Leicester City’s dogged resolve was undone by a stunning Kevin De Bruyne free-kick which earned Manchester City three points and a place atop the Premier League table on Saturday lunchtime.
Brendan Rodgers outlined the key to keeping out City pre-game. “It’s all about denying space,” he explained. “If the space is there, they’ll exploit it.” Adhering to their manager’s instructions, Leicester were quick to drop into a compact 5-4-1 off the ball, narrowing any gaps between the lines.
Limiting the Haaland-less visitors to snatched glimpses of their goal in the opening quarter, Leicester grew in confidence, picking their moments to creep out of the huddled rear-guard.
However, it would be grossly misleading to suggest that the first half was anything other than a one-sided contest – quite literally. 80% of every pass played in the first 45 minutes took place in Leicester’s half.
Manchester City shuffled through a raft of approaches in a bid to tease open the stitching of Leicester’s shape. Switching the ball from one flank to the other, bombarding the box with runners from deep, tiptoeing forward with intricate, eye-of-the-needle passing.
Ultimately, it took a truly sensational free-kick from De Bruyne to break the deadlock within five minutes of the restart. Lining up his sights 25 yards from goal, the Belgian swatted his boot through the middle of the ball, sending it on a vicious, dipping trajectory which clanked off the upright before nestling in the net.
Youri Tielemans almost fired Leicester level with an immediate rebuttal. The midfielder connected sweetly with James Maddison’s corner but was denied a spectacular volley by the crossbar and Ederson’s fingertips.
Aside from a quick flurry swiftly after falling behind, Leicester scuttled back into their shape, content to let the visitors circulate possession in front of their box for long spells of the second half.
Rodgers gambled with the introduction of Kelechi Iheanacho and Patson Daka for the final 20 minutes, shifting his side several metres up the pitch and unsettling City’s underworked backline.
The substitute duo both forced Ederson into late saves but City held on to their slender advantage as De Bruyne proved the difference in the absence of the injured Erling Haaland.
GK: Danny Ward – 6/10 – Got absolutely nowhere near De Bruyne’s belter – though few keepers, if any, would have.
CB: Daniel Amartey – 7/10 – Mopped up any loose ball that fell his way with a no-nonsense approach that bordered on disdain.
CB: Wout Faes – 8/10 – Confidently marshalled his backline, barking out orders and leading by example.
CB: Caglar Soyuncu – 6/10 – Approached his containment task with characteristic but controlled aggression.
RWB: Timothy Castagne – 6/10 – Quick to get touch-tight to Jack Grealish, coming out well in a lot of his one-on-one duels.
CM: Youri Tielemans – 7/10 – Defensively disciplined, Tielemans ruffled City’s blue plume with his vertical passing.
CM: Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall – 6/10 – Scurried around midfield, daring to snap at the heels of the neon-shirted visitors.
LWB: James Justin – 7/10 – Led Leicester’s sporadic surges up the pitch.
RW: James Maddison – 6/10 – Spent more time hurriedly clearing the ball out of his own half than creating chances at the other end.
ST: Jamie Vardy – 5/10 – Desperately isolated at the tip of Leicester’s blockade.
LW: Harvey Barnes – 6/10 – Buzzed around the fringes of the contest, intermittently zipping into action.
SUB: Nampalys Mendy (46′ for Dewsbury-Hall) – 5/10 – Gave away the free-kick which De Bruyne converted but was hardly culpable for the opener.
SUB: Kelechi Iheanacho (71′ for Vardy) – 6/10
SUB: Patson Daka (71′ for Soyuncu) – 6/10
Manager: Brendan Rodgers – 7/10 – Against the side he rates as the “best possession team in world football”, Rodgers set Leicester up to frustrate them successfully. De Bruyne’s genius can hardly be accounted for.
GK: Ederson – 7/10 – Alert when called into action despite spending large swathes of the contest dormant.
RB: John Stones – 5/10 – Spent most of the match tucked into midfield, trying to unpick the opposition without a great deal of success.
CB: Manuel Akanji – 6/10 – Not overly worked defensively, leaving the attempts to break down Leicester to his teammates.
CB: Aymeric Laporte – 6/10 – Often threaded the ball through the first line of Leicester’s block, setting City’s possession game on its way.
LB: Joao Cancelo – 6/10 – Rotating with Grealish as City’s widest player on the left, Cancelo snuck a few silky passes between a pair of Leicester legs.
CM: Kevin De Bruyne – 8/10 – Aside from his moment of magic, De Bruyne roamed around in search of the ball and space, taking it upon himself to find a chink in the blue wall.
CM: Rodri – 6/10 – Directed City’s swathes of attacks from the base of midfield.
CM: Ilkay Gundogan – 5/10 – Bursted forward from midfield, adding another body for Leicester’s well-staffed rear-guard to deal with.
RW: Bernardo Silva – 5/10 – Held a very wide position on the right, trying to stretch the opposition laterally but was often left isolated.
ST: Julian Alvarez – 5/10 – Gamely scuttled around but was swallowed in a sea of blue for much of the contest, failing to capitalise upon Haaland’s absence.
LW: Jack Grealish – 5/10 – Afforded no space to run with the ball, limited to little darts down avenues which invariably proved to be cul-de-sacs.
SUB: Ruben Dias (72′ for Akanji) – 5/10
SUB: Phil Foden (77′ for Alvarez) – N/A
Manager: Pep Guardiola – 4/10 – Can’t be afforded a great deal of credit for watching his side be stymied in open play before De Bruyne bailed him out.