Analysis of Leicester City’s 3-1 Carabao Cup defeat to Liverpool, focusing on Maresca’s strategy, the performance, Conor Coady, Harry Souttar, and Kasey McAteer’s goal.
Before Leicester City’s trip to Liverpool, Enzo Maresca made it plain that their growth under his management could not be assessed by their performance at Anfield, as opposed to the pre-season match against the Reds two months before. There was no comparison between a competitive game and a friendly halfway around the world.
Despite this, the Carabao Cup clash on Merseyside felt more like a practice match than a true game due to the attitude City and Maresca used. The manager has frequently stated that he judges his team by their performance rather than their results, yet the scoreline here felt more insignificant than ever.
To begin, there were ten modifications. While this is not uncommon in the Carabao Cup, the players brought in by Maresca demonstrated that it was more than just rotation. After a two-month injury layoff, he gave Conor Coady his first game. He gave Harry Souttar his first season start and Marc Albrighton a rare start. Patson Daka came off the bench for his first minutes of the season.
Then there was the focus on the style of play. Maresca revealed post-match that his target for the 90 minutes was simply to see his team try to do what they have been doing all season, but against a better opponent. He didn’t want them to lose sight of the game plan just because it was Liverpool.
Then, at half-time, with the club halfway to their first win at Anfield in nearly a quarter of a century and a famous upset on the cards, Maresca said he was still “not focused on the result”. That sounds very much like a pre-season game. It also proves his own undying commitment to his style of play.
So with that approach, it didn’t really matter that City lost. It didn’t matter that their record-breaking perfect run on the road came to an end.
The focus is clearly to win promotion out of the Championship, no matter how Maresca tries to play that down. If and when they do that, City will hopefully then be in a place where they can go away to famous grounds in cup ties with the aim of winning, rather than practising.
City’s Premier League potential not yet clear
So judging City on their performance, rather than the result, the best thing that can be said is that, as Maresca put it, they were brave. Even with the countless moments where they were robbed of possession inside their own defensive third, or where Jakub Stolarczyk very nearly had the ball pinched off his toe, they continued to try to play it out from the back.
But the promising moments City did have in moving the ball about the pitch were never sustained long enough for them to create many opportunities. And their losses of possession often led to big chances for Liverpool. The shot count by full-time was 29 to four in favour of the hosts. City got to half-time with a clean sheet, but their goal had lived a charmed life up to that point.
It probably didn’t help City’s cause that they scored inside three minutes. The energy and efficiency shown by Marc Albrighton, Yunus Akgun, and Kasey McAteer to win the ball back and race through Liverpool was excellent, but it provided a reminder to Jurgen Klopp’s side that this was not a game they could win in first gear. They stepped it up thereafter.
But it was always going to be a struggle. Last month, Maresca said City were 10 to 20 per cent of the way to getting the team where he wanted them to be. To have a chance of an evenly-matched game against Liverpool, the best team in the world out of possession according to Maresca, they would need to be close to 100 per cent.
It’s like being chucked in the middle of the ocean when the armbands have only just been taken off. It’s like cycling the Tour de France when you had stabilisers on your bike two weeks ago. You’re going to come unstuck.
Ideally, City would have drawn a mid-table Premier League side, which would have provided a better indication of their progress and how far they have to go to being ready for the top flight. There’s always the FA Cup.
Vestergaard has edge amid difficult Coady decision
Had he not fractured his foot in pre-season, Coady would have been one of the players rested for this game. Without injury, he would have been at the heart of City’s defence in nearly all of their matches up to this point. Now he is back, the question is whether he keeps his spot in the side. It may be too soon for that.
Again, it’s difficult to judge when the opponents are as good as Liverpool, but it felt like he was a little rusty on the ball. His passing wasn’t as composed as somebody with his quality and experience can provide, but that’s not a concern after two months out.
He did show his superb defensive instinct, rushing back to the goal-line to clear Cody Gakpo’s header from underneath his own bar, and also blocking another chance at the death as Liverpool looked to make it 4-1. Both were incredible bits of defending.
But it’s clear Maresca picks his team for their ability on the ball. So for now, Jannik Vestergaard could remain in that spot at the heart of City’s defence, and Coady will be the rotation option. It would be a difficult decision, but Vestergaard’s performances have not warranted him being dropped.
Coady is probably the better player when at his best. He brings more leadership qualities to the role. Plus, he is going to be here in the long term, which is unlikely for Vestergaard. But to get back to his best, Coady needs time. Maresca must choose whether he lets him build his way back up, accounting for mistakes until then, or whether he sticks with Vestergaard, who is probably the better short-term option.
Souttar proved he deserves to be considered
It’s Maresca’s focus on ball-playing that could stop Souttar from featuring more regularly too. Even with 10 changes made, it was a surprise to see the big Australian in the side on Wednesday night. It felt like he was too far out in the cold to be thawed in time for a game like this.
After an uncomfortable start in which he gave the ball away and conceded a free-kick, he did well. Defensively, he was strong. He didn’t look slow, and his positioning was good. But importantly as far as Maresca is concerned, his passing was decent too.
This was not only Souttar’s first appearance of the season, but his first time in a matchday squad since the opening game, and so he has truly been on the fringes. Maresca did not sound totally convincing when he said the defender is an option for him going forward, but it would be silly to overlook him, especially with City one man down following Callum Doyle’s injury.
At no point during his career with Stoke or City have there been any indications that Souttar isn’t good enough for the Championship. He should be considered as at least a rotation option.
McAteer mastered the most hardest skill.
The McAteer fantasy lives on. He had to be pinching himself after moving up two divisions to become a regular for City and then swiftly establishing himself as top scorer. He’s now been tackled in front of the Kop at Anfield.
His finale was confident, not like a young guy playing on the biggest stage he’d ever seen. It appears that Maresca’s trust in him has increased his self-belief, allowing him to take such risks.
Other areas of his game might be improved, but he appears to have mastered the most difficult part: getting into scoring positions and getting the ball past the keeper. That is a tremendous asset to have, and it has the potential to make him a significant member of this City team for many years to come.