Back with a bang
After 16 games for the Foxes without a goal, Vardy’s sensational hat-trick inspires champions to sink Guardiola’s men
When Pep Guardiola won his first Champions League title seven years ago, the high-point then of Jamie Vardy’s career was still a first-team place at Stocksbridge Park Steels and when finally their careers intersected it was an experience the Manchester City manager is unlikely to forget.
A hat-trick for Vardy after 16 games without a goal, a vintage counter-attacking, hard-running, high-pressing hat-trick that exposed every weakness in a Manchester City team who were three goals down after 20 minutes. The champions turned into Guardiola’s team’s worst nightmare and at their heart was that awkward English striker with the non-league career who hounds defenders whether they can pass the ball or not.
In the tunnel before the game, Vardy leant across to shake the hand of John Stones, and with 20 minutes of the match left he scored a goal that turned a bad evening for his England teammate into a disaster. Misjudging a ball back to Claudio Bravo, Stones inadvertently played in Vardy who finished masterfully from an angle that gave him little of the goal to aim at.
Every bad Manchester City performance is made worst by a Stones mistake that returns the debate to the fundamentalism of Guardiola, unshakeable as ever in the aftermath of his second straight league defeat. There was his usual refusal to blame his players and praise for two late goals that halved the margin of defeat but came much too late to have an effect on the outcome.
Perhaps most remarkable about was his reaction to being told that in a dismal opening 35 minutes his team had not won a single tackle. “The second ball is a concept,” Guardiola responded. “It’s typical here in England when they use a lot of tackles. I am not a coach for the tackles. I don’t train for tackles. What I want is to try to play well and score goals. What are tackles?”
Guardiola does not, he says, measure success by tackles won but it was hard to ignore the fact that a few more tackles against a side as direct as Leicester was precisely what was required.
“You have to win the duels, that is true,” he said. “But normally when you play well you win tackles. After four minutes, at 2-0 down, the mind of the players is ‘What is going on? What happened?’ It is not easy for them. It is another aspect of football but in the end we are not going to win or lose because of the tackles.” His team have won just two out of their last seven games since the Champions League victory over Barcelona and without the suspended Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho there was a distinct lack of defensive steel and attacking edge. Kelechi Iheanacho was a poor replacement for the Argentine, replaced after 58 minutes by Yaya Toure who was an unlikely central striker for the last half an hour of the game.
Guardiola conceded that in defeats to Chelsea and Leicester his team have simply not been good enough either defensively or in attack although he was adamant that Stones should not be singled out. That instinct not to blame is one of Guardiola’s best points and Stones will benefit from his faith but never more has the young Englishman looked more in need of a commanding defensive partner like the injured Vincent Kompany.
“Except for the last goal, which happens, he [Stones] put in a good performance,” Guardiola said. “Of course central defenders are [typically thought of as] just defending and putting the ball long or strong in the air. We are asking him for a little bit more, not just defending and it will help us make a good build-up.”
In the early Leicester blitz Guardiola sat glassy-eyed in the dug-out swigging from a water bottle and watching the ransacking of a team that seems to understand his instructions but currently cannot make them work.
With 10 changes from the team that lost 5-0 to Porto midweek, Claudio Ranieri’s team looked transformed.
The Italian said afterwards that strong words had been said following that defeat in the Champions League and without a win in five league games before this victory. “We spoke a lot about everything but this time the words all go in the right direction,” he said. “The players said the right things. Of course we had to be upset by our performances because they were not good enough.”
Ranieri’s team played their visitors the way they played so many last season, and Guardiola’s side approached the game as if they were unaware of how one of the most astonishing league titles of all-time was won in 2015-2016.
The man who converted the direct approach into goalscoring chances was Riyad Mahrez. Islam Slimani created the first two goals and was a constant threat. The first came when Mahrez played the ball in to Slimani who slipped it through for Vardy to run on to and score within three minutes.
Just past the four-minute mark, City’s defence was unable to defend a Christian Fuchs throw, headed on by Robert Huth and laid off by Slimani for Andy King to hit a fine shot. The third was made by Mahrez’s delicate single touch on Fuchs’ long ball over the top, cajoled into the path of Vardy, who put Bravo on the ground with a flick of the hips and ran on to score. On Mahrez, Ranieri said: “Only he can do this. He can do it with one touch. Incredible? It is not incredible, it is skill.”
Given the ball by Stones with 20 minutes left, Vardy hit a fine shot from an extremely difficult angle from the right side. The ball clipped the inside of the far post and was scooped out by Bacary Sagna who, the technology demonstrated, had not got there in time to stop it from crossing the line.
Only in the later stages did Leicester concede when Aleksandar Kolarov scored a fine free-kick from the right side and then substitute Nolito tucked away a cross from the left. But that was all much too late.
Lethal: Jamie Vardy scores three times as Leicester crush Manchester City