On 24 February 2019 Leicester City made the decision to sack Claude Puel after a run of six games without a win and sitting 12th in the Premier League. Fast forward to May 2020 and Leicester find themselves with a new manager and currently third in the league on 53 points, one point better off than the whole of last season with nine games still left to play.
The main question is, How? Within this tactical analysis we will break down the tactics and improvements under Brendan Rodgers, analyse the improvement of Jamie Vardy, and assess if Leicester have a chance of repeating their stunning success of 2016.
Tactical improvements – in possession
Leicester this season have moved on from the use of the 4-2-3-1 formation they often played last season under Puel and have relied on an attacking 4-1-2-3 in order to create more space and options when going forwards.
Over the course of this season, the change to the formation has certainly had a very positive effect on the performances. Leicester this season have outscored 17 other Premier League clubs, including the likes of high spenders Manchester United and Chelsea with 58 goals so far. The improvement is staggering as they only managed 32 goals in the 27 games Puel managed last season.
There is no doubt that Rodgers has come in and instilled confidence and the belief that the players he has are capable of scoring plenty of goals, but a slight adjustment in midfield has given players like James Maddison and Youri Tielemans license to go and attack.
As shown below, Wilfred Ndidi looks to stay as the lone sitting midfielder when Leicester has possession which is allowing Maddison or Tielemans to play in between the lines of Everton’s defence. This simple change had produced a lot more space for Ndidi to get on the ball in order to change the direction of play but has also allowed more options and space for players on the ball when looking to attack.
In the reverse fixture the season before, Puel’s Leicester played a very narrow shape when in possession, which becomes very easy to defend as there is less space.
Leicester here are compact with little passing options, full-backs are narrow and three midfielders are easily marked. The build-up play from midfield is slow as Leicester struggles to form any type of attack which has only produced eight shots during the entire game.
The narrow shape in possession continued further up the pitch with Maddison and Tielemans struggling to find space and with no options to stretch the play out wide, fans become understandably frustrated that the style of football that won them the Premier League only two seasons before had disappeared altogether.
Not only have Leicester created more space in central areas when building up play but they have also created more width when in the attacking half of the pitch. As seen below, Leicester have kept the front three players high and wide in order to stretch Everton’s mid-block and provide an outlet to switch the play if needed. With the pace and crossing abilities of Harvey Barnes and Ayoze Perez, Everton are trying to reduce the amount of 1v1 or 2v1 situations in the wide areas. With the constant movement of the centre midfielders and space now provided from Leicester’s width, Everton spends a lot of the game sitting in their own half which is highlighted by the home side enjoying 68% possession.
Tactical improvements – out of possession
Although Leicester has been shown to be more expansive when in possession, it’s their defensive organisation and record that has been most impressive in a much improved season. Leicester currently boasts the third-best defensive record in the league behind leaders Liverpool and newcomers Sheffield United with only 28 goals conceded, a huge improvement on the 38 goals conceded after 27 games last season.
Tactically, the change of the 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 has influenced the improvement defensively but most importantly it’s their organisation and desire to press that has been the stand out factor when it comes to Leicesters defending this season.
As seen below, Leicester’s 4-2-3-1 last season often turned into a 4-4-1-1 or at times 5-3-1 with the wingers having to track opposition full-backs and leaving space around the midfield for Everton to dominate possession and build attacks. The home side now finds themselves getting pulled out of their defensive structure and exposed, especially centrally.
In comparison to this season Leicester in the picture below, where they have kept their structure with Barnes and Perez coming in narrow and have left the space in the wide areas. Space in-between the back four and midfield five is limited and opposition teams are forced around, not through. Keeping the opposition team predictable when out of possession is the most important factor when defending and Leicester has certainly taken this message on board with the team only conceding 9.29 shots per game.
Another benefit of having wide players stay in their defensive structure rather than man-marking full-backs is that they have more space and time on the ball when possession does get turned over. Wingers then have a decision to make on whether to run into space with the ball or play over the top to Jamie Vardy, in turn, opposition full-backs are now too far up the pitch to recover.
The second tactical comparison is space in central areas. Leicester last season found themselves playing some sort of man for man system when in a mid to low block which has allowed players to be pulled everywhere, especially in central midfield. The image below shows Ricardo Pereira tracking a full back, Daniel Amartey, the full-back, tracking a winger coming inside, and Nampalys Mendy going to press a centre-back all within the first ten minutes of the game. This has exposed Leicester in central areas and was a common occurrence all game.
Again, if we compare this to the transformed Leicester of the current season we will see that an adjustment of formation and a disciplined structure has certainly changed their fortunes when it comes to defending. With a change in midfield, Ndidi is able to act as a front screen to the back four and with his excellent ability to read the play, is capable of filling full-back spaces or releasing himself to press when the opposition is forced backward. Maddison and Tielemans in midfield also have a higher start position in order to get closer to the ball when needed.
Here we see again, Ndidi being a useful screen when out of possession and Tielemans covering around in the central area if needed. Maddison becomes the first man to press when play is forced backwards and it becomes impossible for Everton to have any time on the ball or play down the middle.
Rodgers has clearly been working hard to get Leicester back to their defensive discipline, which saw them only concede 36 goals in a history-defining season for the club back in 2016. With the combination of a formation change, more width when in possession and a disciplined structure when out of possession it is easy to see why Leicester are earning that third-place spot in the league.
Jamie Vardy – the resurrection
When Vardy first signed for Leicester back in 2012 from non-league Fleetwood Town, not many people would have thought he would go on to score one hundred and nineteen goals for the club and make it to a World Cup. However last season under Puel, Vardy struggled to find the form that fans had come accustom to throughout his time at the club.
Vardy last season in the 23 games he played in the Premier League under Puel only scored eight goals, an average of one goal every 2.8 games. If you compare that to the 11 games Vardy played under Rodgers in that same season, he managed 10 goals in 11 games.
There are many other influences as to why a player is unable to find form in certain situations or under certain managers, it seems that Brendan’s man-management and change of tactical philosophy has helped get the best out of Vardy so far this season. As seen below, the narrow shape, the overload of players on one side, and slow tempo of Leicester last season has hindered Vardy’s main strength which is running into the space made by his teammates. Vardy struggled without the link of support from midfield and struggled without the space that was occupied by a number 10 player in a 4-2-3-1. Vardy was forced to come deeper to receive the ball surrounded by opposition players and without much time.
Leicester’s current tactical philosophy is a lot more suited to Vardy as it suits his strength and style of play by simply creating more space for him to work in. The adaptation of the 4-3-3 and the creation of more width has helped Vardy get to 19 goals so far this season and top of the Premier League goalscorer table. Below you can see, the difference in space and the use of a wide winger coming inside that helps create the space Vardy needs to run into it. If the ball doesn’t get played in behind, Vardy has the option to receive into feet with more space, that last season was occupied by a number 10.
Analysing his game, Vardy’s movement and runs haven’t changed much from last season. He still mixes his runs up, looks to come short and scores goals but the change of formation and the movement of his teammates has allowed him more time and space to on the ball to make much better decisions.
Rodgers’ constant support throughout the ‘goal draughts’ and his developments in possession has certainly given Vardy the belief he can stay top goal scorer of the Premier League and help push his team to a Champions League spot for next season.
Title Contenders – can they make a push next season?
Although Leicester has massively improved over Rodgers time at the club, there are potentially a few issues that he and club may have to solve in order to compete with the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City.
Firstly, an ageing backline to key players in the squad. Jonny Evans, Wes Morgan, Christian Fuchs, and Kasper Schmeichel together have made 74 appearances for the club this season and have an average age of 33.8. If we compare that to league leaders Liverpool who’s defensive players have an average of 26. That isn’t to say that older players don’t bring the experience that has helped Leicester so far this season but mobility, pace, and stamina all seem to be key characteristics for a defensive line now and the questions are whether Leicester can recruit defenders capable of contending for a title.
Secondly, opposing teams are adapting their game plans to counteract Leicester’s ability to counter-attack and create space. A perfect example is the analysis of the Everton team under Marco Silva. Last season, Everton arrived at Leicester playing a 4-4-2 and pressed all over the pitch at every opportunity and won the game 2-1. Everton this season, under the same manager, went with a five at the back and let Leicester have possession in an effort to deny the space in behind. Leicester still went on to win 2-1 in that game but have struggled at times this season against teams much lower in the table than them. Losses to Norwich, Burnley, and Southampton have proved they can be frustrated by opposition teams sitting off and in order to mount a serious title challenge they will need to be able to adjust to different game plans.
Lastly, there are certain weaknesses that come with leaving the space out wide and Leicester City need to be able to defend the crosses into the box better. Leicester take risks when trying to make the opposition predictable in wide areas but in order to prevent losses to teams they should be beating, they need to be doing the simple things right, such as defending crosses, is the most effective way of gaining valuable points in a title challenge.
Below are examples of how the opposition have managed to exploit the space in the wide areas and taken advantage of the time they have in that area of the pitch.
Example number one comes against Liverpool. Here we see Perez narrow in his shape and Alexander-Arnold with too much space and time to deliver the ball, resulting in their third goal of the game.
The second example we have is the goal they conceded against Norwich in a 1-0 defeat. Leicester’s full-back gets caught out in a 1v1 situation and failed to stop the cross. The centre backs get caught out 3v2 in the penalty area and Norwich get a well deserved win.
The last example we have is a goal they conceded against Southampton. Again Leicester getting caught out in the wide areas and failing to stop the cross.
This may be a harsh criticism considering how well Leicester have been defending this season but putting these weaknesses right will certainly help them challenge for the title and make their defensive record even better.
Through this analysis, we can see that Leicester City certainly made the right decision in appointing Rodgers as their new manager after a stale stint under Puel. The changes to the formation, a more expansive style in possession and a disciplined structure out of possession are bringing the best out of the players.
It seems Leicester have started the rebuild of the 2016 team that won them the Premier League and with strong recruitment in the summer, I can’t see why they shouldn’t be able to compete with likes of Liverpool and Manchester City next season.
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