Long and direct balls. Not entirely medieval football as Leicester City showcase

5–2. That’s it. That’s the article.

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Hold on. That definitely isn’t it in this crazy season, and it hasn’t even been three weeks in. The amount of goals is absurd, and no you don’t wait for ages and then two come along. It’s a bit more than that.

Five was the score at the Etihad. Pep Guardiola couldn’t believe it come the end of the game. No one did. Yet it was true.

The surprise here is that it wasn’t counter attack after counter attack that got the best out of Pep. He imagined it would be with Jamie Vardy and Harvey Barnes flying down the left side, so he prepared for that.

In possession, Fernandinho dropped to form a back three with Nathan Ake and Eric Garcia, meaning that if City lost the ball during their possession phase Fernandinho can cover that side where Barnes and Vardy usually attack. This 3–1–6 shape didn’t manage to create enough chances for City though. Using Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy to stretch Leicester City was only in theory as both didn’t provide enough threat, allowing Leicester to be more compact. Thus tightening the spaces on City’s front four.

So if City were prepared for the counter down their right side, then how did Leicester do what they did ? It was their directness in finding their wing backs during their possession phase. In their 5–4–1, Leicester felt like they were hoping in teleporters after teleporters spread over the Etihad pitch. Making a normal attack feel like a dying minute counter.

Leicester’s directness in finding their wing backs didn’t give City time to react, leaving them behind, only able to see them in their wing mirrors. One of the main enforcers behind those attacks was Kasper Schmeichel whose accurate long balls either found James Justin and Timothy Castagne or enabled them to be found.

In this sequence his importance is illustrated. It all starts with a normal ball to Justin.

The long ball forces Fernandinho to move out and cover because Riyad Mahrez is pressing Caglar Soyuncu.

Leicester then managed to move the ball to the other side of the field, but City’s pressing forces them to reset. Schmeichel here is ready to find Justin as quick as possible, taking only one touch to switch play towards the wing back. Schmeichel was prepared for this and to make it better for Leicester, the moving of City’s block across the field means that Fernandinho and Mahrez are miles away from Justin.

Which forces Kyle Walker to move up the field to press Leicester’s wing back. The ramifications of this will shortly unveil.

Leicester reset again and once again Schmeichel knows where he will pass the ball. He takes one touch to adjust his body orientation to the right, then another one to boot it towards Castagne, the wing back on the other side. Walker here is way up the pitch, leaving spaces behind because Fernandinho covered for him mostly during City’s offensive phase, not their defensive phase.

Castagne rode the long ball and won the header against Mendy, heading it down for Dennis Praet. Now it’s a 3 v 2 for Leicester with Barnes clearly free because earlier Walker was dragged out of position. Barnes tried to dribble past Eric Garcia, but the defender cleared it.

Another situation rises after Schmeichel saves Fernandinho’s header. Leicester play it out down the right and Nampalys Mendy finds Praet. Even before Praet receives the ball, Castagne is sprinting forward down the touchline. Praet knows that it’s essential to find the wing backs directly and fast, so he quickly plays it into Castagne’s path.

Because Leicester were building on their right side of the pitch, Manchester City’s block is lopsided to that side. This means that Justin is completely free on the near side when Praet is playing the ball into Castagne.

Castagne’s acceleration puts him ahead of Mendy and this isn’t even a 3 v 2. It’s a 4 v 2 because Justin who is out of the picture here is attacking the left wing.

Castagne’s curled ball nearly finds Vardy as the striker’s left footed touch adjusts it for Justin who probably should have chosen any other option rather than passing it to Eric Garcia. Both chances didn’t result in a shot but they provided indications.

In the build up to Leicester’s equalizer Manchester City’s front six are trying to press Mendy. The problem here is the gap between their front six and the back four. City’s defensive line couldn’t push forward due to the threat of Castagne and Justin out wide. Leaving space between the lines.

If City had gotten the ball, they could have probably scored. However, they didn’t as Mendy dribbled past the onrushing Fernandinho to then find Barnes between the lines. Now the situation is where Leicester want it to be. A 5 v 4 with their wing backs flying high.

Justin’s presence here manipulates Walker’s body orientation. Walker’s body shape is facing Justin, while his eyes are on the ball. Making him unaware of Vardy’s positioning.

This eventually makes him drop a bit deep playing Vardy onside. Then when Barnes plays the ball, Walker is on the outside of Vardy. One step behind. The result is a penalty and Vardy equalizes.

In the second half, Leicester’s tactic was the same but from a different approach, goal kicks. Daniel Amartey pushed forward to battle for the aerial duel, seeking to win it to play the ball directly into Castagne. Leicester wanted to reach their wing-backs as fast as possible before City could adjust.

An example here sees Amartey winning the header against Mendy. The result is that on this side of the pitch it becomes a 3 v 2 with Castagne, Praet and Vardy attacking Eric Garcia and Ake.

The snippet looks like something out of a counter attack but it was merely from a goal kick. It’s the directness in finding the wing backs which made it look like that. Unfortunately, Castagne stuttered before playing Praet behind Ake. The attack ends in null but the alarm bells were ringing for City.

Next goal kick. It’s the same setup from Leicester but Rodri drops to support, meaning that if Amartey wins the header, it’s still a 3 v 3 because Mendy doesn’t leave his position to compete for the aerial duel.

This helps City clear the ball but Justin’s pressure on Mahrez forces them back before Amartey wins another aerial duel. Youri Tielemans then combines with Castagne to present this situation. Ake in a 2 v 1 against Leicester’s wing backs, Justin and Castagne. The constant urge from Justin to be present in the final line, in addition to Castagne’s directness towards City’s goal puts them in a place where Ake can’t mark both.

Tielemans then finds Castagne with a line splitting pass before the right wing-back assists Vardy to make it 2–1.

The long balls from Schmeichel were constant and it was all towards Amartey so he can win the header to play Castagne. Despite Rodri making it a 3 v 3 after the flick on, any second ball duel could reach Castagne in a higher position up the field..

Even Schmeichel himself tried to reach Castagne in City’s penalty box…

…but Ake managed to get there before Castagne.

Once Leicester were ahead, Manchester City peculiarly ignored the existence of Castagne. Here he is totally free on the right hand side…

…demanding the ball as Barnes shoots towards goal.

Then in the lead up to Leicester’s third goal, Castagne is in acres of space as Praet drags Mendy inside. The other point here is how Justin’s run occupies Walker and forces him into playing Vardy onside. Ake was playing Vardy offside as well when the ball was played, but if Eric Garcia and Ake stood their ground it wouldn’t have mattered. Just like in the first goal, Justin’s run completely freaks out Walker.

Leicester’s fourth was a wonder strike from James Maddison and to continue the trend Castagne is calling for the ball on the far side, free as usual.

The fifth goal originally starts from a long ball forward by Schmeichel towards the current left wing back at that moment in the game, Christian Fuchs.

City lose possession after winning the second ball, but the major issue is that their block is still positioned towards that side of the field. Once Leicester move the ball horizontally there is room for Castagne.

Castagne collected and reset by playing the ball to Tielemans. Mendy then saw the danger of Castagne, but that left a huge gap between him and Ake. The Dutch defender couldn’t move out because of Barnes’ threat in-front of him, leaving Maddison to exploit that space. Similar to the first penalty, Mendy was on the outside of Maddison with no option but to tackle him.

Tielemans managed to score the fifth and put a cherry on top of his exquisite performance in midfield.

The irony is that Manchester City prepared for Leicester City’s counter attacks, but all of the threat came from normal offensive situations during Leicester’s offensive phase. Of all the situations showcased above, only the third and fourth goal came from an offensive transition.

Leicester were direct in finding their wing backs before City adjusted to the 5 v 4 threat. It paid off multiple times and could have been worse for City. Schmeichel’s accurate long balls was a key part in this tactic, by finding the wing backs directly or enabling the ball to reach them in the phase after.

Sometimes booting it long works. As long as there’s a purpose.

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English Football. United

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Ahmed Walid

Ahmed Walid

English Football. United

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