Breaking into the top six of the Premier League seems merely impossible given the quality of players and finances possessed by the teams near the top of the table. However, Leicester City has managed to break this trend twice, once when they pulled off the greatest story the Premier League has ever seen and won the title, and secondly this season where under Brendan Rodgers they have developed into arguably the most well-balanced team behind Liverpool and Manchester City. The development of this Leicester City side is nothing sort of sensational and the work of Rodgers and his staff deserves enormous respect. They currently sit third in the table and with football returning soon they will most certainly be looking to maintain this and gain Champions League football.
As mentioned, the most important aspect of this Leicester side, as will be the theme of this analysis, is how well balanced they are in all positions of the pitch. Going forward, they have scored 58 goals, which is the third-best in the Premier League and only bettered by Liverpool and Manchester City. Jamie Vardy has 19 goals this season which makes him the top scorer in the league thus far. This highlights a key reason as to why they are up there in terms of goals scored. They have also kept 10 clean sheets, which again is the third-best in the Premier League rankings. Çağlar Söyüncü and Jonny Evans have been one of the best centre-back pairings in the league this season, this coupled with Kasper Schmeichel behind them has meant Leicester has developed into a rigid defensive unit. It is, therefore, clear to see why they have had so much success at both ends of the pitch.
This tactical analysis will take a deeper look into Leicester City in the 2019/20 season and provide reasons as to how they have managed to develop into one of the most well-balanced teams in the league. The scout report will also examine the tactics used by Brendan Rodgers and how this has allowed the Leicester players to flourish into such a well-balanced setup.
Leicester’s attacking play
Throughout the 2019/20 season and under the reign of Brendan Rodgers, Leicester operate with three forwards. This can be in the form of a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-1-3 with James Maddison playing slightly more advanced. However, the main point is that they like to use three forwards in attack. They have a huge pool of attacking talent, however, their most effective front three this season has been Ayoze Pérez, Jamie Vardy, and Harvey Barnes. As has been mentioned, Vardy is the top scorer in the league with 19 goals. Pérez has seven goals to his name, whilst Barnes has six, therefore giving the forward three a total of 32 goals between them. These are excellent numbers and it means between them they account for more than half of Leicester’s goals this season. This, therefore, highlights the effective nature of the front three itself.
When we compare Leicester’s front three to others in the league, it is clear to see how impressive their goal record is. It is also vital to see how they fair off against some of the league’s best attacking talent. Liverpool’s front three, Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino have the same amount of goals in the Premier League with 32. Liverpool’s front three are often regarded as the best in the world, so to have this record highlights how impressive Leicester’s front three is. A Manchester City front three of Sergio Agüero, Raheem Sterling, and Bernardo Silva also has 32, which is identical to Leicester. It is hard to quantify what Manchester City’s best front three is, as they often change and rotate, however, it highlights that Leicester’s attacking numbers are right up there with the best in the country.
What is also vital is the positions they take up. There is a huge variety in terms of how close they play to one another. When Leicester are counter-attacking, often away from home, the front three will be a lot closer together in order to get through on goal through fast-break transitions. This is similar to Liverpool’s front three, who also play closer together. Having players closer together also allows the full-backs to play wider, which will be discussed later.
Below is an example of Leicester’s counter-attacking play when they demolished Southampton 9-0. We can see Pérez, Vardy and Barnes extremely close together as Leicester are coming forward on the counter-attack. This increases the chances of them scoring with the pace and attacking prowess they possess. Their variation in attacking play is crucial for this to occur.
As mentioned, a key benefit of having the wingers in a narrower position is that the full-backs are allowed to come wider to get involved in the attacking play. This is an aspect of Leicester’s play which is crucial going forward. Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell have both been fantastic going forward and are vital for Leicester’s attacking play. This is not to say there aren’t other excellent full-backs at the club, however, these two, in particular, have been dreamlike. Pereira this season has three goals to his name, which is the fourth-best for a defender in the Premier League. Ben Chilwell has two making him the joint ninth-highest scoring defender, which highlights the role of the full-backs when going forward. The pairing also has five assists between them which once again highlights their contribution. Their positioning is also vital for analysis. They often enjoy being by the touchline to attract the opposing full-back/wing-back. This is crucial in games against teams with the low block as it means more space for Leicester’s attacking players.
Below is an example of Leicester’s full-backs in action, in a 3-0 away win at Newcastle. Notice how their positions are right by the touchline, to allow space for the attacking players to roam into. Of course, the intention is to get forward whenever possible whilst maintaining a caution to get back in case of a Newcastle counter-attack. The full-backs are, therefore, critical in this Leicester side.
However, despite the overall narrative of Leicester’s attacking play being based around the forward three being narrow, there is often a level of variation in terms of their positioning. The best phrase to describe Leicester’s front three is versatile as there are also times where they stay slightly more apart from one another to allow the likes of Maddison to get into the spaces on the inside channels. Pérez, Vardy and Barnes are all extremely athletic and mobile which means rotation and moving into different positions is not a problem for them. Kelechi Iheanacho, on the other hand, is much more suited as a central striker and, therefore, is not the first choice in comparison to the usual front three. Being able to have the forward three play in several systems of attacking movement and positioning is vital for any good team to be successful and in Pérez, Vardy and Barnes, Leicester has this in abundance.
Below is an example of this from Leicester’s 5-0 home victory against Newcastle. We can see in this particular example, the front three of Leicester are wider apart than in the earlier image. This, as mentioned, was a way of getting the likes of Maddison and Youri Tielemans more involved in the central areas of the pitch. This, therefore, highlights key tactical flexibility within the Leicester setup which allows them to play a variety of styles when they go forward. This means it is harder for teams to work them out as the system they play will depend on the team they are playing.
Leicester’s central midfield
Leicester’s front three is, therefore, crucial however, the most important aspect of their team and any successful side, is the strength of their midfield. The most effective midfield three that Leicester put out regularly is Maddison, Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi. This midfield three has to be considered one of the most well-rounded in the Premier League, right up there with Liverpool and Manchester City’s. They can defend, create chances and provide goals and assists which is vital for any modern midfield. In terms of creativity, Tielemans has three assists whilst Maddison has six. This highlights the creative nature of Leicester’s midfield. Creativity aside, Wilfred Ndidi provides a strong spine to the Leicester side and is one of the best defensive midfielders in world football. He has made 91 tackles this season, which is only bettered by Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Ricardo Pereira. This, therefore, highlights what is the perfect balance of the Leicester midfield.
One of the key aspects of this midfield is the use of triangles in their attacking play. The three central midfielders of Leicester will often position themselves in a triangle shape to gain a numerical advantage in attacking situations. This also is a great way of creating space for Maddison or Tielemans to run into and potentially create chances from. This is an aspect of Leicester’s game which is Rodgers has brought in which has suited the players significantly.
Below is an example of this from Leicester’s 4-0 home victory against Aston Villa. We can see Maddison, Tielemans and Ndidi in a triangle-based shape, which allows Tielemans to get into the space created and Leicester end up scoring from this attacking play. The use of the triangle in this situation, therefore, allows space to be created and a goal to occur. This highlights the efficiency of the build-up system Leicester have in place.
Despite Leicester’s midfield being extremely well balanced, the player that makes them tick in terms of getting the ball forward and having an attacking influence on the game itself is Maddison. His influence on the game and ability to get forward into space to create chances is vital in this Leicester team and Maddison has become one of the hottest prospects in world football. As mentioned, Maddison has six assists and three goals. This may not seem like a significant amount, however, playing in a top team such as Leicester means the reliance is not as heavy on Maddison as opposed to Jack Grealish at Aston Villa for example. He has an 83% pass completion rate with an average of 48 passes per game. This paints a more accurate picture as to Maddison’s influence on Leicester’s hold of the ball and his general ability to dictate a game of football. His spatial awareness is also first-class and he can find space in positions that allow him to get the ball forward into the likes of Vardy. This spatial awareness is critical for Leicester’s attacking play and can be seen as a major reason for Leicester’s attacking success.
Below is an example of this from Leicester’s 2-0 away win at Crystal Palace. We can see Leicester on the counter-attack and Maddison getting into a great space where he can receive the ball and potentially create a goal-scoring chance. He always seems to be open for a pass to come into him in an area of significant danger to the opposition. This allows Leicester multiple attacking avenues when going forward.
The final aspect of Leicester’s setup is their defensive solidity. After losing Harry Maguire to Manchester United in the summer of 2019, many thought they would struggle to keep clean sheets and be a solid defensive unit. As mentioned, Leicester has the third-highest number of clean sheets in the Premier League with 10. The introduction of Söyüncü and his partnership with Evans has allowed this to be possible. Söyüncü has made 49 tackles thus far in the season, with Evans making 37. Söyüncü has made 128 clearances with Evans making 139. Of course, defending is the job of the entire team, however, the two centre-backs have been fantastic this season and made the loss of Maguire seem minimal. The understanding of the Leicester back four always seems to be in sync. When they defend, they defend fantastically well as a unit and they are also able to play out from the back. This combination has made them extremely strong in defensive situations. Evans and Söyüncü are not blessed with pace, however, their reading of the game and understanding of the play itself makes them essential in any Leicester lineup.
Below is an example of this defensive solidity from Leicester’s 2-1 home victory against Tottenham Hotspur. We can see the Leicester back four extremely narrow and compact, denying spaces for Spurs to run into. The line is also high, which means that the players in front can press more effectively. It could, therefore, be said that Leicester’s positive attacking play comes from their defenders being aggressive and well-drilled defensively.
An interesting dynamic that can also be analysed is the role of Ndidi in Leicester’s defensive stability. As has been mentioned, Ndidi has averaged 91 tackles this season, in comparison to Evans with 37 and Söyüncü with 49. There are many reasons for this. Ndidi is excellent at defending the counter-attack and is excellent in stopping the opposition. It is not the case that he is the first to press in a low-block as he often sits between the centre-backs when Leicester are defending deep. However, It is mainly his body positioning and defensive IQ allow him to be in positions whereby defenders can’t get past him. His body positioning when engaging in a tackle is very similar to Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who, with his body positioning encourages the attacker to try and get past him as he knows that he will able to make the tackle. Ndidi has the role of the destroyer within the Leicester team and this is the main reason as to why his tackle rate is considerably higher than the two centre-backs.
It could also be said that Ndidi is so good at making these sorts of tackles in various areas of the pitch that the centre-backs are not required to make huge amounts of tackles. When committing to an analysis we often disregard such individuals and their importance in the team. The role Ndidi does in this Leicester side is as important as any other.
Below is an example of this taken from Leicester’s home victory against Bournemouth. We can see his body positioning in such a way that the player on the ball is going to lose the ball either way he goes. This highlights Ndidi’s unique ability to tackle and win the ball back for Leicester in defensive situations. His responsibility in terms of winning the ball back is one in which he fulfills extremely well and can, therefore, explain his high tackling rate.
It is not a surprise that since Leicester have managed to stop leaking goals as they did under previous management, they can score a higher amount of goals. There is a link to be made between having a solid defensive line and scoring more goals. It is the case with Leicester that the attacking players have a belief in their defenders and Kasper Schmeichel which gives them greater peace of mind when they are looking to go forward on the attack. Söyüncü, in particular, has transformed the Leicester defensive line into one which is a lot more aggressive and intent on winning the ball back. Credit once again must be given to Rodgers for allowing this transition to occur. Within previous regimes, there was a lack of cohesion amongst the defensive line which led to some horrific results due to a lack of defensive spine. This has significantly changed under Rodgers and it has allowed a greater overall balance within the team.
Below is an example of this defensive organisation from Leicester’s 2-1 victory over Everton. We can once again see Leicester’s defensive line extremely well compact and close together. The main thing to notice in this particular image is the lack of space between each defender. This is excellent defensive play, as it means Everton have to go wide to attempt to try to score. Söyüncü has made a huge difference in this regard and his aggressiveness and organisational desire have transformed the Leicester defensive line.
To conclude, the development of Leicester City this season has been fascinating to analyse and huge credit must be attributed to Brendan Rodgers for the tactical setup he has produced to allow the players to flourish and to be in a position whereby they look nailed on for Champions League qualification. The attacking nature of their front three, the flexible and expansive nature of their midfield and their solid defensive line have allowed this to be possible. The analysis that Leicester is a ‘well-balanced’ team may seem simplistic, however, to find this balance is something that not many teams are capable of. The likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal are all trying to find such a balance and as a result, have been overtaken by a club that is well-run and focused on bringing success on the pitch.