Leicester have been the toast of the town this season, with their table topping exploits leaving all and sundry impressed. Ross Eaton takes a detailed look at what’s making them tick.
Sitting two points clear at the top of the table come Christmas was not the position anyone expected Leicester City to be in. Newly appointed manager Claudio Ranieri even stated himself that 40 points was the target for his side prior to the season, as 40 points usually ensures safety from relegation. Playing in a style of football which wouldn’t exactly be considered attractive by most, Leicester are certainly able to get the results irregardless of the popularity of their style.
The standard line-up from Claudio Ranieri is in a 4-4-2 formation. Kasper Schmeichel starts in goal. Danny Simpson the right-back, Huth, Morgan and Fuchs make up the rest of the back four, however, Jeffrey Schlupp sometimes plays as left-back, meaning Fuchs is left out.
The midfield is a relatively flat bank of four. On the right is Riyad Mahrez, however he is not stuck on the touchline as he very often cuts inside onto his left foot. Despite having the experienced Gokhan Inler in their ranks, Ranieri’s preferred midfield pairing is N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater, however Andy King has played alongside Kante recently due to Drinkwater’s injury. Marc Albrighton starts as a left winger.
Perhaps the first name on Leicester’s team sheet is striker Jamie Vardy. The in-form hitman has racked up a ton of goals, which we will look at later, as well as breaking a Premier League goalscoring record. Alongside him up top is usually Japanese forward Shinji Okazaki, although Leonardo Ulloa has also played alongside side, with Andrej Kramaric also featuring.
Foxes’ Structure in Defense
One aspect of Leicester’s game which they will have to improve upon further if they wish to realistically challenge for the title is their defence. Despite looking more solid in defence than they did last season, Leicester have actually only conceded six less goals at this point of the season than what they did at this point last season, this isn’t a significant improvement for a side who have jumped from last place to first in a year.
Looking at it in a positive manner, you can at least say that there looks to be a definitive structure put in place by Claudio Ranieri. Under Nigel Pearson last season, Leicester looked slightly chaotic when defending and at times even devoid of a structure. Ranieri’s very ‘Italian tactics’ seem to improved Leicester as a team. Ranieri is known to be greatly influenced by the wonderful Italian manager Arrigo Sacchi.
Sacchi liked his team to defend within a maximum of 25 metres between one another as well as having a compact unit both vertically and horizontally in order to compress the space for the opposition to play in. This is something which has been carried out by the Foxes this season, as we can see in the image below.
As well as showing the vertically compact banks, we can also see in the image that Danny Simpson has left the right-back position to press in the halfspace. It is not uncommon to see either full-back or even a centre-back, leaving the backline to press or track a runner into the second line. We can also see that while Albrighton has moved inside a bit to maintain horizontal compactness, he also has to be aware of a possible switch the opposite full-back or winger, in this case Ivanovic. This means Albrighton doesn’t move right alongside the central-midfielders, rather remaining in the left halfspace preparing for a possible switch of play.
In the situation of the opposition building out from the back, Leicester’s midfield will take up a line around the halfway line, perhaps a few yards higher, depending on the situation. The defence will then take a up a line around 10 metres behind them, this gives Leicester excellent vertical compactness and massively limits the space opposition players get in between the lines. While the midfield remain in a mid-block around the halfway line, restricting space, the strikers do most of the running. Vardy and Okazaki are both players with good stamina as well as being able to make a defensive contribution with their intense pressing, this makes them ideal players for the two forward roles. The front two cover the centre and either halfspace, mostly attempting to block passing lanes into midfield but also pouncing, springing into a quick press a when triggers occur, such as a loose touch or dribbling into a dangerous area.
As previously mentioned, the wingers don’t really do much pressing high up the pitch, this leaves them free a lot of the time when defending. When the situation is fit, Mahrez and Albrighton will support their full-back and double up on the opposition winger when the ball is on their side of the field, when the ball is on the opposite flank, Mahrez or Albrighton will tuck inside to the position we see Albrighton in, in the above image.
One of the key factors in Leicester’s increased defensive solidity is the performances of centre-backs Wes Morgan and Robert Huth. Huth was signed on loan in January last season, in a bid to add leadership and toughness to the leaky Leicester defence. His arrival saw a significant decrease in the number of goals Leicester conceded. Prior to Huth’s arrival, Leicester conceded an average of 1.7 goals per game, however after his capture, Leicester conceded on average of just 1.1 goals per game. Due to his impressive performances, Huth was rewarded with a permanent deal in the summer.
Robert Huth’s goalscoring impact
Captain Wes Morgan was also signed last season, although it was six months earlier and originally on a permanent deal. Morgan has been a key player for Leicester and has carried his Championship form into the Premier League.
Wes Morgan’s Goalimpact chart
Smoothening the Transition
Perhaps the strongest element of this Leicester team is their ability to transition into good positions for an attack so quickly after being in their defensive shape. One reason for this might be the fact they play a simple 4-4-2 shape that they both defend and attack in, making the shift into attacking positions not too long a distance to run. Due to the transition being a dangerous few seconds, as players are out of position, there are some managers who exploit the transition phase and use it to their advantage, while other managers, Pep Guardiola being one, attempt to lessen the time between attack-defence/defence-attack. Ranieri is a manager who has used the transition phase to his advantage during his time at Leicester, however, when doing so he also wishes for the transition to be as quick as possible.
Previous boss Nigel Pearson made the switch from 4-5-1 and 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2 formation last season, largely in a bid to improve the solidity of Leicester in their transition. This was done by adding more balance to his team. The two wing-backs in the 3-5-2 system had to be very aware of the other’s position on the field, if the RWB was high up the pitch then the LWB must be disciplined and remain in a position almost in line with the deepest midfielder, preparing for an opposition counter, this allowed Leicester to rarely be overloaded in a transition.
Current gaffer Claudio Ranieri has also considered the principle of caution in the transition. Rather than throwing a high number of players forward to counter-attack the opponent, Ranieri only instructs small numbers of players forward in the counter-attack. This decreases the chances of the counter-attack being successful as the opposition far more often have more players than Leicester do, however, this minimises the risk of a double-counter(where an unsuccessful counter-attack results in your team being counter-attacked) occurring.
The way in which Leicester are able to transition quickly from defence to having the ball in the opposition’s final third is mostly by long passes. It is clear that Leicester do not have a Jerome Boateng who is able to play effective short passes from defence, or a Sergio Busquets who can recycle possession and start attacks with quick passes from deep-lying midfield positions, or a Lionel Messi who comes deep to get the ball, but instead they have Robert Huth and Wes Morgan at the heart of the defence, two men who have grown to become quite good at the long ball, and Shinji Okazaki or Leonardo Ulloa, two forwards who are very good in the air. These are traits which are very suited to the long ball have been taken full advantage of by Leicester.
Data taken from whoscored.com
In the table above, this shows the large number of long balls Leicester play, as well as the low number of short passes they play. We can see that Leicester play the (joint with Norwich)fifth most number of long balls on average per game(70), beaten by only Man United(71), West Brom, Crystal Palace(72) and Watford(82). This data also shows that Leicester play the second least average number of short passes per game(261), compared to the most, Arsenal(510).
The movements as the transition begins are as follows. If the opposition counterpresses, then some quick combinations to escape the press will occur. Following this, Huth or Morgan will shape to play a long ball, as they shape to play the ball, Okazaki or Ulloa will move slightly closer to the ball into a position where they can challenge for a header, which they will attempt to flick on. As the ball is flicked on, Vardy will make a run onto the ball, attempting to break the last line with just one touch or even better, reach a flick-on which has beaten the defence.
Okazaki’s aerial ability is an attribute that has been hugely underrated and even underused throughout the majority of his career. This is probably down to the fact that he played as a winger a lot in Germany, however, for a guy of just 5’8 coming up against defenders probably averaging around 6’2, winning an average of 52% of his aerial duels this season isn’t too bad a record. Claudio Ranieri has made full use of this ability and his flick-ons have been a large part in Jamie Vardy’s success this season.
Shinji Okazaki’s Goalimpact chart
Remaining on the topic of Leicester’s transition to attack, there is more to the team than just long balls.
N’Golo Kante was signed from Caen in the summer for a fee reported to be around £5.6 million. It was presumed that Kante would be back-up to Danny Drinkwater and fellow new signing Gokhan Inler, however this was far from the case. Kante impressed Foxes fans with his hard-working yet technically gifted performances and earned himself a starting berth at the club, fast becoming a key player for the side. Sadly, there isn’t currently a Goalimpact chart for Kante, however, keep your eyes peeled as there is reportedly one coming soon.
Kante plays a big role in Leicester transitions to attack and defence, for now we will focus on his role in the counter-attack. In order to minimise Leicester’s predictability, they cannot play long ball after long ball as it will become easy to defend, to add variation, N’Golo Kante plays the role of ball carrier. One of Kante’s biggest strengths is his ability to dribble to ball from deep into the opposition half. His acceleration is very good, making him unpredictable and able to turn harmless possession into an attack, he is also quite strong for a guy of his size, this helps him brush off players in crowded areas during the transition, Kante also has excellent stamina meaning he is usually able to keep up his ball-carrying from deep for the full 90 minutes. In order to see Kante’s best display of ball-carrying from deep, give Leicester’s recent 0-3 win over Swansea a watch.
As shown in the previous data, Leicester play lots of long balls. We have already spoken about the number of long balls played to spend minimal time in the transition, we will now look at long balls played when in more comfortable possession.
Previously mentioned was the lack of technical ability in Leicester’s backline, which makes patient circulation inefficient and risky, as the players on the ball aren’t extremely comfortable with the ball at their feet. This makes a direct approach far more viable for the side.
A key point in Leicester’s long balls is goalkeeper, Kasper Schmeichel’s ability with the ball at his feet. Schmeichel’s distribution is among the best of all Premier League goalkeepers and it is an attribute Leicester make full use of. The stats below show Schmeichel’s dashboard from Leicester’s last three games. Blue and red arrows are attempted passes.
vs Manchester City
We can see that Schmeichel rarely, if ever, distributes with short passes or roll-outs. We see that he far more frequently aims towards the halfspaces, where Okazaki drifts to, to flick the ball on for Vardy. Although Leicester’s direct approach has served them very well, it at times makes them quite predictable and easier to defend than a team which uses skill of players in central positions or other, more attractive styles.
Due to Leicester lacking technical ability throughout their squad, and preffering to use a more direct, long ball approach, when the Foxes get into the final third, they have to rely heavily on individual brilliance. One player who is able to provide this is Riyad Mahrez. Enjoying some form last season but never consistently or overly amazing, Mahrez has been something of a revelation this season. With 13 goals and 7 assists in 20 appearances so far this season, Mahrez has attracted interest from some of the world’s biggest clubs, including Arsenal and PSG. The Algerian winger has however, declared that he wishes to remain at Leicester till at least the summer transfer window.
Riyad Mahrez’s Goalimpact chart
Some would argue that evolution in football has gone crazy, Pep Guardiola being the pioneer for recent changes in terms of wingers. During his time at Barcelona, Guardiola brought inverted wingers into trend, with Pedro and David Villa making runs infield, having more of an influence centrally than out wide. However, since moving to Bayern Munich, Pep has used traditional wingers far more often. Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman are two recent signings by Guardiola, these two players have been used as traditional wingers and perhaps show Pep veering away from the inverted winger trend. This season, Leicester have used a combination of the two, Marc Albrighton as more of a traditional winger on the left, while Mahrez has played as an inverted winger coming in from the right.
One of the factors which has impacted on Mahrez’s positive form has perhaps been to do with the freedom he has been given. Unlike the modern full-back, Danny Simpson puts defending first and is willing to give Mahrez the space he needs to work his magic, he also does almost all of the defensive work on the right flank, meaning Mahrez has plenty of energy to attack. A strength of Mahrez’s is his move of cutting inside onto his left foot, moving into the left halfspace. When Mahrez moves into the valuable halfspace position, this gives him vision of far more of the pitch than if he was to attempt to use his left foot while stuck on the right touchline. In the halfspace Mahrez has the option to shoot, or something he more often does, make a killer pass.
Taken from Spielverlagerung’s article on the halfspaces
Perhaps one of the reasons Mahrez’s technical ability has received so much recognition this season is down to his increased use of the halfspaces. If you are not fully aware of how valuable the halfspaces are then I would highly recommend giving this a read, it is an article written by the great analyst Rene Maric. The halfspaces are so valuable for players of Mahrez’s slight build as can be a rare pocket of space where technically gifted players can escape the physicality of the Premier League and allow their technical ability to shine. Leicester’s 0-3 victory over Swansea was probably Mahrez’s best game of the season, as well as a grabbing a hat-trick, Mahrez caused Swansea terror from the right halfspace. This was down to Neil Taylor’s wide positioning when defending, meaning a Swansea pivot(either Ki or Britton)had to vacate their central position to defend Mahrez in the halfspace.
Mahrez’s passing is an attribute greatly underrated, but something he uses very often to great effect. Mahrez’s passing has been a large factor in the wonderful form of Jamie Vardy this season, we will speak about the Englishman next.
Jamie Vardy’s Goalscoring Exploits
Breaking the record for number of matches consecutively scored in, as well as being joint-top scorer in the Premier League…this is not the description of a 50 million pound striker, this is Jamie Vardy’s season so far, a £1.4 million striker signed from Fleetwood.
Arguably the hottest striker in the Premier League this season, Vardy has certainly taken full advantage of his team playing to their own strengths. One of Vardy’s strengths is running onto balls over the top of the opposition defence, his pace makes a big difference in these situations. Striking partner Shinji Okazaki or Leonardo Ulloa alongside Vardy looks at times the perfect example of a ‘big one little one’ strike partnership. Okazaki’s and Ulloa’s ability in the air is brilliant for Vardy as their flick-ons allow him to play off his partner and make runs onto their flick-ons.
It is clear that over the 2015 summer, Vardy worked very hard to improve his game and prepare himself for a top season. The Goalimpact chart below shows his recent rise from an 103 to an 111.
One reason for Vardy’s rapid rise, as already stated was his hard work over the summer. An element that it is evident Vardy has greatly improved is his movement. The image below shows Vardy’s heat map in a match against Bournemouth.
The image shows that Vardy drifts into the halfspaces far more often than he remains in the centre, in fact the only time he is seen centrally is in the penalty area, to get on the end of crosses. Vardy’s halfspace usage is not when on the ball however, he moves into the halfspaces to find a space in between the opposition centre-back and full-back. He then exploits this gap with his pace, causing confusion as to who should mark him.
Despite Leicester showing recent signs of their early form faltering, there is no doubt that Claudio Ranieri’s side can realistically aim for a top four finish.
Graph from Michael Caley
The graph above shows that Leicester have a 51% chance of making the top four, greater than Manchester United or Liverpool’s chances. This shows Leicester’s rapid rise to the peak of English football.
The acquisition of N’Golo Kante has without a doubt been a big factor in Leicester’s success, as well as the form of Mahrez and Vardy, however, the biggest factor in Leicester’s success seems to be Claudio Ranieri playing to the team’s strengths. Schmeichel, Huth and Morgan are clearly suited to a direct style of play, Leicester have gone with a direct style of play. Kante benefits from being protected by another midfielder to allow him to burst forward, so he has been protected by another midfielder, Danny Drinkwater. Mahrez and Vardy excel when given freedom to link up and find pockets of space they can use to their strengths, they have been allowed to do that. These are all examples of how Ranieri has played to the strengths of the core of his team, and found themselves at the top of the Premier League. Even if Leicester were to finish outside the top six, any sort of top ten finish would be a terrific achievement for the club, considering their recent history.
Praise must go to Claudio Ranieri and his side for being brave and playing to their strengths, in a style that suits their individual players.
Written by Ross Eaton.
Ross Eaton is a Scottish analyst looking to find a full-time career in football analysis. Ross is a believer in a short-passing but fast, attacking style of play, this would correctly suggest his favourite manager may be someone named Pep Guardiola. Take a look at Ross' personal blog at http://boxtoboxcentreback.wordpress.com/.
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