Pep Guardiola’s experimental attack was enough for Manchester City against Leicester, but still needs work

LEICESTER — This then is the armory Manchester City have handed Pep Guardiola to fire his way to the summit of the European game. The striker never arrived and yet on the surface the English champions seem to be coping just fine, a 1-0 win over Leicester City moving them into second in the Premier League. They are the division’s joint top scorers and have its highest expected goals (xG) tally.

To that they added a further 2.61 xG off 25 shots in their win at the King Power. These are the sorts of numbers any other manager would be toasting in victory. Yet for City, who have set the bar higher than anyone else in recent English footballing history, you cannot shake the sense that there is more to come, that this attack might run aground against the best that the latter stages of the Champions League have to offer.

No one would seriously have contended in the aftermath of defeat in Porto that what the beaten finalists needed was Jack Grealish. The man that even rival fans just nickname ‘Super’ now is rather more gaudy embellishment then necessary addition to Guardiola’s arsenal. If he had not started on the left today that spot could have gone, with only a bit of positional shuffling, to any of Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez or Kevin De Bruyne, all waiting on the wings.

The general consensus was that someone to put the ball in the net as consistently as Sergio Aguero did was the missing piece. You may be able to win league titles by sharing the burden, with Ilkay Gundogan your top scorer on 13, but come the business end against Europe’s finest, City might just need a something from nothing striker like Harry Kane or Cristiano Ronaldo. Such a player did not come and almost certainly will not be coming in the midseason transfer window.

It did not say much for how the incumbent No.9 was viewed that there was no great clamor for the striking reigns to be handed to Gabriel Jesus. Not so long ago he seemed destined to end Aguero’s City career prematurely, the archetype of a Guardiola footballer. A demon in the press who could contribute to the build up and still get into scoring positions (his 0.66 non penalty xG per 90 minutes was the highest in the Premier League over the past four seasons) and finish with regularity. Yet it is clear that for the time being it will be Ferran Torres, a repurposed right winger, who leads the line for the champions. Remove the Spaniard from the equation as Guardiola did after Bernardo Silva’s opener and it only means another natural wide man, in this case Raheem Sterling, will go through the middle.

City have one senior striker and he spent more of this match with his boots grazing the right touchline rather than occupying Caglar Soyuncu and Jannik Vestergaard. Thats not quite the same setup as what became Guardiola’s default last season when Kevin De Bruyne was a hybrid playmaking pivot and target man around whom the rest of the attackers rotated. Torres was acting as a poacher instead, Jesus an orthodox winger.

Meanwhile further back Guardiola seemed to be enjoying trying new things. Bernardo, so often stationed in the right channel so that he can glide infield and shape the ball with his left foot, joined Grealish on the left to give City the option of attacking down the inside or outside.

“I like to have at least one of the players go on the natural side so when Grealish and Gundogan play on the left they are not on the natural side and they have to turn,” Guardiola said. “Before the wingers always played right footed right side and left footed left side but now we have a tendency to play right footed on the left. Now we have to have one on the natural side to be more effective in the final third.”

It is no surprise then that that sort of attack seemed to have its share of kinks in it. And so despite the statistical and territorial dominance they had over this contest you could not shake the sense come the final whistle that, had Joao Cancelo’s low shot not deflected into Bernardo’s path, this game was just as likely to have been decided by one of Leicester’s frequent Vardy-led breakaways.

For the most part Soyuncu and Vestergaard were able to hold City at bay. Bernardo and Grealish would scheme elegantly down the left, darting into the box only to find a blue shirt waiting for the inevitable cutback, while the center was ably clogged up by Wilfred Ndidi and Youri Tielemans, even if the latter’s clumsy distribution on the edge of his own box could bring unwelcome pressure on his defense.

Perhaps the only tactical wrinkle that did discombobulate Leicester was Jesus’ positioning. That was apparent from the very off when Ryan Bertrand spotted the No.9 a few steps away from being out of bounds. His face said it all, “that’s not where you’re meant to be mate.” Still no matter of opposition opprobrium would drag him infield before he was good and ready.

Gabriel Jesus’ involvement in Manchester City’s 1-0 win over Leicester City

It made for quite the headache for Bertrand. He kept glancing to his left, waiting for Jesus to pounce, but he had to be acutely aware that Gundogan was looking to probe the space between him and his center back. When City moved the ball quick enough to get away from Ndidi there was simply no chance for the Leicester left back. Pick your poison between Gundogan and Jesus. The latter should have done better when Bertrand had been dragged away from the back post in the sixth minute, heading an unmarked header straight at Kasper Schmeichel.

It was one of several chances from which City might have felt they could have done more. Torres snapped at more than one effort and on occasion seemed to take a touch too many. It is worth remembering that for all the goals the 21 year old has found early in the season he is still a relative rookie in this central role. There is only so much reason to worry about a bad game from Torres or any other striker when you can turn to Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden and De Bruyne on the bench.

Guardiola will have to experiment to build a frontline after the failed pursuit of a striker, he will have to try more Torreses through the middle and more switching of flanks for the likes of Bernardo. But when the raw materials are this exceptional even the early investigations can offer impressive outcomes.

With their attack not yet up to speed City have come through one of the Premier League’s toughest road assignments with a further three points and a hatful of chances. When they hit top gear it will take some stopping of them.

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