This season Leicester City have become everyone’s second team. They have also won the allegiance of many neutrals and Premier League fans overseas, their charming blend of attacking football and underdog status. The unusual thing is that they have managed to get themselves five points clear at the top of the table by almost completing overthrowing the current title-winning footballing orthodoxy. Where the majority of top teams now focus on attractive, modern possession football, inspired largely by the successes of FC Barcelona’s ‘tika taka’ style, Leicester’s manager, Claudio Ranieri, appears to have excavated the ruins of past football tactics and dug up a winning formula.
Leicester’s focus on pace, long passes (in statistics from February, 21% of their passes were long, second in the league), wing play, defensive fullbacks and counterattacks seem borrowed from another era. Incredibly, Leicester have the third lowest possession statistics and the lowest pass completion rate in the league; however, to view their football as a relic of past of the past does it a disservice. It merely proves, as much as we admire the ‘total football’ of Barcelona and its followers, that there is not ‘one way’ to win football matches; tika taka requires players with certain characteristics, which are instilled into Barcelona players from a young age at La Masia academy: calmness, impeccable technique, precision passing. In addition, having 11 players all singing to the same tune is incredibly hard to replicate, particularly where they may have come from different clubs, in different countries, with different footballing traditions. Instead, Ranieri, most of whose players have arrived at the club in the last few years, has decided to try to make the most of his own players’ strengths (it has to be said that Ranieri will have also chosen to recruit players with these abilities): a speedy and dynamic attack, wingers who like to cross or dribble, hardworking central midfielders and a disciplined defence.
Similarly, Ranieri has kept his formation simple, reintroducing the emblematic 4-4-2 (or perhaps more accurately 4-2-2-2), which though unfashionable in the top leagues at the moment, most players over the age of twenty will have learned to play in at some point during their career. By using a system with which his players feel completely comfortable, Ranieri can focus his efforts, and those of his players, on other matters, including perhaps conditioning or other tactical considerations related to their opponents. The result is that Leicester’s players appear completely assured when they are on the field, in contrast to other teams, such as Manchester United and Liverpool FC, who have experimented at times with more novel formulations and playing styles.
In this system, Leicester’s players have truly flourished. Experienced professionals Robert Huth and Wes Morgan, one of only a few players to have played every minute of every game this season, marshal the back the line. The disciplined fullbacks Christian Fuchs and Danny Simpson allow the wingers to get forward and, particularly in the case of Mark Albrighton, put crosses in for the two strikers and, in the case of the excellent dribbler Riyad Mahrez, test the defence. Mahrez, from the wing, has managed to score 16 goals and provide 11 assists this season, making him one of the Premier League’s outstanding players of this season. Part of his success will undoubtedly be a result of the freedom he has been given by his manager. Albrighton, playing on the left, has contributed six assists.
The two central midfielders are also vital to the functioning of this system which, with its extra striker, can become vulnerable through the middle. N’Golo Kante and Daniel Drinkwater are two of the Premier League’s most hardworking midfielders. Kante has the second highest number of tackles of any player this season, 144, and frequently covers over 12km in a game. His performances saw him called up to the French international squad for the first time this month. Drinkwater contributes his tackling ability but his also a fine passer of the ball, contributing four assists this season. Similarly to Kante, he received his first international cap recently, for England on 29 March.
Up front, in Shinji Okazaki, Ranieri has found a hardworking player with an eye for goal who is also adept at winning the ball high up the pitch and playing the simple pass. He provides an excellent foil to Jamie Vardy, who prefers to use his pace to run into the channels behind the opponents’ defence. This may explain the success of the Foxes’ long-passing, counterattacking game. Leicester invite teams favouring possession football to move higher up the pitch, even as far as their box; the quick and hard tackling midfielders and defenders wait for an opportunity to win the ball back, and when they do they quickly launch it up the field for Vardy to run onto, exploiting the space behind the opponent’s defenders. When in these positions, Vardy has been incredibly incisive with his finishing. The England international, who only a few seasons ago was playing non-league football, has scored 19 goals this season, behind only Harry Kane. The success of this tactic is also aided by Vardy’s incredible pace, a study showing in January that he and Anthony Martial of Manchester United had registered the fastest running speed of any Premier League player this season: 35.4km per hour.
Like tika taka, Leicester’s is a system that requires players with certain characteristics, so any attempts to imitate its unconventional style are likely to pale in comparison. After facing a relegation battle last season, the Foxes have found a system that allows their players to utilise their own particular strengths, leading the team to first place in a difficult Premier League – surely a lesson for those teams currently struggling.
Do you agree with our view on Leicester’s tactics? Share your thoughts on this analysis on Twitter using #TopEleven.