I, and I’m sure most of the football community, have had a soft spot for Leicester City engrained into our footballing hearts ever since their extraordinary title win in 2015/16. Since then, the magic of their success has somewhat been lost amongst the mediocrity of league positions over the following seasons. In the 3 years since one of the greatest sporting achievements of all time, a 12th and two 9th finishes have seen Leicester become trapped in a mid-table battle, rather than pushing on and trying to challenge the big boys of the league again. However, I believe things are about to change for the better for Leicester City and that we could easily see them back in the top 6 of the Premier League this season. Here’s why…
Let’s start by talking about their competiton. The ‘big 6’ comprises of Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham, who more often than not nowadays, create a ‘league within a league’ where they fight for the best position within that 6.
Based on the relentless form of both Manchester City and Liverpool last season, I think it is immediately fair to assume that they will be going nowhere and will be challenging each other once again for the title. Having recently signed midfield sensation Tanguy Ndombele from Lyon and also managing to reach a Champions League final without squad investment, Tottenham are also in an extremely strong position and I expect no less than third place from them this season.
The remaining 3 ‘big 6’ teams however, all have a dark cloud of question marks above their heads. In what now seems to be more regular than Groundhog Day, Manchester United are in need of a drastic squad overhaul. Much of the investment since Sir Alex Ferguson retired has not been smart and players purchased for big money have not lived up to expectations, with many already moving on, whilst others simply were not good enough to play for United in the first place. The early transfer activity this summer seems to be moving in the right direction with the signings of young, British talent in the shape of Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James. However, with rumours that Pogba and Lukaku both desire moves away coupled with the lack of commanding centre-back and an overall inadequate midfield, Manchester United are still far away from where they should be at this point in time.
Chelsea start the season under new management in the form of club legend, Frank Lampard. This change will be welcomed by many Chelsea fans, however, the achievement of Maurizio Sarri to guide them to Europa League victory in addition to a 3rd place Premier League finish and League Cup final must not be ignored and I feel wasn’t appreciated as much as it should’ve been. This is not saying Lampard will be a disaster, but there are 2 key problems that Chelsea simply cannot do anything about this season. Number 1 is losing their star player, Eden Hazard, who contributed a goal or assist to 49.2% of Chelsea’s 63 Premier League goals, truly astonishing numbers that require significant player investment to replace. Unfortunately, Chelsea’s transfer ban (problem 2) has not allowed them to do so this summer and although they have some quality players and youngsters returning from loans, I think not being able to fully replace Hazard immediately will massively contribute to their struggles this season.
Finally Arsenal, who appear to have the transfer budget of a nine-year-old whose income relies on the sales from a lemonade stand and a negotiation ability resembling current British politics that shall not be named, but rhymes with “nexit”.
Leicester City – Manager Records + Tactics
Brendan Rodgers took over the Leicester City managerial position from Claude Puel, starting in Gameweek 29 of the 2018/19 season. Puel took charge for the first 27 matches, with the game directly following his departure being led by caretaker manager, Mike Stowell, before Rodgers became main man for the final 10 games of the season. Under Puel, Leicester won 33% of matches, drew 19% and lost 48%. Under Rodgers, these statistics dramatically improved to winning 50% of matches, drawing 20% and losing 30%. Additionally, Leicester scored 1.2 goals per game and conceded 1.4 goals per game, whereas under Rodgers, the goals per game record rose to 1.6 whilst goals conceded remained the same. The fact Rodgers was immediately able to increase Leicester’s attacking output, whilst not worsening the defensive record, demonstrates a prompt improvement.
Puel’s 4-2-3-1 system was often criticised for being boring and for hindering the attacking potential of some of his star forward-thinking players. After a small amount of experimentation, Rodgers quickly settled on a more attack-minded 4-1-4-1 formation for his Leicester side (as shown below).
The 4-1-4-1 formation utilised by Rodgers shares some similarity to that of the sytem used by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Ndidi sits in front of the back 4, offering defensive support much like Fernandinho. Meanwhile, Maddison and Tielemans operate either side and in front of Ndidi in ‘free 8’ positions similarly to David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. Barnes and Gray fill the left and right midfield roles, but Albrighton is also capable of filling in on either side. This is a very fluid system as the wingers will often interchange positions with the ‘free 8’s’. Jamie Vardy leads the line up front on his own, looking to spin in behind and use his pace to stretch the pitch.
Rodgers’ system is tactically flexible and changes slightly to cater for playing against opposition who are expected to dominate possession and attempt to create a lot of chances, such as Manchester City. In these circumstances, the ‘free 8’s’ and wingers drop back to form a line of 5 in midfield, creating more of a 4-5-1 formation. Maddison then moves to the left side of midfield, with a ball-winner (Choudhury) moving into the centre of midfield alongside Tielemans and Ndidi with the intention being to increase overall team compactness and solidarity.
After just 10 matches in charge, Rodgers has already created an identity for this Leicester side and one that is adaptable dependent on the opposition. He has a clear system in place in which the players available fit the required roles. It may seem obvious to create a regular system with only a minorly adjusted starting XI, however, the achievement of doing so in such a short space of time should not be underestimated. This is especially true as teams such as Manchester United and Arsenal cannot seem to settle to a system and make regular, significant changes to the system and starting XI.
Leicester have already acted shrewdly in the transfer window, securing a permanent deal for Tielemans in addition to signing Ayoze Perez from Newcastle and James Justin from Luton Town. There have also recently been strong rumours with Florian Thauvin from Marseille, although nothing is set in concrete regarding this yet. In terms of how I see the new signings fitting into the team, Tielemans will hold his place in the midfield 3 and Justin will provide healthy competition for the full-backs. The role of Perez is not so immediately obvious, however, having played the role for Newcastle last season, I expect him to fit in on the right side of midfield as this is one of the few positions that has not already been cemented down by an existing player. He may just be back-up to Vardy after Leicester lost Okazaki, but £30 million for a back-up to a player who plays every game when available seems a bit steep.
Leicester City – Player Analysis
Having a great system/formation is one thing, but if you haven’t got the quality of players to deliver it effectively, the system quickly becomes largely irrelevant. One of the key reasons I strongly believe Leicester will be able to challenge the ‘big 6’ this season is because of the brilliant first team they are quietly creating.
Kasper Schmeichel – Not only a fantastic goal-stopper but additionally particularly good at ball distribution, a trait essential to effective build-up play from the back and quick counter-attacks.
Ricardo Pereira – 2 goals, 6 assists (3rd best for PL defenders behind Liverpool full-backs), most take-ons (111), 118 tackles won (2nd to Wan-Bissaka amongst defenders), only 1 error leading to a chance conceded.
Harry Maguire + Jonny Evans – Maguire is a commanding, dominant, ball-playing defender (a rarer but more regularly required ability). Evans is one of the league’s most underrated centre-backs, often taking a calm and intelligent approach to defending.
Ben Chilwell – 4 assists, 85 take-ons (3rd amongst PL defenders), 45 chances created (5th amongst PL defenders), 108 aerial duals won (2nd amongst PL full-backs), 0 errors leading to chance conceded, went to the same school I did (and therefore receives bias brownie points).
Wilfred Ndidi – Arguably the league’s most underrated player. Most tackles out of all PL players across all positions (143), most aerial duals won and recoveries made amongst all PL midfielders (128 and 324 respectively), 2nd highest number of interceptions to Capoue (83) and 3rd for clearances, behind Capoue and Lerma (80).
Youri Tielemans – The surprise package of the second half of the 2018/19 season. 3 goals and 5 assists (including 1 fantasy assist) in 13 appearances, therefore contributing a goal or assist every 1.6 matches.
James Maddison – Made the transition from the Championship to Premier League immediately. 7 goals, 7 assists (a good record but one which has a lot of potential to be improved upon further), 99 chances created (1st amongst all PL players), superb free-kick ability, 67 successful crosses (3rd amongst PL midfielders).
Demarai Gray, Harvey Barnes + Marc Albrighton – Alrighton boasts an incredibly effective crossing technique whereas Gray and Barnes are young wingers still learning the trade who offer speed and quick dribbling on the flanks. The wingers were the main weak spot for Leicester last season in my opinon, often lacking final third composure and although Barnes did impress when given a chance, the signing of Perez and links to Thauvin suggest Rodgers has identified the left and right sides of midfield as areas for improvement. Gray has never fully convinced me, but I do think Barnes has the potential to be a fantastic player but should be utilised as a squad player for now, learning from the new additions.
Jamie Vardy – Every football fan knows what Vardy offers: Pace, runs in-behind, work ethic and goals. However, Puel failed to get the best out of him, with Vardy scoring 8 goals in the 27 games under Puel’s management. After Puel’s departure, Vardy scored in the 2-1 win over Brighton (caretaker managed) before scoring 9 goals in the 10 matches under Rodgers. He finished the season as the 3rd highest scorer behind Aguero and the joint winners (Aubameyang, Salah and Mane) despite the slow start to the season.
I really strongly believe (and hope) that Leicester can break up the top 6 mould this season. Wolves and Everton will offer solid competition, however, I believe the former’s committment to the Europa League could potentially slightly hinder their league campaign with them having what is not exactly a massive squad. Also, Everton are currently missing a natural out and out goalscoring striker as well as never seemingly being able to find consistency.
With the uncertainty surrounding 3 of the current ‘big 6’, the fact Rodgers has implemented a smart system and the overall high quality of players on their books, I think Leicester City are in for a fantastic season and will be a team that neutral viewers will enjoy watching profoundly.
*Note – I will be watching Leicester live in pre-season, so keep an eye out for a match report which will be published shortly after the match.
Written by Nick Pasquet
Follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Nick_FootballPA