Leicester City vs Manchester United, FT 1-1
[English Premier League, 28/11/2015]
Given a) the general feeling about how Manchester United are playing, and b) it’s Leicester, this was something of a surprising ‘top of the league’ November match. ‘Something of’ being an understatement, more aligned with Louis van Gaal’s United playing seat-of-the-pants attacking football than simply being a mild shock. It may also have seen (and, spoilers, did) Jamie Vardy breaking Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record for scoring consecutively in Premier League matches.
For Leicester, the unassuming title-challengers of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth lined up; for United it was a back 3 of Paddy McNair, Chris Smalling, and Daley Blind. All 5 played for the full 90 minutes +added time.
Somewhat predictably, given that Leicester’s tactic is to sit back and score on the break and United’s is just to sit back, much of the game was played in the midfield area of the pitch, and Leicester’s centre-backs in particular weren’t challenged very much for a large part of the match. Essentially, nothing interesting happened. If Manchester United indeed do mount a title challenge and, God forbid, win it, they may be the first team to provide a minor baby boom not through celebration, but through viewers looking for anything else to do. One imagines that home improvement will also see a small, but probably statistically significant across the nation, boost.
In terms of centre-backs, the most interesting thing to happen was to watch United’s back 3 trying to figure it out as they went along. After having watched Juventus’ 3 centre-back system in midweek (CB focus match report here: https://everyteamneedsaron.com/2015/11/26/juventus-vs-city-an-italian-job-well-done/), this was a very different experience. Pictorial evidence probably sums it up well.
At least one of the centre-backs are redundant in this situation, following a Leicester throw-in, and it summed up how they dealt – or, rather, didn’t – with the system. Whereas Juventus rotated fluidly amongst the back 5 (including the two wing-backs), at times moving into a back 5, at times one of the wing-backs moving back and the opposite centre-back moving across to become a more conventional full-back. United, partly because it isn’t their primary system, partly due to the unsurety of Darmian, McNair, Young, and (at times) Blind, looked rather porous, which didn’t help when Leicester were motivated following their goal.
The goal itself, as you’ve probably all seen by now via the television or Vine, featured none of the three centre-backs, coming from a Leicester break following a United corner. United’s goal also did not really feature any CBs, a Schweinsteiger header from a corner.
Smalling, as the central of the three United centre-backs, sometimes stepped up out of the back line as a low defensive midfielder, and was often the one to bring the ball out of defence. This, in theory, is not a problem, though with Smalling’s ball-playing ability it sometimes becomes one. On the whole, he was ok. There was little for him to do. He could possibly have helped McNair through the match a bit better, as some better organisation in the back line was SORELY needed.
McNair generally seemed to have more difficulty adjusting to the role of a right-sided centre-back in a 3 CB system with the various transitions in positioning that involved. In a back 2 it’s fairly easy to know where you should be, because it’s generally ‘at the back’. In a back 3 it could mean being a narrow centre-back, a wide-centre back in a kind of right-back position, a right-back as the right wing-back pushes further up, an extra midfielder in a wide defensive midfield area, all of this depending on the other centre-backs, that side’s full-back, and the central midfielders.
Blind was generally quieter, largely competent, though as a more experienced member of the defensive unit should also bear some responsibility for its rather disorganised nature, though he did once tell Smalling to go more centrally as poor McNair was on his own with two Leicester players lurking around him. He and Smalling, the elder members of the back line who have played together quite often this season, did not quite perform to their maximum.
[Here, a lack of communication by Blind and Smalling could have ended much worse had Blind’s header skidded off his head slightly differently]
On the Leicester side, they defended much like Chelsea’s centre-backs last year which is another way of saying ‘as deep as they could go without stepping on their keeper’s toes’. This generally masked what deficiencies they have, for I don’t think anyone is arguing that Morgan and Huth are of a calibre to be playing in a Top 4 side.
For much of the match – certainly for virtually the whole of the first half, if not the first hour – the complete lack of attacking movement around them meant that they were fairly comfortable. It was clear though, when there was some sort of movement around them, that this was a large part of why they play such a deep line with protection in front of them.
Morgan was probably the better of the two, though this may be partially because he didn’t expose himself by coming out of the back line as often as his partner. His awareness, while not stellar, was better than Huth’s, though still a bit off the pace, an interesting example of such being his stutter-step runs below when tracking Rooney (who, despite current feeling, does still possess some good footballing features).
Huth, meanwhile, often lost runs when runs were, eventually, made, such as the below where he carries on side-skipping back towards goal as if Martial and Mata aren’t making runs past him.
And also provided one of the more amusing moments of the match, misreading a pass from Martial so simply bodychecking the intended recipient (for which no foul was given, a decision I was surprised by).
In all, Leicester’s centre-backs looked like lower mid-table/upper bottom third players, playing as part of a well-organised team defence while United’s looked like they need to play a hell of a lot more in that system in training. This may be controversial, but I also feel that there was a sense among them partially of defenders who know that they are behind a good defensive system and have lost some sharpness as a result.
As such, I can’t honestly give an ETNAR centre-back of the match award. No-one really deserves one.