Why does this feel like a loss? We won the match today 2-1 at the Sanchez Pizjuan, and we led the match throughout, held a two goal lead until the 73rd minute and seemed in utter control of the match for at least 85 of the 90 minutes. Our halftime possession was north of 80%, and we outshot Leicester 23-7. That away goal just feels out of place. It was our best team performance since the Real Madrid win, and I can’t point to a single player who had a bad performance. There were enough opportunities to kill this tie off, but at the same time there is only one missed clear cut chance (the penalty) that sticks out.
Sampaoli came out with a semi-surprising team selection, opting for Tucu Correa over Mudo or Ben Yedder. And honestly, it improved the fluidity of the team better than when those other two have been starting the last few matches. While Correa did not provide an option in the box by making near-post runs or pulling off his man, he did offer more in the way of hold-up play in midfield and quick flicks to release forward attacks into space. He made the correct reads off of Jovetic’s flick-ons. As a team, we didn’t really try to make runs in behind the defense, which is usually Ben Yedder/Vietto’s primary offensive contribution (although it’s mainly been Ben Yedder stat-padding his offsides totals recently). And he continued to show his mastery of the dark arts that Vitolo has surely taught him.
The penalty was annoying. We just don’t have a clear-cut penalty taker this year. The first three times Correa drew a penalty this year, Ben Yedder in the Copa and then Iborra took the ball away from him and scored. I understand the urge to reward a guy for continually creating opportunities for the team, but we have to settle on a primary penalty taker. We had Rakitic three years ago, then Bacca, then Gameiro (with Banega and Kono getting a couple chances). This year, we’ve had 6 guys take penalties. Kono (1/1), Sarabia (1/1), Ben Yedder (3/3), Iborra (1/1), Correa (0/1) and Nasri (0/1). Nzonzi scored one in the Europa League shootout against Bilbao, and Jovetic scored 8 while he was with Fiorentina. The failure to designate a penalty-taker falls squarely on the coach. I have no clue who the first option is. It should be Ben Yedder, but he was on the pitch against Villarreal when Nasri took it. Sarabia is probably the best second option. But we must create a defined hierarchy here. This freelancing has cost us twice this month.
I thought we were excellent defensively apart from the goal. Rami and Lenglet were tidy with the ball, and other than two or three questionable passes out of the back at the start of the second half, did well to hold their nerve and find either Nzonzi or Nasri. Lenglet did well multiple times when he was pinned to the sideline to play diagonal defense-splitting balls into Jovetic or Correa to initiate an attack. Mariano defended well for the most part. He held his position perfectly when he was 1 v 1 against Gray late in the match after one of our corners. But a lack of communication between him and Sarabia let Leicester outnumber them on 3 v 2 on the sideline and let Drinkwater get in behind. Iborra could not close him down in time and Carrico couldn’t quite cut out the perfect cross. Rami overcommitted trying to help Mariano and Sarabia and left a huge space for Drinkwater to run into. Escudero was excellent throughout, obviously in attack but Leicester did nothing down his side of the field all match. And that cross was a thing of beauty.
Nzonzi demonstrated to all the EPL-blinded skeptics who only remember him as a Stoke player that he is indeed one of the best CMs in the world. His positioning is world class. He seemed to recover every Leicester defense header or hoofed ball out of the defense. He was calm under pressure and filled the attacking space when we countered late. Nasri bounced back from an anonymous performance against Eibar and dictated most of the attacking play for the first 75 minutes. He played a ridiculous ball in behind that Vitolo nearly squeezed in from an impossible angle, but there were a couple of times where he really needed to just put the damn ball in the box or have a shot. He was the primary culprit of us taking our foot of the gas in the last 15 minutes. From a fan’s standpoint, that was incredibly frustrating though I understand tactically how it may have been the right decision as the match was getting more and more stretched at that point.
Which brings up another point that continues to frustrate me. There is no reason not to use all of our substitutes. Sampaoli came out after the Atletico match (and Lyon too I think) basically saying that he doesn’t see substitutes as an obligation, but simply as an option. Literally speaking, that’s true, but as that match got more and more stretched, we really should have made a third substitution to attempt to change the direction of the match as Leicester started to gain a little more influence. Mudo seemed like the obvious attacking option, but then who do you bring off? Sarabia and Jovetic were still influencing the match, and Vitolo’s earned the right to play the entire match. So that leaves Nasri, who played fantastic. Do you bring him off there? I probably would have, but it’s not an obvious solution.
Sarabia better being getting a sitdown with Monchi and Pepe Castro to sign an extension and raise that release clause soon. He’s been the signing of the season, not just for us but for all of La Liga. At this point, I think he has relegated Mudo to a bench role, because he has been every bit as good as Vitolo in his two way contribution. Jovetic also continues to be amazing. His hold-up play and flick-ons are great, but his ability to both run the channels and be basically the only option in the box is invaluable. Ben Yedder is good in the box, but he’s basically not a threat when he gets dragged out wide. Vietto is the opposite. That Jovetic offers both makes him a perfect fit for us. And the control to set up Correa’s goal was crazy.
We head to Leicester in 3 weeks. A lot can change in that time. Leicester has too much individual talent to be playing this bad, and they’ll surely have Slimani back by that time. Qualifying for the quarter-finals is not going to be easy, and an away goal is imperative. Today was a great team performance. It’s annoying how one goal, in a game that we won and dominated, can completely change the emotions.