Accepting defeat the Alex Neil way
PUBLISHED: 12:42 10 October 2015 | UPDATED: 10:55 12 October 2015
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As Jose Mourinho’s bizarre seven-minute post-game rant to the Sky Sports cameras proved, it can be difficult to simply admit that the better side won on the day, but fortunately Alex Neil has rather more class.
In fact, as was always likely to happen at some point, City found themselves up against opponents who effectively beat them at their own game last week.
Leicester were excellent, and in Jamie Vardy possessed a lethal weapon on the counter-attack. Their work rate was high, their organisation impressive and they hunted in packs when City had the ball and broke at pace and in numbers when they won it themselves.
After a decent start from the Canaries, Leicester showed why they have been the season’s surprise package and, for once, Alex Neil was given a tactical lesson as Claudio Ranieri demonstrated why he has held so many big jobs in Europe.
By declining to press City too high up the pitch he was able to flood the midfield area and ensure that whenever the home side were on the ball they were faced by a disciplined bank of blue shirts who marked space as much as players.
While that meant that a pass might appear to be on, the recipient was invariably put under immediate pressure as what had appeared to be an opening was slammed shut.
The second goal was a perfect example; with a lot of City players committed forward, Jonny Howson received the ball with apparent space to move into, only to find an opponent closing from either side to steal the ball and launch a counter-attack which was executed with clinical efficiency. Ranieri’s tactics also ensured that very little space was available on the flanks, as a result of which City’s full-backs were largely ineffective as an attacking force, and as Wes Hoolahan was forced to drop deeper in search of the ball, Cameron Jerome was left increasingly isolated.
When City are at their best, passes are played quickly and instinctively, but Leicester were able to disrupt their rhythm and put doubt into the mind of the player on the ball.
City were hardly helped by the Consett cockerel, referee Mark Clattenberg, who turned in his usual chest puffing performance, but it was the Canaries’ sluggish first-half showing that was the ultimate cause of their defeat, a fact acknowledged by Neil after the game.
There is no doubt that a number of City players produced sub-par performances, but Saturday was also an indicator of just how quickly Premier League managers are able to assess and counter the strengths of their opponents, and Leicester’s success in neutralising much of City’s threat will have been noted around the league.
That’s not necessarily a cause for concern at this stage, because Neil is an adaptable and inventive manager, but there is currently a marked contrast between City’s effectiveness on the road, where four games have yielded five points, and their struggles at Carrow Road, where the same number of games has produced one point fewer.
At the moment City seem much more adept at playing against teams who come at them, leaving space to exploit, but are less comfortable against those that are prepared to sit in and play on the counter, and that will have to be rectified if this season is to be successful.
What is also slightly worrying is that City have now gone behind in five of their eight games, and a clean sheet still looks as unlikely as Mourinho showing humility.
The start so far has been solid, but Neil will expect to see more reward from games where City have such high levels of possession (66pc according to BBC statistics) as the season continues to take shape.