Manuel Pellegrini fielded a 4-2-3-1 as his Manchester City team’s basic shape. Two attacking wing backs, Aleksandar Kolarov & Pablo Zabaleta, flanked the two central defenders, Martin Demichelis and the heavily-criticized Nicolas Otamendi. Fernandinho played as the deepest midfielder, and was paired with Yaya Toure, who moved across the 8 and 10. Alons with Silva & Sterling, these three often moved into the same halfspace or flank in order to create a situational overload to support ball progression.
Claudio Ranieri utilised his narrow & compact 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 basic formation. Jamie Vardy & Shinji Okazaki were oriented to Manchester City’s two deep midfielders when Pellegrini’s team had possession. Vardy was tasked with staying close to Fernandinho, whilst Okazako was oriented to Yaya Toure. He would keep his distance to Toure, but not in a strict manner. Sometimes when Toure moved further forward (into the penalty area, for example) Okazaki held his position in a moderately advanced position.
Manchester City basic attacking shape vs Leicester City narrow 4-4-1-1.
Ranieri’s narrow shape overcame Pellegrini’s 4-2-3-1
City, as always, tried to play out from the back. In this first phase, the central defenders moved wide and Fernandinho dropped deep into the back line (salida lavolpiana). Okazaki would then press the ball-carrying central defender, and Vardy would stay central, man marking the deep-dropping Fernandinho. In the first phase of City’s build-up, the wing backs were often positioned too deep. This meant they were generally too close to the central defenders in early build-up. This provided easy pressing access for Leicester’s wide men, and allowed them to trap City at the touchline, forcing them to pass long or risk losing possession.
The danger of such a situation was that Leicester often managed to claim the second ball through the energy of N’Golo Kante and aerial prowess of their defensive line. Once this happened, they would immediately transition into attack. In these situations, there was often huge space for Leicester to attack in Man City’s midfield. This gave the ball carrier more than enough time to release a killer pass directly to Vardy, utilising his acceleration & speed.
Vardy was able to create some good chances from these situations. Riyad Mahrez’s goal also came from a similar process.
City in defensive transition
Without the ball, Leicester operated with a fairly low block, and a focus on central compactness. They generally allowed City’s central defenders to have the ball, but instead tried to block any passing into the double pivot or other central players. By keeping the block narrow, this often forced City wide.
Push them wide. The scene when City progressed to their second build-up phase.
As previously mentioned, Okazaki & Vardy oriented to City’s double pivot, but this focus was not strict. In almost every situation where Toure moved forward, Okazaki allowed him to go without following. This was okay when defending in organisation and in a settled structure, but could have been an issue if Toure were able to impact the game more so.
Space within Leicester’s low block.
Fabian Delph moved forward, and Riyad Mahrez followed. This created space for Sterling. Kante spotted this, and immediately moved to close Sterling down. This gave Toure the chance to occupy the space that Kante vacated. The play was eventually foiled by good awareness from Danny Drinkwater.
In the second phase of build-up, City were able to move the ball horizontally, with appropriate timing and speed. Combining this with Leicester’s narrow defensive shape created a ‘free player’ on the flank, deep in Leicester’s half. This may have created good opportunities for unlocking a stubborn defense. With a suitable player in this free role (not Fabian Delph), City may have been able to create more promising situations.
City did not utilise this approach much. But through Leicester’s shape, they were naturally forced wide anyway. And City had poor structure to allow for the ball to progress into the centre of the field. For example, when Sterling moved wide to receive the ball, there was little presence between the flank and halfspace in order to allow for combination play. This simply isolated the wide player and created lots of block & wasted crosses.
One attacking scheme that City have often utilised is penetrating through the halfspace. From the halfspace, City are attempting to gain access to the side areas of the penalty box. In many situations, as part of this penetration, there would be at least one player occupying the halfspace, acting as the connector for the one-two combination.
City would ideally have the inward passes in an area closer to the danger zone, in order to generate more dangerous shots. But Leicester defended this zone very well. This meant many of City’s passes from the halfspace were actually away from goal.
Unlike City, Leicester did not utilise attacking full-backs. In many ball progression situations, the ball would be played directly to the wingers or even Vardy, as Leicester attempted to attack City in transition. Their build-up play was generally focused on creating triangles, with the ball played into wide areas, before immediately passed into Okazaki or Vardy in the centre.
With this direct passing style, Leicester generally attempted to counter through Vardy. In some situations, Vardy would stay wide when the ball was in Leicester’s half, and make a quick diagonal movement towards goal.
In a quick attacking transition, Ranieri also licensed his twin 6s (Kante & Drinkwater) to roam forward. Both of these players were given license to dribble, or make off-ball movements forward in transition. But to ensure a stable base for any potential defensive transition, one of these two would stay deeper if the other moved forward.
The loss against Leicester was yet another weak performance from Manchester City in defensive transition. But City are generally able to counteract this weakness through outstanding attacking penetration. This was not the case against Leicester, who focused on minimising the potential damage of halfspace passes, and forcing City into wide areas.
Pellegrini may need to alter his approach in both attacking & defensive phases in the Premier League. But the continued weakness in defensive transition is a damning indictment of their hopes of reaching the latter stages of the Champions League. They have now lost three times at home; previously against Liverpool and West Ham. But their lack of compactness in transition (and also often organisation phases) has been a major reason for their lack of prior Champions League success. And it shows no sign of changing.