Sunday saw an in-form Leicester side visit Villa Park in hope of registering an eighth consecutive league victory which would take them five points clear of third-placed Man City. With Brendan Rodgers having recently signed a contract extension until 2025 and Jamie Vardy leading the league’s goalscoring charts, there is much reason for optimism at the King Power Stadium going into the festive period. Aston Villa, on the other hand, have struggled this season in their return to the Premier League and found themselves just above the relegation zone.

This tactical analysis will explore some of the key moments in the match and discuss the merits of both teams’ playing styles. It will offer an analysis of the effect in which the two teams’ contrasting tactics had on the outcome of the match and will provide insight into their performances.

Lineups

Dean Smith was able to recall Anwar El Ghazi and Douglas Luiz to the home side’s midfield in what was a 4-1-4-1 formation. Marvellous Nakamba was responsible for offering protection to the back four whilst captain Jack Grealish was tasked with being Villa’s creative spark in midfield to find Wesley Moraes who was to lead the line up front on his own. 

Premier League 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Leicester - tactical analysis tactics

Having tweaked his team’s tactics during midweek from a 4-1-4-1 to a 3-5-2 which saw them come back from behind to beat Everton, Rodgers opted to field his side in a 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield. This saw a rare start for 23-year-old Kelechi Iheanacho with England International James Maddison lining up just behind him in the number 10 role. The pairing of Jonny Evans and Çağlar Söyüncü continued at centre half in front of skipper Kasper Schmeichel. 

Advancing full-backs leave Villa defence exposed

Rodgers’ decision to field a diamond in midfield enabled Leicester to overload Villa in the middle of the park but it also left them more exposed in wide areas. Ahmed Elmohamady and Matt Targett understandably reacted to the wide space in front of them by advancing up the flanks when Villa were in possession. However, when both full-backs pushed forward this furthered Leicester’s threat from counterattacking positions. 

In the picture below, Villa are dispossessed in midfield and Maddison soon receives the ball in the opposition half. As both full-backs had taken up advanced positions during Villa’s attack, their centre back’s at the time, Björn Engels and Ezri Konsa, were forced to track Leicester’s two centre forwards, Vardy and Iheanacho.  As Iheanacho had dropped deep and left a large space between himself and his striker partner, the Aston Villa centre-halves were stretched between each other as well as their full-backs, offering Maddison plenty of space to play a ball into Vardy.

Premier League 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Leicester - tactical analysis tactics

Vardy has proved himself over the last five years as a potent force in counter-attacking situations whilst playing on his own up front, yet Sunday proved he was equally as effective whilst playing alongside a second striker. Iheanacho’s intelligent movement effectively stretched the Aston Villa defence and created space for both Vardy and Maddison to exploit. In the image below Iheanacho receives the ball in a deep position which draws Konsa out of position. He then plays a through ball into the path of Maddison who finds himself in possession alongside Vardy in a two on one situation alongside against Villa’s Engels.

Premier League 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Leicester - tactical analysis tactics

Despite not starting in the league for twelve months, Iheanacho would have bolstered his chances of further opportunities after registering an assist and a goal despite only playing just over an hour. This performance should also give Rodgers confidence in starting him alongside Vardy in a striking partnership.

Leicester threat from attacking space behind Villa’s defence 

One month shy of his 33rd birthday, Vardy’s favoured playing style of receiving the ball behind the defenders has by no means diminished and Sunday was a clear example of that. In fact this weekend he was able to guide young Iheanacho, almost ten years his junior, exactly how to execute these runs. Both strikers offered numerous dangerous runs into the final third and displayed skill in masterfully executing the optimal timing, starting position, direction and acceleration of these runs to trouble the Villa defence.

Premier League 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Leicester - tactical analysis tactics

This was manifested in the image above as they both beat the off-side trap to run onto a well-timed ball from Maddison. After Vardy received it, he continued to drive at pace into the edge of the area whilst Iheanacho made a promising central run into an empty box.

Premier League 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Leicester - tactical analysis tactics

As with Leicester’s second goal, Iheanacho’s near post runs proved to be a significant threat to the home side. The visitor’s attacking style of running from deep and at pace left little time for Villa’s defenders to react to a late change in direction. In the passage of play below as well as for his goal, Iheanacho enters the penalty area in a central position and then makes a darting run to the front post. The speed in which he bursts forwards, as well as the body shape of the defender, who is facing towards the ball-player out wide, enables Inheacho to lose his marker and receive the ball in a dangerous area.

Premier League 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Leicester - tactical analysis tactics

Shortly after the hour mark, Rodgers withdrew Iheanacho, leaving Vardy upfront on his own. This was a role in which the veteran striker was more accustomed to and he posed an equally effective threat to the Villa goal. Vardy stopped drifting wide or coming deep and instead remained centrally poised between Villa’s two central defenders, ready and waiting to pounce on a counter-attacking through ball from the midfield.

Premier League 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Leicester - tactical analysis tactics

Leicester’s fourth goal came from Praet’s long ball into what was a completely empty Villa half but for Tom Heaton in goal. This left it to a race between Vardy and Targett to which there was really only ever going to be one winner. Again Vardy used his intelligence and experience to hold his run perfectly such that he crossed the halfway line at full speed whilst the ball was being played. The threat which Vardy and Leicester pose from these positions are exacerbated by opposition defences playing a high line which leaves plenty of space behind them for Vardy to run onto. 

Maddison soon becoming the complete Number 10

Maddison excelled on Sunday in what was a very well-rounded performance for the England International. He showed his versatility in supporting the Leicester front two from a variety of different passages of play which earned him two assists. Not only did Maddison prove himself as a shrewd passer of the ball by threading balls between the front two, he also displayed signs of posing threats from effectively delayed runs through the middle and into Villa’s penalty area. This unsettled the Villa defence and at times created a 3v2 between the attackers and Leicester’s centre halves.

Leicester’s second goal was a clear example of Maddison’s attacking threat from wide positions. As he delayed his diagonal run into the left channel to draw out Villa’s substitute centre half Engels. 

Premier League 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Leicester - tactical analysis tactics

When the ball finally arrived at Maddison’s feet, the neat passing combinations in the build-up play which he had partaken in had given Leicester’s midfield and strikers time to take up attacking positions in the box. With four teammates to aim for in the area, he opted for a front post cross into a diagonal run of Iheanacho who could divert the ball goal-bound. 

Premier League 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Leicester - tactical analysis tactics

With Leicester starting the match with two strikers and a diamond in midfield, Maddison took well to playing just behind the front two by astutely timing his runs in between Iheanacho and Vardy. In the image below, Iheanacho adopts a wider stance which draws Mings out of his typically disciplined central position. Maddison then sprints into the gap between the two strikers to take the ball into the six-yard box and shoot at goal. This ability to join the attack as a three gives troubles the Villa defence as it gives license for one of the strikers to drift out wide and play a pass into an oncoming Maddisson. 

Premier League 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Leicester - tactical analysis tactics

Finally, when Rodgers tweaked his formation and opted for a lone striker, Madisson proved his worth by combining with Vardy’s hold-up play. In the picture below, Maddison can be seen driving into final third at pace with Vardy ahead of him. With little option for a ball in behind, instead Vardy comes short to set-up Leicester’s number 10 for a good effort from the edge of the area. 

Premier League 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Leicester - tactical analysis tactics

Wesley – ineffective and unsupported

It was a tough afternoon for Aston Villa’s striker Wesley in which he cut an isolated figure for large spells and failed to trouble the Leicester defence. There was a lack of fluidity in Villa’s final third as the midfield struggled to find Wesley in open positions. 

Perhaps out of frustration, Wesley reverted to drifting out wide to find space and attempt to generate attacking pieces of play. Unfortunately, this resulted in a counterproductive fashion as it inhibited Grealish as they could be found both occupying the same position. In the picture below, both find themselves within a meter of each other and the touch line. This leaves no target up front to aim for as well as the threat of Villa’s most creative player Jack Grealish, nullified. 

Premier League 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Leicester - tactical analysis tactics

With no forward player to aim for as well as Villa’s left full-back being marked by Maddison, Wesley struggled to play it out from the left flank and lost possession with Aston Villa in a compromising shape. This gave Iheanacho space to attack from Leicester’s right side and find Vardy in the final third. 

Premier League 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Leicester - tactical analysis tactics

With both full-backs way out of position and Tyrone Mings struggling to back-track, Leicester managed to take the lead from this counterattack which was caused initially by Wesley losing possession. 

Again in the image below, Wesley drifts out to the left with little effect as Luiz makes a run down the wing. As a result Villa’s midfield had to adapt to the absence of a striking option by John McGinn being forced forward and El Ghazi having to adopt a more narrow position. From the perspective of Leicester’s back-four, this is considerably easier to defend against as those midfielders are both outnumbered and are unable to hold the ball up as effectively as Wesley.

Premier League 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Leicester - tactical analysis tactics

A dangerous counter attack at the end of the first half also saw Villa unbalanced as Wesley again took up a position in Grealish’s left flank. Instead of stretching the Leicester defence and making himself a central target in the attack by running into the space between Ben Chillwell and Söyüncü, he stays close to ball carrier. This allows Leicester to defend compactly and outnumber them in a 5v3 in a tight area.

Premier League 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Leicester - tactical analysis tactics

Later on in the match, Wesley became slightly more effective by adopting deeper starting positions which enabled him to bring Aston Villa’s attacking midfielders into play. In part helped by the more attacking stances of Villa’s two wide players, Wesley was able to come short in the picture below and hold the ball up to combine effectively with Grealish which lead to a shot in the area from El Ghazi.

Premier League 2019/20: Aston Villa vs Leicester - tactical analysis tactics

Conclusion

Leicester enjoyed a comfortable 4-1 victory by playing to their attackers’ strengths whilst in possession. Rodgers’ tactical prowess guided his side to entice Aston Villa’s full-backs out of their own half only to expose their centre backs in counter attacks against the pace of Vardy and Iheanacho. What Leicester’s narrow midfield diamond lacked in terms of width, they more than made up by outnumbering Villa in central positions and Maddison proved an effective link to transition to the ball into the strikers’ path. Aston Villa failed to support Wesley up front and the indiscipline of their defence was exposed on multiple occasions by a Leicester side who registered a club record eighth consecutive top flight victory. 


Total Football Analysis Magazine #16: December 2019

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