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Sam Marlow writes about what has led to Leicester City’s dramatic fall from grace this season, and how they might solve that problem.
The astonishing success of Leicester last year can largely be attributed to the astounding ability of their defence to soak up a lot of pressure, frustrating many teams and forcing the opposition to commit more men forward than they would’ve liked, allowing for quick, sharp, effective counter-attacks. Fast forward to this season and Ranieri’s men look a shadow of the side they were last year. But what has changed so drastically to cause this shift in fortunes?
The deep defensive line last season put the onus on the opposition to break Leicester down. Frustrated teams threw men forward, leaving space for Vardy and Mahrez to exploit with great success. This season, the deep defensive line is still a characteristic of Ranieri’s team, but this is now proving to be extremely problematic rather than a driver for success. But why is this?
A deep defence leaves a lot of space to be occupied by the midfielders of the team without the ball: the gap between Vardy and Morgan is a big responsibility for only 2 central midfielders. Removing Kante from any team would significantly increase the workload of the midfielders, but add to the mix a defence that is sitting deep and an isolated Vardy, and it is no wonder that Leicester have struggled this year. The larger the gap between the defence and the strikers, the harder it is for the midfield to protect the defence.
So what should Ranieri do? A higher defensive line seems a risky and over simplistic remedy to Leicester’s woes. To play this successfully, a certain level of athleticism is required from the centre backs. You only have to look to Manchester City’s defensive struggles to see this exact same problem. Guardiola’s solution seems to be instructing the full backs to cut inside to shield Stones and Otamendi. This requires a lot of tactical discipline and the technical superiority to control games, which Leicester currently seem to be lacking.
Ranieri has limited defensive resources at his disposal, so it seems that he must come up with another solution to the deep defensive line issue. Adding an extra man in midfield may give Leicester a bit more control of games, and stop teams playing through them as they have done so far this season.
The image of Vardy running in behind and terrorizing defences with dynamic movement will no doubt stick in the memories of Leicester fans for years to come. However, opposition teams have wised up to this and are now sitting a bit deeper against Leicester. Teams showing Leicester the respect they rightly deserve as champions, are adding to the Tinkerman’s problems. Vardy can no longer run in behind and he has much less space to operate in. Ideally, the Foxes would have a striker who can hold the ball up, and bring Mahrez and Gray into play, but this seems beyond Jamie Vardy.
Leicester need to reconcile the double problem of a deep defence and an isolated Vardy. There is little time and space to experiment with in the Premier League. An extra man in midfield seems the obvious solution to both problems, but can any of Ranieri’s attacking options really play as a number 10? This role requires the ability to pick intricate passes and unlock deep sitting defences. Mahrez has the potential to play this role, but this would mean sacrificing the threat of him coming from out wide.
If the utilisation of a number 10 does not work, Leicester are left with little option but to make the midfield sit deeper to protect the defence, and play 2 up top. A more direct style of play might suit Vardy more, if it means he can run at defences again. However, it’s not as if Leicester possess a great aerial threat going forward. Whatever system there is that could remedy their issues, the Foxes seem to be missing a piece of the puzzle. But with the risk of being sucked into a relegation dogfight looming, a solution needs to be found quickly.
Curiously, Leicester have played brilliantly well in Europe. Their players haven’t turned bad over night, but the tactical demands of English and European football are very different. In the Champions League, they have been able to play their natural game. Vardy can run at defences just like he did last year, Mahrez has the space to cut inside and Morgan can freely utilise his physical superiority.
The tactical theme of the Premier League this season has been 3 at the back. Chelsea and Tottenham have most notably used it to counter teams that sit deep against them. It seems to be a good formation to use to create chances against weaker, more defensively minded opposition. Tottenham have used Eric Dier as the “spare” centre back, whilst Chelsea have opted for David Luiz. Michael Carrick has also played this role for Manchester United. All of these players could also be considered as central midfielders rather than traditional centre halves.
It would be very brave and creative of Ranieri if he were to play Drinkwater in defence, but he is quickly running out of time. The teams around Leicester also have the emotional freedom to change their manager. Swansea’s form has picked up dramatically since hiring Paul Clement, and Silva seems to be making an impact at Hull. It would’ve been unimaginable for Ranieri to be sacked this time last year, and he certainly still has significant amounts of credibility with the board and the fans. But the financial cost of relegation trumps any emotional and romantic notions of loyalty in the Premier League. Even someone as tactically astute as the Italian wouldn’t have realised how a deep defence could become such a source of problems for the champions. Morgan and Huth were so instrumental to Leicester’s success last year, but now that seems a distant memory.
Leicester fans should still be optimistic for the future. The addition of an athletic defensive midfielder, or a striker who can hold the ball up and support Vardy would no doubt turn Leicester back into one of the better teams in the Premier League. But until then, they will have to find a tactical solution which solves two conflicting problems.