Premier League 2019/20: Leicester City vs Manchester City – tactical analysis
Similar to the reverse fixture in December, Pep Guardiola’s side controlled the game against Leicester City with good command and subsequently ran out worthy winners at 1-0. Considering the absence of key personnel in midfield due to suspension and injury, Brendan Rogers knew this tough task would require more of his tactical acumen to compete against a full Manchester City selection.
The Premier League‘s top two goal scorers of the current season were in action on the same pitch today, Jamie Vardy (17) and Sergio Agüero (16,) none of whom could add any more to their tally in today’s contest although both came very close.
Manchester City accounted for 67% ball possession and reduced the hosts to only two attempts on target with an xG total of 0.72. Although it took until 80 minutes to find the breakthrough, the Citizens were in full control. The narrow margin of one goal was enough to give the Sky Blues a six-point advantage over third-placed Leicester City in the Premier League table. Fine margins separate teams at the highest level and knowing that, Brendan Rogers and his staff will no doubt feel that had either Wilfred Ndidi, Hamza Choudhury or Nampalys Mendy been available perhaps Man City might not have walked away with all three points.
The tactical analysis below tells the story of the game from a tactical standpoint. As we explore the tactics that both managers felt would have given their team the best chance of success. The analysis also highlights, with the support of key data and statistics, the most prominent aspects of both teams style of play.
Leicester City: 3-5-2
Player rotations aside, perhaps the most surprising aspect of Brendan Rogers lineup was the new formation. We are so used to seeing a ‘four’ at the back from the Foxes, however, considering the opponent and the players at his disposal the Foxes boss would have felt that this setup would give his team the best opportunity for success. A ‘three’ at the back which become a ‘five’ with wing-backs, an athletic midfield of three and the pace of two quick strikers to counter a high and front-loaded Man City.
Rogers makes three changes to the side that drew away to Wolves the previous week. Ayoze Pérez, Harvey Barnes and the suspended Hamza Choudhury exit the starting XI to make way for Kelechi Iheanacho, Dennis Praet and Christian Fuchs.
Manchester City: 4-3-3
Guardiola makes three changes to the side that was victorious at home to West Ham Utd during the week. Nicolás Otamendi at centre-back, David Silva in centre-midfield and Gabriel Jesus up front were withdrawn and replaced by Fernandinho, İlkay Gündoğan and Riyad Mahrez respectively.
There seemed to be no change of approach or tactical tweaking to consolidate for the opponent in typical Guardiola fashion. City lined up in their mobile 4-3-3 playing that perfect high tempo passing and moving possession football that wears their opponents down.
Man City’s build-up to penetration
Man City exercised a patient build-up play in the opening stages of the game. In true Guardiola fashion, the players moved the ball to move the opponent. Shorter vertical distances between the midfield and defensive unit meant that with good horizontal movement of the ball from flank to flank City could play quick accurate passes to split the first line of pressure and advance play forward into the middle third of the pitch.
City’s skill and patience to retain possession before efficient penetration is reflected in their opponents’ PPDA average. Leicester City amounted a PPDA average of 20.2 passes, meaning the Sky Blues averaged 20 passes in each spell of possession before Leicester disrupted through interception or a successful tackle.
In the image above we capture a moment we saw Man City look to penetrate from deep on their opponents weak-side. In the centre of the image, we can see the Man City ‘CB’ in possession as he is engaged by the Foxes forward. As the play developed on Leicester’s left flank for a brief spell this meant, to be compact relative to the position of the ball, Leicester had to commit players from the opposite flank temporarily. Leaving the Foxes right flank stretched open Man City exploit with a long cross-field ball to meet the run of the ‘LB’ Benjamin Mendy to attack the open space and combine with the City forwards.
Man City’s full-backs are key in the attacking phase
Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy serve a great deal of importance to the City build-up and attacking phase. To highlight but a few of the functions that were required from both full-backs in attack, both Walker and Mendy need to be a passing option in all thirds of the field, make penetrating runs from deep, make horizontal and vertical rotations with the midfield and deliver perfect passes and crosses into the box.
The data set above is a graphical annotation that shows the passing network among all the players. Accounting for combinations of three or more passes the dot size represents the player’s touches of the ball. Notice the density of the lines between and most very importantly the average positions of both full-backs. Mendy (22) and Walker (2) had a high volume of passes connecting the defence to the attack. Although by the principle of positions Walker and Mendy played on different vertical lines to one another.
The graphical tactical board above gives us an understanding as to what positions both full-backs occupied in the offensive phase. Walker was based more inside the half-space and central areas while Mendy’s movement graduated more to wide areas in the attack. Such for the tactical discipline of Manchester City that no two players occupy the same vertical channels, notice how both forwards in front of the full-backs move to honour their principles. Mahrez takes the outside channel in contrast to the inset Walker, while Bernardo drifts into the half-space to offer the wide channel for Mendy. Although not a-symmetrical on both sides of the field this imbalance seemed to serve City well particularly on Walker’s side of the field.
The three images below show the stages of the build-up, to a penetrating pass and then a high xG value shot on goal.
Above, we see Walker the ‘RB’ is about to receive a pass and progress the play forward. Notice the position of the other three players highlighted, the CM, the CF and the RF.
Walker carries the ball bout 20 yeards into Leicester’s half before releasing a pass forward to the ‘CF’ Aguero. Now notice the importance of the movement of the other two players. The ‘RF’ has kept his run wide while the ‘CM’ makes a penetrating run beyond the defence. The ‘RF’ Mahrez position means the left-wing-back or ‘LWB’ for Leicester City cannot press the Man City ‘RB’ in possession, allowing him time and space to dribble.
The’ CF’ receives a pass from the ‘RB’ and with one touch he lays off a soft pass for the oncoming ‘CM’ to have an attempt on goal. Consider how Man City arrived in a 2v2 momentarily, due to the wide position of the ‘RF’ he serves to stretch the left side of the Leicester defence and allow a central overload temporarily. If Walker had occupied the point of the field and the ‘RF’ Mahrez had been in the half-space then City would not have been able to create such a high value attacking moment as the left wing-back would be closer and more compact with the defence to block any central penetration.
Leicester’s pressing triggers
Laying claim to only 33% of the possession Leicester were still prepared to get success with their limited time on the ball. Starting with a good defence to block and then press the Foxes were aiming to get success by transitioning to attack efficiently and well by capitalising on a temporarily disorganised City defence in these moments.
As the Sky Blues would build-up close to the first line of pressure and considering passing angles can be easily lost for the team in attack, Leicester would spring the trap to press the City player in possession when he is isolated or his passing options are reduced. It’s a high physical demand for the Foxes as the forwards, midfield and wing-backs have to move with the pace of the ball horizontally to be compact and deny any line-splitting passes. Success from the mid-block also comes by way of forcing the City players back and stretching those distances between the defence and midfield where these are triggers for Leicester to press.
Above, we see a moment when City had no passing options forward from a higher position, and they were forced back deep into their own half to retain possession. When the Leicester forwards read the player in possession’s options and see that they are reduced or temporarily outnumbered the Foxes would engage the press.
Although City showed a lot of comfort and class in possession when under pressure in front of their own box the Citizens’ were not once forced into a clearance. Guardiola’s side honoured their principles and played out of danger with excellent skill, perfect passing and sufficient movement.
The Foxes deep compact block
Leicester’s three/five at the back with the inclusion of both wing-backs meant that they were willing to play low-risk/low-reward passes across midfield. This served the Foxes well as they reduced the free-scoring Man City machine to an xG of 1.53 over 90 minutes. Compared to City’s season average xG of 2.53 that is quite substantial. The teams which form a low-block against high possession teams often amount a higher PPDA as a result, in this case for Leicester averages at 20.2 PPDA before a defensive action. In contrast, this 5-3-0 defensive low-block served the Foxes well was by being deep and compact the Sky Blues had no space to play two-touch passes, wall passes or penetrating passes along the ground. The distance from the goalkeeper also meant that aerial balls could be collected more comfortably with lower risk.
Above, we see the wing-backs Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira join the back three to form a solid deep block that denies dangerous passing angles and opportunities. In front, we see the midfield three of James Maddison, Youri Tielemans and Dennis Praet apply pressure to the ball carrier Kevin De Bruyne. Notice how neither of the Leicester forwards drop to engage in the defensive phase. This is deliberate as the Foxes’ game plan accounted for counter-attacks and quick transitions to get success.
Leicester counter in the channels
Across the 90 minutes of the match, the Foxes were able to develop and execute 5 counter-attacks. But for the quality of Man City in the defensive transition, this number could easily have been higher. Knowing they would face opposition with significantly superior ball possession it was clear Leicester were targeting the vacated spaces left open by the City full-backs. In the transition to attack from deep the Foxes played firm ground passes forward to create the passing angle and attacking passes into the wide channels where they would meet the run of Vardy or Iheanacho.
As we see in the tactical annotation above it captures the targeted areas at the moment Leicester transition to attack from deep. Maddison, Praet and Tielemans would play forward into the run of the pacey forwards with the minimum number of passes required to deliver effectively. These moments were not just to counter-attack but to develop prominent attacks by causing imbalance to the City defence and create goal-scoring opportunities in these periods of the game.
Above, Leicester have played a long-pass into the channel for Harvey Barnes to chase in a quick transition. In doing so he pulls the Man City ‘CB’ into the wide channel causing huge gaps in the City defence.
As Barnes lays off for the supporting run of Pereira to continue the attack notice the imbalance of the Man City defence the moment the cross is delivered. The advantage comes by way of the late arrival of ‘LWB’ Chilwell to the back post.
This method seemed to be effective; however, the final product was not there to claim any reward. You can be sure that in a review/team meeting, Leicester will consider these as a few high-value opportunities missed.
Leicester’s attacking shape
In periods of the game, although few and far between due to inferior possession we got to see Leicester City’s moments of build-up play and attacking shape. When successful in reaching the opponent’s final third the Foxes committed seven players to the offensive phase – both strikers, both wing-backs and three supporting midfielders.
The pass network above accounts for combinations of three or more passes made by Leicester City. The most significant line density shows us a higher degree of horizontal passes from wing-back to wing-back. The lack of connecting lines between the centre-backs and the centre-midfielders shows how efficient Man City were in nullifying the Foxes’ build-up play.
Above, we see a balanced shape in the offensive phase in Leicester’s attack. The wing-backs have a crucial role in offering penetrating runs to meet attacking passes as well as arriving in good positions to deliver crosses into the box. Due to Man City having an equal number of players in central midfield to Leicester, this denied the Foxes the ability to play centrally from wide areas or change the point of attack through midfield.
Here we see data of Kasper Schmeichel’s player report. Accounting for the goalkeeper’s distribution for the Foxes we see almost 50% of his passes were long aerial passes for the forwards and wing-backs to contest. As we see from the short-pass distribution data we see a significant proportion was distributed to the left side, the side of Chilwell, Maddison and Vardy just ahead.
Man City’s block to press
Perhaps only until they saw the Leicester team sheet one hour before kick-off Man City could not have prepared for a 3-5-2 formation from their opponents. Nonetheless, perhaps due to recent experience City were prepared and they performed well in the defensive phase. The Citizen’s kept the hosts at bay, so well in fact that their the Foxes could only amount an xG of 0.72 across 90 minutes.
In the image above, we see City form a mid-block and gradually press once their angles are covered. Observe the position the ‘LF’ Bernardo takes up, similar to the right-side. Bernardo only presses the centre-back in possession once run covers the passing lane to the right-wing back. Aguero the ‘CF’ does not press any other player than the central centre-back Johnny Evans to avoid any imbalance in the block.
Notice in the image above, on the bottom-left we see the Leicester centre-back in possession. As he has just received a pressure pass from his goalkeeper Schmeichel, Man City identify the player is isolated and his passing options are limited to but a few. For a press to be effective Man City’s full-backs and midfielders must read the moment accurately, to react quickly and cover all the passing options of the attacking team as soon as the ball carrier is engaged in the press. In this moment City press well as they identify and mark up on all passing options available to the player in possession.
In these moments the rewards to not always seem high-value but more often than not it allows Man City to regain possession in good territory to create subsequent success in the following moments.
Man City’s transitions decide the game
Often times, teams that we consider to be high possession, patient build-up play attacking teams usually play back to their defensive line to restart possession from low-pressure positions although with Man City that is not quite the case. When possession is won in the middle third, City will mostly keep the transition to attack going forward. This is made possible by a few important factors such as supporting runs from deep, good supporting movement to offer width and depth and most importantly, players with great skill to dribble the ball forward under pressure and in one-versus-one situations.
In the moment below we see two images that capture City’s effectiveness in the transition also which gave us the game’s only goal.
As City win possession in the middle third ‘RF’ Mahrez dribbles forward with the support of the ‘CF’ on his right Gabriel Jesus. What is significant about this moment is Mahrez does not play to Jesus because he is available, rather he stays in possession until he commits the closest Leicester defender into a 1-v-1. Once that happens then he will release the pass. The value in this is that if Jesus receives a pass too early he becomes isolated and is Sheppard out wide by the defenders. Rather, Mahrez stays in possession and commits the defender to a 1-v-1.
As Mahrez beats the defender in a 1-v-1 he then turns inside to create a passing angle to lay on Jesus for a shot. Perhaps detail such as this would go amiss on popular sports commentary, but it’s Mahrez’s deft-touch inside to his left which offers the angle for the killer pass. Once he takes a good first touch, Jesus finishes low to Schmeichel’s left to claim the game’s only goal. Leicester City 0 – 1 Manchester City.
It remains to be seen if Rodgers will set his team up in a 3-5-2 in the near future. Although the scoreline does not do it justice, for a quick counter-attacking team like Leicester City the 3-5-2 or any similar variation of that formation supports quick effective transitions. The Foxes will not have long to wait as their next outing in the Premier League is an away trip to struggling Norwich City next Friday.
As first place seems virtually out of reach, Man City will build on the fact that they are improving on second place in the Premier League table as they are now six points clear of third-placed Leicester City. City always looked in control, however they will be hoping for greater efficiency in front of goal as their outing is the highly anticipated Champions League tie away to Real Madrid on Wednesday.
To track the progress of both of these teams and to stay informed about their performances and reviews be sure to check back in with us here on totalfootballanalysis.com