It’s a game of inches. Regardless of the sport, the most minute distance can turn a basket into a brick, a first down into a punt, a home run into an out. Unfortunately for Leicester City, those few inches on the pitch turned a would-be equalizer into a counterattack that put their match with Manchester City out of reach.
A Riyad Mahrez free kick deep in Manchester City territory looked promising after Jamie Vardy headed a pass to Vicente Iborra right in front of goal. A quick-thinking Ederson punched the ball away before Iborra could connect, but the ball was punched right to Harry Maguire, who shot first time at a wide-open net.
And hit the post.
Twenty two seconds later the ball was in the back of Leicester’s net, the Citizens were up 2 – 0, and the match was out of reach. But this Manchester City counterattack showed the biggest positive Leicester City can take from this match: the play of central defenders Wes Morgan and Maguire. The hustle and determination shown by two of the slowest players on the pitch almost stopped a goal seconds after Maguire nearly equalized the match.
Despite the fact it was a defender who came close to scoring for Leicester, players on the Foxes back line rarely shoot. In an era in which statistics are kept for everything, the Premier League keeps a ranking of shots taken by defenders. You have to go far down this list to find a Fox. (The first is Maguire with four shots sitting at number 46.) Even the far-forward-playing tandem of Christian Fuchs and Danny Simpson don’t look to score. And why would they? When your attack includes players like Jamie Vardy, Mahrez, Demarai Gray, and Shinji Okazaki, there is no need for defenders to do anything but defend. This is usually the case when Leicester is on the pitch, as Morgan and Maguire seldom come past the half-way line.
Except for on set pieces. On corners, the two center backs are always in the opposition’s box. It’s the same on deep free kicks, which is what Mahrez and Gray prepared to take in the 48th minute of the match. The target of the kick was the player Leicester looks for on almost all set pieces: Iborra. Gray faked taking the kick, then Mahrez sent the ball to Marc Albrighton at the far post. After getting it under control, Albrighton crossed to Vardy, who headed a pass to the hard-charging Iborra. Next came the punch, the shot, the post, and the break.
Maguire’s shot hit the post hard enough that the accompanying ricochet essentially started Manchester City’s counterattack. Fernandinho took possession already heading upfield. One pass to Kevin De Bruyne, another to Leroy Sane, and Manchester City were quickly in the opposite penalty area. Luckily for Leicester, several Foxes players were set up to defend this counter. Fuchs and Gray were either level with or behind the ball before Mahrez kicked it, and Wilfried Ndidi was not in an advanced position on attack, allowing all three to quickly recover. By the time Sane brought the ball into the box, joined by Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling, he was met by five Foxes: Fuchs, Simpson, Gray, Ndidi and . . . Harry Maguire.
The man who 10 seconds earlier was a few yards from the opposite goal managed to track back quickly enough to almost keep pace with some of the fastest players in the league. By the time De Bruyne got off his shot, Morgan was also back, giving Leicester defenders a seven to four advantage. If not for a goal-of-the-month-worthy strike from De Bruyne, Leicester would have neutralized one of the deadliest counters in the game because its central defenders refused to quit on the play.
The hustle showed by Morgan and Maguire is indicative of the desire shown by Leicester since its most recent run in the Premier League began four short years ago. Foxes Never Quit is not just a clever slogan, it’s a phrase that encompasses the effort put forth week in and week out by a group of players who have consistently defied expectations. From certain relegation, to the most improbable of titles, to a quarterfinals run in the Champions League, Leicester City players achieve because they are willing to put in the effort it takes to sometimes topple more talented foes.
While this effort may not have led to any points against Manchester City, it almost stopped a goal that, on other days against other teams, would likely have been conceded without the need for a world-class shot. Because of the determination shown by defenders on a team known for its attacking play, manager Claude Puel knows the center of his back line is set. After a match from which not many positives could be found, Leicester City can rest assured that in Wes Morgan and Harry Maguire, the club still have at least two Foxes who will never quit.