believe. They have a five-point gap to second place, a 13-point cushion with regards to Champions League qualification, and just 13 games of their season remaining. While their closest rivals toil in the Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup and League Cup, the Foxes rest. They have just one midweek game between now and the end of the season. And that is at home to West Brom.
That we are in early February and stating that a lack of European football for Leicester next season would represent a huge disappointment is telling. Fans and players have always believed, but now the neutrals and the pundits have climbed aboard the bandwagon. This is an unprecedented position for the squad to be in, but they will deal with it in the same manner as they have all season. They have 13 games left to shape their futures.
* This is not the end of Manchester City’s challenge under Manuel Pellegrini. The players, the fans and the manager all looked shell-shocked throughout their 3-1 defeat, but they will regroup. They have to. Hopes of a quadruple always looked a fanciful proposed send-off for their beloved boss, and now the task is even harder.
Manchester City’s next four fixtures involve games in each of the four competitions in which they still remain. First is a Premier League clash with Tottenham next Sunday, the side who have now risen above them in the league. Next is an FA Cup trip to Stamford Bridge to face a Chelsea side for whom England’s premier cup competition represents their only salvation. The first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Dynamo Kiev follows, before a Wembley date with Liverpool in the League Cup final. Four games in 14 days.
Improvement will undoubtedly be needed. Pellegrini will be worried that Leicester did not struggle to keep his side quiet. Manchester City attempted 22 shots throughout the match, but only four were on target. Risks were taken in starting Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov at full-back against a team which specialises in counter-attacking, and it did not pay off. The choice to start with Fabian Delph on the left-hand side in place of Kelechi Iheanacho simply led to the opening goal as opposed to preventing it. Pellegrini made two big calls in his starting line-up, and neither succeeded.
This is, of course, no crisis. Manchester City are six points off the Premier League summit, in the fifth round of the FA Cup, in the last 16 of the Champions League and are in the League Cup final. They remain in more competitions than any top-flight side. But there is a fine line between success and failure, and City must right their wrongs to navigate it.
* For those still harbouring doubts as to Leicester’s title credentials, the respective starting line-ups at the Etihad Stadium were revealing. The table-topping Foxes made no changes from the side who had beaten Liverpool four days prior, with Shinji Okazaki and Jamie Vardy tasked with unsettling and unnerving a restless Manchester City central defence. Behind them, Riyad Mahrez and Marc Albrighton would reprise their wide roles, with N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater chosen to engage in a midfield battle with Yaya Toure and Fernandinho. The sixth-best defensive line in the Premier League remained untouched.
On the other hand, Manchester City made four changes to the side who had beaten Sunderland 1-0 on Tuesday. Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov replaced Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy in the full-back positions, with Raheem Sterling and Delph replacing Jesus Navas and Kelechi Iheanacho as Manuel Pellegrini switched formations from 4-4-2 to his trusted 4-2-3-1. The returns of the more attacking pair of Zabaleta and Kolarov saw a telling change in attitude from Pellegrini, the manager plotting to overcome the most potent counter-attacking side in the top flight. Where little old Leicester, the visitors to the side with the best home record in the league, made no changes, it was Manchester City who changed both their personnel and their system in an attempt to combat their opponent’s strengths.
* The starting line-ups also put into stark perspective just how remarkable Leicester’s achievements this season have been, even before this memorable win. The eleven chosen by Pellegrini comprised £229.5million in transfer fees; Leicester’s cost just £19.35million. Six Manchester City players – Nicolas Otamendi, Fernandinho, David Silva, Yaya Toure, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero – cost more alone. This Leicester side should not be in a Premier League title race with just 13 games to play; even mid-table sides were more costly to assemble. Yet here they are. Enjoy it.
* If ever the first 20 minutes of any given game provided a microcosm into what was to come, it was this one. From kick-off, Leicester launched a long ball forward for Jamie Vardy to chase. A quick start from the Foxes put Manchester City firmly under pressure. N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater both made three tackles each, hassling and harrying every Manchester City player. Leicester had 32% of the possession but had five shots, four more than Manchester City. The hosts laboured in an attempt to break down a stoic defence – their first shot on target came on 32 minutes – while Leicester sliced through an anxious back line with ease.
Of course, even before all that came the opening goal. Within two minutes, Manchester City’s game plan – or what closest resembled one – became clear: stop Riyad Mahrez. The winger received the ball wide on the right, and immediately Aleksandar Kolarov and Fabian Delph closed the space. With Mahrez though, you can never be sure. The Algerian wriggled free of Delph and Kolarov was forced into conceding a free-kick on the edge of the area. What followed was perhaps the most inexcusable defending seen so far this season. Mahrez played a simple cross, the ball bounced off the turf, and Robert Huth’s finish found the net via a Martin Demichelis deflection. You might say that Leicester couldn’t believe their luck, but there was no fortune involved. The visitors pressed from the first whistle, and panic set in among the Manchester City players. Luck? This was all part of the plan.
* Seriously though, that Manchester City defence. Since keeping five consecutive clean sheets in the opening five games of the season, Manchester City have kept just six in their subsequent 20 matches.
Removing the safety blanket of club captain Vincent Kompany should not have such a detrimental effect, certainly not to a club of Manchester City’s stature and targets. Manuel Pellegrini started the game against Leicester with a defence comprising Pablo Zabaleta, Nicolas Otamendi, Martin Demichelis and Aleksandar Kolarov. This was the 10th different back four that City have chosen in the Premier League this season. Zabaleta had started four games, and Demichelis had started nine. But a lack of playing minutes is no excuse for some of Manchester City’s ‘defending’ on Saturday.
That Robert Huth was the chief tormentor of Martin Demichelis should not be overlooked. The Leicester centre-half somehow evaded the Argentinean to score the opening goal from a simple free-kick routine, and the German added his second when he towered above the 35-year-old to head past Joe Hart. Demichelis has presumably been ruled out for the season with two twisted ankles after Riyad Mahrez evaded him before scoring Leicester’s second.
Manchester City’s back four made eight tackles all game; Christian Fuchs made eight alone for Leicester. Regardless of how much Otamendi or his colleagues cost, the basic defending errors on show from the hosts at the Etihad Stadium were unforgivable.
* The first half belonged to Leicester, but Manchester City still had their moments. Pablo Zabaleta and Fernandinho both had penalty appeals rejected as the hosts looked to restore parity. Referee Anthony Taylor was not the most loved man at the Etihad Stadium.
Taylor’s decision not to award a penalty against Marc Albrighton for his clash with Fernandinho was understandable. After 41 minutes, the Brazilian midfielder burst into the box, before collapsing under a strong challenge from Albrighton. Fans and players appealed in unison, but Taylor was unmoved. Rightly so.
The first decision was far more debatable, and will remain so. Zabaleta chased a Yaya Toure pass on 25 minutes, and the Argentinean was tripped by Christian Fuchs on the edge of the area. Taylor blew the whistle, but the award of a free-kick left the hosts bewildered. Even after numerous replays, countless slow motions and many consultations with former referees, it was impossible to decipher whether the foul from Fuchs occurred inside the penalty area. How is Taylor therefore expected to make the ‘right’ call within a split second of the incident?
* “It’ll be interesting if they win today and go six points clear. That puts pressure on them,” Glenn Hoddle told BT Sport before the game. “It starts to build. Look at Liverpool, that pressure started to build on them in the last three games (of the 2013/14 season). The minute Leicester believe they can win it – and their fans started to sing it against Liverpool and I thought ‘this is the beginning of the end for them if the fans are saying it’ – that’s a problem.”
Curse those silly Leicester fans, enjoying the most remarkable season in the club’s 132-year history. After 25 games last season, Leicester were stranded at the bottom of the Premier League, five points from safety, having just lost their last four fixtures. They were given no hope. Twelve months on, and the impossible is possible. To ask them to preach caution, to not think the unthinkable, to not believe in the unbelievable, is pure folly.
Hoddle’s fears were realised as the visiting fans treated us to a rendition of “We’re going to win the league” when enjoying a first-half lead which put them six points clear at the top of the table at that stage. “Let them have their moment,” was the pundit’s response. Quite. Except this is longer than a moment. This is more than half-a-season’s worth of moments for Leicester fans to cherish.
* In the blue corner stood Yaya Toure, a 6ft 2ins midfield titan, winner of two Premier League titles, three La Ligas and a Champions League. In the red (black) corner stood N’Golo Kante, a midfielder barely reaching above 5ft 6ins, in the midst of only his fourth full season of professional football, having played in France’s second tier two seasons ago.
The tale of the tape showed the gargantuan task facing Kante in the heart of the Leicester midfield. This was David and Goliath: a modern-day revamp. As the 24-year-old has shown throughout the season, he was more than up to the task. The Frenchman was remarkable. His eight tackles were the joint-most of any player on the pitch, his four clearances were outstripped by only Robert Huth of his team-mates, his five interceptions were the joint-most of any Leicester player, and only Danny Drinkwater gained possession more times. Perhaps more pertinent is that Kante lost possession on fewer occasions than any Leicester starter, and only Marc Albrighton and Riyad Mahrez traveled further.
Such a dominant performance from Kante put Toure to shame. The Ivory Coast international made no tackles, no clearances and no interceptions, had the fewest touches of any outfield Manchester City starter, and attempted just two shots, both off target.
Statistics tell enough of a story, but some in-game moments simply cannot be measured. Such as Danny Drinkwater racing clear on 13 minutes before forcing a save from Joe Hart. In the background, the sight of Fernandinho sprinting past a jogging Toure in an effort to help the defensive cause spoke volumes.
This feels like Toure’s swansong in England. With the arrival of Pep Guardiola, the manager who sold him at Barcelona, the 32-year-old’s future is shrouded in doubt. Toure embodied Manchester City’s move from rich club to successful rich club, firing them to two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and a League Cup almost single-handedly at times. Toure represented the club’s first true quality import as a result of their cash influx, and he elevated Manchester City to new heights. Unfortunately, the feeling is that the club have outgrown him. The Toure era at the Etihad Stadium is over. The only question remains as to who will replace him.
* Being outperformed is one thing, but being outran is another altogether. Leicester’s players completed 15.03 km in victory on Sunday; City’s players managed just 13.95km.
More remarkable is the fact that Leicester are hardly believers in rotation. Claudio Ranieri has made just 21 changes to his starting line-up this Premier League season, the fewest of any side. Just 17 Leicester players have started in the league, the joint-fewest alongside Watford. That Newcastle, Norwich, Sunderland and Aston Villa – the current bottom four – have used the most starters says enough. Ranieri has not rested his players as, unlike his closest rivals, he does not have to. The Italian’s calculated risk of prioritising the Premier League saw the Foxes exit the FA Cup at the first attempt, but it’s difficult to argue that that was not the correct decision right now.
* We have reached the time of the season when the big question is asked: who has been the Player of the Year? Eden Hazard was crowned the undoubted star of the Premier League last season long before its conclusion. Jamie Vardy, Mesut Ozil and Dele Alli will each stake their claims, but 2015/16 undeniably belongs to one man.
Much like he has been throughout this campaign, Mahrez was the star on Saturday afternoon. His goal means only three players – all strikers – have scored more; his cross for Robert Huth means only Mesut Ozil has assisted more. The Algerian has had a direct hand in 34 goals, more than Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and all but six sides. His consecutive missed penalties against Bournemouth and Aston Villa cost Leicester four points, but his contribution before and after has been the most vital aspect of the most bizarre season.
Each of us were guilty of dismissing early-season links with Arsenal and Barcelona with little more than a passing thought. Riyad Mahrez playing for Champions League regulars and trophy winners? Preposterous. The 24-year-old is talented, but was playing in the Championship two seasons ago. One campaign prior to that, he was plying his trade in France’s second tier. The only reason such transfer rumours now seem laughable is: why would he leave the title favourites?
* So the third game of Leicester’s difficult, future-shaping four-game run concludes with a third emphatic win. Stoke were brushed aside by three goals, Liverpool outclassed by two, and the previous title favourites have now succumbed to the Leicester steamroller.
Since the beginning of April, the Foxes have played 34 games. They have won 22, drawn nine, and been beaten just three times – by Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. In the same timeframe, Manchester City have won 20 games and been beaten eight times, while Arsenal have won 17 and been defeated on six occasions. Leicester have accrued ten more points than Manchester City in their past 34 games, and 15 more than Arsenal. That’s a hell of a ‘run of form’.
Leicester have been perceived as ‘flat-track bullies’ at times this season. Not so. Heading into the game against Manchester City, they had beaten 18 of the 22 teams they had faced in the past ten months. Manchester City and Arsenal had beaten 17 of the 22 teams they had faced in that same sequence. The only sides Leicester had played since April without beating before Saturday were Arsenal, Bournemouth, Manchester City and Manchester United. That list now comprises three teams, and that could decrease yet further when they travel to the Emirates Stadium next Sunday.
* Branding any Leicester player outside of Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and N’Golo Kante as ‘unsung heroes’ should be a bannable offence, but if anyone deserves such acclaim it is Kasper Schmeichel. His save from a Fernando header on 55 minutes kept the scores at 2-0, with the momentum still firmly in Leicester’s favour.
Schmeichel made eight Premier League appearances for Manchester City during his seven-year stay at the club. Numerous loan moves and Football League destinations followed before Leicester signed him in 2011. Only five goalkeepers have kept more clean sheets than the Dane this season, and he is one of 13 players to have featured in every single Premier League minute. Peter would be proud.
* The post-match reaction was predictable. With Raheem Sterling having been restored to the starting line-up by Manuel Pellegrini, the Englishman was seen as the focal point behind Sergio Aguero. This £44million footballer should have no problem with the journeymen that Leicester had to offer.
Sterling was among those in Manchester City blue who toiled throughout, but the 21-year-old attracted the most criticism. Sterling created more goalscoring chances than any of his team-mates, had a passing accuracy beaten by only Martin Demichelis of every starter on the field, and attempted more shots than all but three of his team-mates. But while the anonymous Yaya Toure and David Silva evaded the ire of the critics, Sterling was left in the firing line. It’s difficult to forget he has only just turned 21.
Sterling himself will know he has to improve. This was his sixth straight Premier League game without a goal or an assist, his longest such run this season. But to question his performance above those of more seasoned professionals is unfair.
* Manchester City were branded transfer window winners despite signing no players in January. The announcement that Pep Guardiola would take over as manager in the summer, coupled with the inability of their rivals to strengthen where necessary, meant that Manuel Pellegrini’s side were the Premier League title favourites with bookmakers and fans alike with 14 games remaining.
An injury-hit bench consisting of Willy Caballero, Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna, Aleix Garcia, Fernando, Bersant Celina and Kelechi Iheanacho might just change perceptions of this past winter. Manchester City’s potential replacements had ten career Premier League goals between them, with defender Sagna the leader in that respect with four. Manchester City were chasing the game from the third minute, but the attacking impetus would have to come from those on the pitch. Heading into half-time at 1-0 down, the omens were not good. Manchester City’s last Premier League win when losing at half-time came in November 2012. They had lost 15 and drawn one when chasing the game since. Make that 16 defeats.
* Since the announcement of imminent managerial upheaval at Manchester City, things have understandably changed. The club finds itself in a purgatory of sorts, caught between battling for four trophies this season, and dreaming of what could be under Pep Guardiola in the coming years. Manchester City chose to announce that Guardiola would be leaving Bayern Munich to take over at the Etihad Stadium in an effort to prevent speculation, but has it put their season in jeopardy?
Manchester City have played two games since the Guardiola announcement. They laboured to a 1-0 victory over Sunderland on Tuesday, and looked second-best in every department against Leicester on Saturday. The club thought that ending speculation early would be beneficial, but did they underestimate its effect? Has the looming spectre of Guardiola created a season-derailing distraction?