As we so often discuss in this column, there is a cause and effect. The tactics dictate the outcome. Just when you think there is no way for a smaller team to get past those who have spent a fortune, someone finds a new method.
Well, it’s an old formation, actually: 4-4-2, still the best system around, in my opinion. It’s built around counter-attacking pace and capitalising on the way other teams are generally deploying both full-backs as wingers and their only source of width.
How does it work? Firstly this 4-4-2 is about becoming very compact and morphing to a 4-5-1 when Leicester are defending. Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki are the forwards and one of those two will drop to pick up the opposition’s deepest-lying midfielder. Home or away, they defend deep and do everything to avoid getting exposed to the ball behind them.
Claudio Ranieri is not bothered in the slightest about possession. In the win against Sunderland, Leicester had 44 per cent possession, in the win against West Ham 30 per cent, Tottenham (draw) 35 per cent, Bournemouth (draw) 44 per cent and Aston Villa (win) 49 per cent. That’s a minority of the possession in every one of their games.
It’s after the turnovers, when play breaks down and Leicester get back on the ball, that things get very interesting. Because those opposition full-backs are generally pushing up to join the attack, they leave gaping holes behind and that is where Leicester will immediately look to get the ball. Vardy or Okazaki will head into one of the two wide spaces those defenders have vacated: the left-back’s space if the ball is going down that way; the right-back’s if it is going that way.
It’s also at that moment that Leicester use their own fast full-backs – Jeff Schlupp or Ritchie de Laet – down the flank to support and help exploit those areas of vulnerability in the opposition.
Most of Leicester’s goals this season have come from crosses into the box. As Leicester look to get on the ball in the vacated spaces, the member of the forward duo who has not run to get on the ball will look to get into the area. Vardy and Okazaki are not the tallest players but they are both very, very good in the air. Fair play to Ranieri for recognising that fact and putting it to use.
He has also recognised that he is now blessed with two very quick wingers to double up on those flanks: on the left Marc Albrighton with Schlupp; on the right Riyad Mahrez with De Laet. Albrighton and Mahrez like to tuck in, leaving Schlupp and De Laet to go outside.
I always say that having good partnerships is key to the success of a team and the settled nature of the Leicester team is helping those wide partnerships to become intuitive. It’s significant that nine of the players who started Leicester’s first match have played all five of their games this season.
Raw pace on that counter-attack is also a critical component of the recipe. Which three players have had the fastest sprint times in the Premier League so far this season? Vardy, Schlupp and Albrighton. They’re blasting into those wide areas. Bang: before opponents know where they are, they’re outnumbered.
To me, Leicester are the fittest team in the league as well. Their last five goals have been scored in the last 18 minutes of games and that certainly tells us something.
The win over Villa illustrated the point. Leicester were 2-0 down with 18 minutes left and still won it. That component is such a big thing. They can be at 0-0 and will feel no panic because they know they are going to come through stronger.
They’re organised and disciplined defensively, too, with the midfield – which becomes a five when they’re out of possession – and the back four playing very close together.
This strategy is something very different in the modern Premier League. I don’t know any other team who have tried it. But it won’t be as easy to counter as some other systems. Quite often, we see opponents working a team out and finding a counter-strategy. But the only way to counter this and prevent those gaping gaps is to match up Leicester’s 4-4-2. That would be difficult for many teams, with their established ways, because it would mean altering a style of play they have become used to.
This just goes to show what a great system 4-4-2 can be if used intelligently and pragmatically, with the shift to 4-5-1. Opponents will just be hoping they can get beyond the tactical component by finding a way of exploiting individual weaknesses one-on-one. Leicester will look at their next league fixtures after today – Arsenal at home, Norwich and Southampton away – and believe they have nothing to fear.
New faces and a tough test can give Chelsea a real tonic
There have been some new faces at Chelsea this week and I think they could make a difference as Jose Mourinho looks to turn the corner and get a result in the huge match against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge.
The introduction of Baba Rahman allowed Mourinho to switch Cesar Azpilicueta to the right-hand side, meaning both were on their natural side. Azpilicueta has greater pace than Branislav Ivanovic and by getting forward that bit faster he creates the vital extra seconds for the winger to get on the ball and assess his options. That’s because the defender is distracted and always stays with the runner – in this case Azpilicueta.
I was also very impressed with Ruben Loftus-Cheek in midweek. I see him forming a strong partnership with Nemanja Matic that would allow Cesc Fabregas to get further forward.
Today is a formidable test for Chelsea but sometimes that’s for the best when you are looking to shake yourself out of a difficult patch.
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