Enzo Maresca once wrote a thesis entitled “football and chess” and, on this compelling evidence, it is easy to see why Leicester’s manager is so obsessed with two games he believes are all about positioning.
Maresca’s only problem on Teesside was that Michael Carrick shares similar ambitions to become a tactical grand master. Thanks to a combination of a clever gameplan and Sam Greenwood’s sublime 83rd-minute free kick, Middlesbrough’s manager duly enhanced his burgeoning reputation as a top coach in the making.
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Raw statistics might suggest that Leicester’s previously inexorable momentum has suddenly stalled, but they do not tell the whole story. Indeed, this latest setback was arguably much more about Carrick’s assiduous homework than any wheels falling off the visiting wagon.
Granted, Leicester are now merely level on points with Ipswich at the top of the table and eight ahead of third-placed and fast-improving Leeds, but Boro are far from shabby and must be regarded as promotion contenders themselves.
“It’s a big win we really needed against a very good, very well-coached, team,” said Carrick. “We were very good out of possession and our concentration was spot on. Everyone really nailed the details. It was an immense effort from everyone, a real team effort.”
As befits two sets of players expertly schooled in building patiently from the back, and intelligently drilled in out-of-possession manoeuvring, these teams delighted in second guessing each other.
On paper, and in flashes on the pitch, Maresca’s side were distinctly superior but Carrick’s players knew their stuff. With Jonny Howson and Matt Crooks alternating between man marking the influential Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall and Harry Winks, for once disappointing, Leicester were frequently frustrated.
Despite the lack of clear-cut goalmouth action – although Middlesbrough’s excellent goalkeeper Seny Dieng performed wonders to keep out Jannik Vestergaard’s first-half header, and Leicester’s Mads Hermansen did likewise at the other end to deny Dael Fry – the unfolding tactical duel would not have been out of place in the Premier League.
Greenwood lifts his free kick over the wall to seal victory for Middlesbrough. Photograph: Alex Dodd/CameraSport/Getty Images
It is not Carrick’s fault that the loss of four key players in the summer – his attacking duo of Cameron Archer and Chuba Akpom included – prompted a poor start to the season. The subsequent upturn has been impressive but the nagging fear for the 10th-placed Teessiders is that the need to play catch-up may still dictate that they end up in the playoff lottery once again.
It might have been different in another season, but Carrick believes the current edition of the Championship is “particularly tough.”
Despite this defeat, Maresca has raised the division’s bar, demonstrating precisely why he previously served as Pep Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City. Something of a Guardiola lookalike, he favours positional fluidity and sure enough Hamza Choudhury started as Leicester’s right-back before spending the afternoon alternating between that role and midfield as his side switched seamlessly from a back four to a three.
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Not that, on this occasion, such shapeshifting worked. Admittedly Leicester enjoyed plenty of second-half possession, but they struggled to deconstruct Carrick’s reassuringly obdurate defence.
Even so, Boro were tiring and their counterattacking threat seemed to be diminishing. When the previously quiet Kelechi Iheanacho forced Dieng into another fine save and then hit a post, while the exciting substitute Abdul Fatawu miscued a volley, a visiting goal seemed to beckon.
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Instead Leicester self-destructed. Choudhury conceded a dangerous free-kick and Greenwood lifted a swerving, right-foot dead ball over the wall before watching it dip and bend into the top left-hand corner. “Not that many people could pull that off,” said Carrick. “Sam’s got that knack but he practises a lot.”
Almost immediately Jamie Vardy ran on, but even the former England striker could not ruin Carrick’s day. “We created five or six chances,” said Maresca. “But we missed, missed, missed.”
This article was amended on 11 November 2023. An earlier version suggested this was Leicester’s second league defeat of the season. It is their third.