Why quartet could decide title: 5 things from Leicester 0-0 Man City
1. Fab four yet to work it out
Last night's match at Leicester was only the third time that De Bruyne, Sterling, Silva and Aguero had been named in the same starting line-up
Manchester City made a real statement of intent when they signed Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling for a combined sum of £103m in the summer. With David Silva and Sergio Aguero already in situ, it raised the prospect of a new attacking fab four at the Etihad Stadium.
On paper it's a quartet that has the quality to help City get back to their title-winning ways – with a little help from their midfield friends Yaya Toure and Fernandinho. The question was always going to be whether the foursome could function together.
Former Villarreal boss Manuel Pellegrini knows a thing or two about getting the best out of attacking talent – remember how he allowed the majestic Juan Roman Riquelme to shine for the Yellow Submarine – but things haven't been straightforward for City's new attack.
Last night's match at Leicester was only the third time that De Bruyne, Sterling, Silva and Aguero had been named in the same starting line-up. Much of that has been down to injuries, with Silva and Aguero sidelined for periods. But Fabian Delph was intriguingly chosen ahead of Sterling at Arsenal, perhaps partly because a quartet that could be unplayable has yet to completely gel.
Although all four have produced outstanding moments individually this season, they have not yet convinced together. They started as a quartet for the first time in the Champions League at Borussia Monchengladbach in September but City were trailing 1-0 when Silva was replaced by Jesus Navas, and Pellegrini's men turned it around to win 2-1. Similarly when they started together at home to Newcastle, Pellegrini brought on Navas for Sterling at half-time with the score at 1-1. Only then did City go on to win 6-1.
At the King Power Stadium, City certainly didn't play badly, and Leicester have earned the right to be considered one of the league's toughest opponents. But again Pellegrini's attacking quartet couldn't deliver goals.
Sterling was the brightest on the night, attempting four shots (three of them on target) as well as creating two chances in a role pretty much alongside Aguero up front. Silva created four chances from the left, although De Bruyne was less convincing on the right; he gave the ball away 12 times from 46 attempted passes and succeeded with only three of his 16 attempted crosses (many of them corners). The Belgian has scored 10 goals and provided 10 assists since joining City, but only two of those goals and one of those assists have come away from home.
Aguero struggled the most. All five of his shots were off target and he was replaced by Wilfried Bony on 64 minutes after looking off the pace as he makes his way back from a heel injury.
"We know him, he needs two or three games to return to his normal performance," Pellegrini said afterwards. "I didn't want him to play more than 65 or 70 minutes, but we will see the best of him in the second half of the season."
Whether City can get the best out of their fab four between now and May could yet decide the title race. City are only three points off top spot as it is. If they can find another gear, the Premier League trophy may head back to the Etihad.
2. Inler's introduction worked for Leicester
The Switzerland international made eight ball recoveries as well as completing four tackles and four interceptions
Leicester boss Claudio Ranieri opted to start with three central midfielders for the match, as Gokhan Inler came in for only his third league start for the Foxes in a holding role behind Danny Drinkwater and N'Golo Kante.
One suspects that tactical change was made so that Inler could keep a close eye on City's attacking midfield player – whether that be Sterling, Silva or De Bruyne – in the visitors' expected 4-2-3-1 formation. As it was, City played something closer to a 4-4-2, albeit an unusual 4-4-2 with two deep-lying central midfield players, meaning that Inler actually didn't have a player to mark for large periods.
Leicester's formation switch still worked well though and Inler, linked with a January move to Schalke, showed that he could still be of some value to the Foxes. The Switzerland international made eight ball recoveries as well as completing four tackles and four interceptions. It was in possession where he struggled, having completed only 16 of his 23 passes in the middle third.
Drinkwater made 11 ball recoveries and Kante also impressed again with a highly industrious display, particularly in the opening stages. Ranieri was happy with the outcome of his formation switch. "I think it was good," he said. "Inler covered very well, and Drinkwater and Kante were free to attack."
3. City's first clean sheet without Kompany
This may have been Manchester City's eighth shut-out of the season, but it was their first without Vincent Kompany. The influential skipper has missed large chunks of the season through injury and faces another lay-off after suffering a calf problem against Sunderland on Boxing Day. Kompany watched this match from the stands alongside third-choice goalkeeper Richard Wright, forever the faithful companion of any injured superstar.
Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala haven't proved to be the finest central defensive partnership this season but they did well in this game. Otamendi made 12 clearances – four more than anyone else on the field. Nine of them were with his head, and he also won seven of his 10 defensive aerial duels, as well as making four interceptions. Mangala made eight ball recoveries and completed six clearances.
4. Vardy isn't a lone striker
He was left to play the targetman role at times and competed for 13 aerial duels during the match, 11 more than any other player
Leicester's formation switch helped to keep Manchester City at bay but did mean that Jamie Vardy had to plough a lone furrow up front, supported by widemen Riyad Mahrez and Marc Albrighton.
Vardy had possibly the best chance of the game when he blazed over, after high pressing had forced Fernandinho to lose possession in a dangerous area in the first half. The forward had three shots in total but was not at his influential best and completed only eight passes in the entire 90 minutes – a tally surpassed by Navas, who appeared for only 16 minutes, and City goalkeeper Joe Hart.
Part of the problem lay in the fact that Leicester weren't playing to Vardy's strengths. He was left to play the targetman role at times and competed for 13 aerial duels during the match, 11 more than any other player. He won only four of them and will have been relieved when Leonardo Ulloa was introduced as a substitute to take on the aerial burden.
5. What, there are two wings on a football pitch?
Almost all of their attacks went down one wing, with left-back Christian Fuchs raiding to good effect
Leicester's player influence map was a sight to behold at half-time. It featured nine outfield players crowded somewhere over on the left, with right-back Danny Simpson wondering where his all mates had gone. They were definitely there at kick-off, he knew that much.
The Foxes focused heavily on the left flank in the first half, with Mahrez drifting infield from the right whenever possible. Almost all of their attacks went down one wing, with left-back Christian Fuchs raiding to good effect. Leicester also pressed heavily on that side, perhaps wary of De Bruyne's threat, leaving Simpson to deal with Manchester City's marauding left-back Aleksandar Kolarov on the other side. All the best, Danny, you're on your own.
Thankfully things evened themselves out a little in the second half and Simpson was reunited with his friends, possibly just as he was contemplating whether to call 999 to report that he hadn't seen them for nearly an hour.