With a sublime bit of skill to create space and a vicious rasp into the corner, Kevin De Bruyne announced his return to the City lineup in style last Tuesday against Leicester City in the Carabao Cup. Just over a week later, City face the same opponent in the league and their talisman should again prove the difference. City have generally weathered his spell on the sidelines well, but his presence is surely an early Christmas present to all City fans.
The issues of De Bruyne’s absence were laid bare all too quickly in the subsequent defeat to Crystal Palace on Saturday. With Palace’s narrow 4-5-1 forcing the issue and City’s entirely second-choice midfield of Gundogan, Bernardo and Stones unable to pass through the center, most of the attack was sent to Sterling and Sane on their respective wings.
Unfortunately, fullback is an area where Crystal Palace have strength and they rode strong performances from Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Patrick Van Aanholt, with excellent help in defending provided by Townsend (Twelve’s top-rated Palace player in the game), to limit City’s attack. Sane and Sterling combined to lose possession 13 times and had just three successful dribbles out of 15 attempted.
The worry is that Leicester present a similar set of challenges. Fullbacks Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira are two of Leicester’s best players, they defend quite narrowly, and can still present obvious danger on the counter-attack with the pace of Jamie Vardy. From a statistical perspective, you can see just how close Leicester and Palace are in terms of xG/shot and shots allowed in the below graphic.
City are really going to need to find a way to be able to attack through the center and put pressure on Maguire and Morgan. This is exactly the area where Kevin De Bruyne thrives both with his passing vision (like setting up Sane with a glorious throughball late against Palace) and his ability to conjure something out of nothing (as with his beautiful, if probably unintended, late goal in the same game). It’s easy to forget how amazing he was last year and was easily Twelve’s top-rated City player.
On the other side of the ball, City should be able to handle Leicester’s attack in most situations. Leicester average the third most crosses per game this season and have the worst completion percentage. So much of their attack is directed down the wings, but with strikers whose strengths do not include aerial ability, the crosses they constantly send in are of limited value. Leicester have been getting the rub of the green too with over a quarter of their goals from penalties and own goals.
The obvious caveat is that they also have the most counter-attack goals in the league along with Liverpool, a nice strength to have in a game when you probably won’t have the ball much. A quick counter started by Pereira with some nice interplay between James Maddison and Vardy against Chelsea on Saturday earned them three points and is exactly the sort of danger Leicester present. And as for their knack for earning penalties, Ederson’s aggression combined with Vardy’s pace means I’m not confident they won’t earn another here.
Still, I’d expect City to win with De Bruyne and Silva (rested on Saturday) back in the fold. Last season, it could reasonably be said that City were too dependent on De Bruyne. Given how well City have survived his absence that’s clearly no longer the case. However, no one can replace his eye for a pass that will be critical in outfoxing the Foxes once again.