Has Manchester City’s title challenge ended before it had even begun? Even at this early stage of the campaign, that will be the worry for Pep Guardiola after watching a side of his concede five for the first time in his career.
A Jamie Vardy hat-trick condemned the pre-season title favorites to an emphatic 5-2 home defeat as Leicester City moved to the top of the table themselves with a victory that will live long in their memory.
What should frustrate Guardiola more than anything is that this was all so familiar? The city’s vulnerability to teams who sit deep and break fast on the counter-attack is no secret. It did for them time and again during last year’s failed title defense.
It did for them in Lisbon against Olympique Lyonnais. In fact, it is so well-established that Brendan Rodgers adapted his usual style of play in order to expose those limitations – fielding a back five and happily ceding possession.
Rodgers’ approach appeared to have backfired when Riyad Mahrez established an early lead but from thereon, practically everything went wrong for the hosts and in a worryingly predictable fashion.
Vardy’s pace was always going to be Leicester’s greatest threat but few expected the 33-year-old to plunder a hat-trick – including two from the penalty spot. Incredibly, City conceded three spot-kicks in all and not one was a contentious handball. Yori Tielemans completed the route from the spot, adding to a stunning James Maddison strike.
With no Sergio Aguero for at least a month and no Gabriel Jesus during that time frame either, there are few positives for City to take. The only comfort is that it is still early in the campaign but points were dropped in their first home outing last season, a 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur.
That setback – with its controversial climax and VAR-related grievances – colored the rest of City’s season. This was such a conclusive defeat, it has the potential to do the same.
It all began so well for City, too. James Justin’s headed clearance of an early Kevin De Bruyne corner only went as far as the edge of the penalty area, where Mahrez was waiting to feed on scraps.
One swing of his right boot was enough to produce the spectacular, the ball flying into the top left-hand corner. Mahrez wheeled away with a skip and a fist pump. It may have come against his former club but this goal was far too good for any muted celebrations.
Leicester’s low-lying, five-man defensive block had been breached within four minutes but even so, this would not be plain sailing for City. Far from it, in fact. The visitors soon settled down and not only began to frustrate City’s movement in the final third but started to construct menacing counter-attacks of their own.
Fast breaks collapsed at the feet of Harvey Barnes and James Justin but slowly and surely, Leicester were finding their way through.
The equalizer arrived via the penalty spot. Guardiola fumed inside his technical area when the decision came, but on a weekend of controversial calls, he could have no complaint with referee Michael Oliver.
Kyle Walker’s foul on Vardy was clumsy and so too was City’s defending in transition. Once again, they had been torn apart on a counter-attack. Having won the decision, Vardy put his foot through the ball and found the top left-hand corner emphatically.
Barely five minutes had passed at the start of the second half when Guardiola decided he had seen enough. Fernandinho, so impressive in the win at Molineux last Monday, had been repeatedly bypassed in midfield and was replaced by the 17-year-old Liam Delap, son of Rory and a debut goalscorer in Thursday’s EFL Cup victory over Bournemouth.
It was a sign of how unhappy Guardiola was with the performance, but it was just about to get much, much worse.
Vardy has reinvented himself in recent years as he has grown older, becoming less and less involved in Leicester’s all-round play. The 33-year-old is the frontman of few touches in open play but those few touches are typically significant.
This one was sublime. A first-time flicked backheel finish from only a couple of yards out diverted Timothy Castagne’s cross from the byline over a diving Ederson and in. It was the type of goal which City typically scored at their peak under Guardiola but it would now be their undoing.
Three minutes later, Vardy had his hat-trick. Eric Garcia looked as though he would be one of the few City players to emerge with any credit, having done well to marshall Barnes during the first half, but then came an awkward and late challenge on Leicester’s goalscorer inside the penalty area.
Having put his laces through the first, Vardy placed this second spot-kick hard and low into the corner. Ederson, once again, had no answer.
With more than half an hour remaining, a City response felt inevitable but Leicester would extend their lead first. Maddison’s goal was the most spectacular of all seven though brutally simple. After cutting inside from the left flank unchallenged, the playmaker opened up his body and bent a shot towards the top right-hand corner.
A brief show of resistance came from Nathan Ake, heading in his first City goal from a corner, but Guardiola’s side would concede from the spot once more.
Benjamin Mendy was the guilty culprit on this occasion, brushing Maddison as he drifted along the edge of the area. It was the softest of the three but still a correct decision. With Vardy substituted, Tielemans rubbed salt in the wounds as Leicester became the first Premier League side to ever score three penalties in one game.
That should say everything about just how careless a performance this was from City, and just how much work Guardiola has to do.