Leicester intensity overcomes toothless Liverpool as Vardy shines
The Leicester fairytale continued on Tuesday night as they beat Liverpool 2-0 with a display that featured all the qualities that have propelled them to the league summit. Fuelled with confidence and energy, the Foxes pressed the visitors into errors and scored a sensational opening goal that involved their two star men and a trademark counter-attack.
Manager Claudio Ranieri normally defends deep against big clubs at the King Power stadium, but here Leicester pushed up high to deny Liverpool space and time. With Jurgen Klopp also favouring a high-tempo approach, the game was played at breakneck speed, with a flurry of tackles, interceptions, duels and misplaced passes. Leicester seemed the more energetic side, and their high defensive line largely succeeded in keeping Liverpool quiet.
Further ahead, the hosts threatened through Riyad Mahrez and quick turnovers, and Liverpool had goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to thank for not going behind earlier. When they eventually did, the manner was familiar: a piece of Mahrez magic and a Jamie Vardy run in behind the backline which produced one of best goals you'll see this season. Leicester added another when Mamadou Sakho failed to clear and, with Liverpool sterile in the final third, Ranieri's men recorded their fifth clean sheet in six league games.
A helter-skelter clash
Before any tactical mechanisms are discussed, it is worth highlighting the frenetic nature of this game. The scenario was not entirely surprising: Leicester have based their success on industry and an extremely direct style; their pass completion remains the lowest in the league, and no team has sent a larger percentage of their passes into the final third (37.5 percent).
With Klopp known for fast transitions and counter-pressing, it was no shock to learn that the two sides already topped the list of tackles, with Leicester having made 22.7 per game and Liverpool 23.2.
The intensity was only increased by Ranieri's decision to press high. Using their favoured 4-4-2, Leicester even closed down Mignolet and generally gave Liverpool few chances to slow things down.
The visitors rarely seemed to want to anyway, and so the game turned into a flurry of swift breaks, rushed decisions and optimistic passes. Liverpool completed 30 tackles, while Leicester made 37 interceptions -- a figure far above their average of 22.1, which is already the highest in the league.
Proactive Leicester neutralise forwards
For Leicester, the strategy worked at both ends of the pitch. Central midfielders N'Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater swarmed over their opposite numbers and, on one occasion, James Milner received a throw-in only to have three players on him immediately.
So aggressive were Leicester that any pass into the central midfield zone looked risky. Indeed, on eight minutes, Drinkwater dispossessed Jordan Henderson to set up a break that led to Shinji Okazaki testing Mignolet, while later, a poor Milner touch was intercepted by Kante, who started a counter which ended with Okazaki being fouled near the box.
Part of Ranieri's thinking may have centred on Liverpool's attackers. Benching Christian Benteke, Klopp went 4-2-3-1 with Roberto Firmino up front and Adam Lallana just behind. Both thrive in spaces between the lines, but neither specialise in beating the offside trap, and while centre-backs Wes Morgan and Robert Huth are not the quickest, they were comfortable in closing down whoever emerged in front of the backline.
On some occasions, Morgan could be seen chasing players far across the halfway line, while Huth made more ball recoveries than anyone -- many coming high up the pitch for such a typical penalty-box defender.
Mahrez thrives down the middle
A less surprising element was Mahrez. The Algerian winger started on the right with instructions to drift inside, and sent a curler wide inside two minutes. It was notable how freely he roamed: at times he could be seen exchanging passes down the left, or sneaking in between the two forwards.
Most of his dribbles and shots came from central areas, the pick of the bunch being a bending 25-yard shot that Mignolet did well to divert away from the top corner.
The opening goal underlined his quality, as he turned inside to hit a sublime pass that Vardy volleyed home in sensational style, while the second highlighted his central positioning. When Sakho hesitated in clearing a ball near the box, Mahrez was involved in winning it back, before Okazaki's shot deflected into the path of Vardy who netted his 18th league goal of the season.
Firmino quiet for toothless Reds
Before those two goals, Liverpool had enjoyed a decent spell just after the break, with Emre Can shooting wide from a good position and Alberto Moreno forcing a stop from Kasper Schmeichel.
When Leicester dropped deeper to protect their lead, Liverpool faced the difficult task of breaking down their compact 4-4-2. Rather than succeeding, they demonstrated why they have now gone 300 minutes without a goal since the 5-4 win at Norwich.
It may not have helped that the two wingers, Milner and Henderson, prefer to play as central midfielders, and Benteke's introduction on 66 minutes offered little. Neither did Firmino manage to provide his crucial link-up play, the Brazilian completing 11 passes fewer than any other outfield player in the away line-up with an accuracy of 57.9 percent. As such, Liverpool hardly fashioned any chances at all, and though they unleashed 14 shots, seven were blocked and only two were on target.
Fatigue might have kicked in: Leicester played six games in January, the latest coming 10 days earlier, while Liverpool played nine. All but two of Klopp's 11 starters here also began the 120-minute League Cup clash with Stoke a week earlier, in which Liverpool covered 156km combined.
However, Klopp dismissed this excuse, and chose to lament the decision-making. That was an accurate observation, though his side were not the first to struggle with Leicester's intensity and won't be the last.