Sergio Aguero frustrated in Leicester's counter attack masterclass
When Leicester travelled to the Etihad Stadium last year, they returned contemplating a 2-0 defeat, a six-game winless run and a league position that left them seven points from safety. Around 11 months later, a superb 3-1 win on Saturday increased the gap at the top of the table to five points as the unlikeliest title challenge in years continues to gather strength.
If any test were to knock Leicester off balance it was surely to be this one, yet they delivered one of the most convincing displays of the campaign. After Robert Huth had converted Riyad Mahrez's free-kick inside three minutes, Leicester withdrew into their robust and compact 4-4-2.
Manchester City engineered several moves down the left, and Aleksandar Kolarov was often involved, but speculative shooting and wasteful crossing proved costly. Neither did their attempts to set Sergio Aguero up against Wes Morgan yield rewards.
Instead Leicester struck on the break. Many of the attempts involved Jamie Vardy making runs down the left in order to sprint past Nicolas Otamendi, though it was Mahrez who added the second with a spellbinding run down the middle. When Huth scored the third from a corner, Claudio Ranieri shut up shop, and the Foxes were happy to tackle, block and clear away anything City threw at them. Aguero did net a late goal, but it was only a consolation.
Morgan frustrates Aguero
So many teams have struggled to break down Leicester's 4-4-2 this season, especially in the six league games before this one, in which they had kept five clean sheets. Here Manuel Pellegrini fielded David Silva and Fabian Delph either side of Raheem Sterling in his 4-2-3-1. One idea was to position Delph wide out left to stretch play so that Kolarov could deliver passes to the feet of Aguero, who could then turn and dribble past his marker, Morgan.
The task was made harder by Leicester's third-minute opener, created when Mahrez had been fouled by Kolarov near the box. Just two minutes later, Aguero ran down the left, but was tracked and dispossessed by Morgan, and the same happened again on 12 minutes.
Even when Aguero dropped deep near the halfway line, Morgan followed suit and gave him a few kicks. So effective was the Leicester captain that Aguero started appearing on the right, from where he fired straight at Kasper Schmeichel on 32 minutes.
Even then, Sterling would emerge in the same spaces near Morgan, either down the line or outside the box. When Aguero switched back across, he was soon hacked down by the 32-year-old stopper, who got a yellow card. Morgan's aggressiveness was understandable: he would always struggle had he allowed Aguero to turn and dribble, and by the break, the Jamaica international had done a fine job frustrating Man City's main threat.
City attack down the left
The Aguero move was part of a larger tendency to attack down that side. Kolarov was busier than Pablo Zabaleta, and while Delph did little, Pellegrini instructed Sterling and even Silva to drift across.
Some attacks would be finished by Kolarov, who had four unsuccessful attempts by half-time, while others saw the left-back pass inside to Sterling, Silva or Yaya Toure, who would then combine in tight spaces near or inside the box. It was certainly no surprise to see Kolarov become the game's top passer, with 56 out of 68 deliveries completed.
This all nearly paid off. On 15 minutes, Silva dribbled free inside the box and rolled a right-footed effort just wide; later, a Sterling cross narrowly eluded Aguero, before another move saw Toure blast over.
And yet Leicester also defended well. Defensive striker Shinji Okazaki made taxing recovery runs when Mahrez was caught upfield, and tireless midfielder N'Golo Kante shuffled across to tackle and interrupt. Though most of Man City's attempts came from the left side, few really tested Schmeichel.
Vardy leads Leicester counters
Down the other end, Leicester relied on their usual counter attacks. There were two repeated patterns that involved Vardy.
Sometimes he would make central runs in behind the centre-backs, with the midfielders lifting passes into space. One example came after eight minutes, when Vardy directed Marc Albrighton's lofted pass at an outrushing Joe Hart. Another came in the second half, when Danny Drinkwater provided the delivery, only for Hart to save again.
The other pattern involved Vardy running at Otamendi. The league top scorer kept making runs down the left-side channel, and it worked perfectly on 22 minutes when he skipped past the Argentine and crossed for Okazaki, who directed his shot wide. In the six minutes just before half-time, Leicester tried three long passes for Vardy into the same zone, though they all lacked precision.
While it was Mahrez who provided the second goal on the break after dribbling past Martin Demichelis, Vardy was involved in the third, running past Zabaleta down the left and delivering a cross that led to the corner from which Huth beat Demichelis. As the video above shows, Drinkwater tried several long passes towards the left, while Vardy created two chances from the same side.
Sturdy Foxes snuff out superbly
Trying to find a way back, Man City searched for solutions in the final third. Pellegrini introduced Kelechi Iheanacho and Fernando for Delph and Toure, switched to 4-4-2, and before long Fernando had drawn a stunning reaction save from Schmeichel following a corner.
Yet Pellegrini's side were largely uninspiring and Leicester showed an ability to get a head, toe or foot at anything the hosts tried. The visitors attempted 39 tackles, and blocked six shots and 14 crosses. At the end Aguero headed in a late goal, his 13th in 11 league games, but Leicester held firm to complete another counter-attacking masterclass.