7 ways to beat Leicester City
In Europe's top five leagues, only Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain have lost fewer matches than Leicester this season. The East Midlands side clearly don't have the same budget or trophy-laden stars as the aforementioned teams, which makes their current feat even more impressive.
Claudio Ranieri's speedy, counter-attacking 4-4-2 unit has taken the Premier League by storm. Arsenal and Liverpool are the only clubs to beat them in the league. So how exactly do you get the better of the top flight's unlikely league leaders?
1. Play three at the back
We played with three defenders because of the quality of Vardy and Okazaki to run into the channels
Tactical pioneer and former Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa insists on a three-man defence against two strikers. This is to enable a spare centre-back to sweep up the danger and to also play the ball out from the back.
With Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki preferring to run on the outside of centre-backs, this move makes it much more difficult. “We played with three defenders because of the quality of Vardy and Okazaki to run into the channels,” admitted Louis van Gaal after Manchester United were held 1-1 in November – the only team to start with a back three in the league against Leicester this season.
Mauricio Pochettino set up his Tottenham team to play with three centre-backs in the 1-0 win over Watford, as Quique Sanchez Flores sets up in a similar manner to Leicester. In Jose Mourinho's final game for Chelsea, he restricted Ranieri's team to just three shots off target in the final 38 minutes after making the switch.
2. Keep a medium block defensive line
The position of the backline is decided by the manager, but changes during the game thanks to the nature of events or instincts of the defenders within the system. If the opposition backline plays too high against Leicester, Vardy & Co. can run in behind. Too deep, however, and you risk letting Riyad Mahrez loose, as he cuts inside onto his favoured left foot.
A controlling centre-back is essential to ensure the rest of the defence are in sync, although many clubs seem to fail in this area and struggle when one defender doesn't take charge or the partnership is fairly new.
Van Gaal groaned at Vardy's record-breaking goal against his side earlier in the season, a classic break. “The goal is a defensive organisation error from a corner for us, so you have to blame ourselves because we have showed the images (to the players), and because of the characteristics of this team (Leicester).”
3. Keep possession better...
The introduction of Slaven Bilic and Jurgen Klopp along with the success of Watford and Leicester means that many sides are now playing in a fast-paced counter attacking style
It's become less fashionable to play a high possession-based philosophy in the Premier League, with Van Gaal criticised for his sterile and lethargic build-up and managers like Arsene Wenger and Brendan Rodgers adopting more direct approaches.
The arrivals of Slaven Bilic and Jurgen Klopp, along with the successes of Watford and Leicester, have reinforced this. It now means that many sides are playing a fast-paced counter-attacking style as default.
Teams don't have to be slow and predictable when keeping the ball – and that's like to be proved when Pep Guardiola takes charge at Manchester City next term. The Catalan will want his team to dominate, but play the ball quickly in a correlated and equal fashion.
Guardiola's Barcelona side were an extreme example of how to suffocate the opposition with the ball, but the general idea is to move the opposition out of position with co-ordinated and practiced moves between a couple of players.
4. Give Leicester the ball
They have the lowest possession rate in the Premier League, and few teams have allowed them to have the majority of the ball. Only Bournemouth have had less possession than Leicester in a single game, which was at the start of January and resulted in a 0-0 draw.
A very compact defensive unit could be difficult for Leicester to break down. West Brom are the only team in the division to make fewer short passes, and although Leicester have an incredibly low pass-completion rate of 69.3%, it's only because a primary aim of theirs is to get the ball forward to Vardy and Okazaki as quickly as possible.
5. Wingers that track back
In order to capitalise going forward it could be worth allowing the likes of Christian Fuchs and Danny Simpson to enter into the attacking third
Bournemouth and West Ham both did well against Leicester this term by using their wide players to press the full-backs and stop the supply lines to Mahrez and Marc Albrighton. But in order to capitalise going forward it could be worth allowing the likes of Christian Fuchs and Danny Simpson to enter into the attacking third, if you have quick and imaginative widemen going the other way.
Former Liverpool manager Rodgers spoke to Sky Sports' Monday Night Football earlier in the season about his occasional use of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge out wide. “When they attack down this side, I want you to be more this side of the defender,” Rodgers told Suarez before the 5-1 win over Arsenal.
He told them to stay within close proximity of the full-backs but not to go too far, so that they could run into the space left vacated. There's obviously a huge risk in this ploy, as the full-back is free to venture forward (though Simpson rarely does so), although they will naturally think twice about leaving a quality forward unmarked in the transition phase.
6. Counter the counter
Arsenal beat Leicester earlier in the season in a very open and entertaining match, although the team in question must have the quality and speed in attack to trade blows. It would have been very interesting to see the Liverpool team of 2013/14 season against this Leicester side, or even Kevin Keegan's Newcastle.
This doesn’t simply mean trying to outrun Leicester, but being more intelligent when looking to attack directly. “Our problem today was not to run more or run with more intensity,” said Klopp after the 2-0 defeat last week. “When we had the ball in the right positions, we just needed to make the right decisions.”
Leicester concede an average of 13.5 shots per game, but in both their defeats this season they allowed their highest amount of shots against them this campaign: Arsenal carved out 27 efforts at goal and Liverpool 26.
7. Increase the tactical fouls
It's incredibly cynical to foul Leicester to stop their onslaught of attacks, but it can also be extremely effective
It's incredibly cynical to foul Leicester to stop their onslaught of attacks, but it can also be extremely effective. Only Norwich and Liverpool are fouled less frequently than the Foxes, so it's not an approach that managers are using to nullify their threat.
Real Madrid did it regularly under Mourinho when facing Barcelona, in order to break up the momentum of the opposition. Providing this isn't done too close to the penalty area, then Leicester are unlikely to profit from the resulting free-kick.
Arsenal made 12 fouls against Leicester in their win at the King Power, but only three of them came in their own half. Stopping Mahrez before he gets into full flow has been used intermittently on occasion.