Football NewsTuesday 22nd November 2016

Premier League: What on earth has happened to Leicester City this season?

Premier League: What on earth has happened to Leicester City this season?

Two points above relegation, conceding goals all over the place and unable to find the back of the net, Claudio Ranieri's team sit in a precarious position. 

Leicester City seem to have been sussed out this season, except for in the Champions League where the supposed European elite can't get close to them. 

What's going on?

 

Difficult second season syndrome

Ranieri knew this season would be different and has tinkered [DING DING DING] with his team accordingly. The demands of weekly European football and the need to have different options made this necessary but, unsurprisingly, the team has struggled for consistency as a result.

It makes sense to upgrade the team by playing newer, better players in various positions but the thing that made Leicester 1.0 so good was that the entire balance of the side was perfect - each individual player had a specific function and purpose which allowed the others to do their jobs. By messing with the magic formula, Leicester have lost their balance.

Leicester's 4-4-2 last season was actually more of a 4-3-3 as Shinji Okazaki and Riyad Mahrez joined Jamie Vardy upfront.

This worked because N'Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater kept their shape in the centre of midfield, Danny Simpson covered for Mahrez, and Marc Albrighton stayed wide left, hitting long passes from a deeper position.

Average touch positions (90 + 5 min)

Premier League clubs are hyper aware of the threat Leicester pose on the counter-attack now and instead of trying to beat a supposedly bottom-half team, set out to ensure they don’t concede to the defending champions.  

Stop Riyad Mahrez, stop Leicester

“The opponent is very, very careful when he receives the ball, always three opponents were close to him,” Claudio Ranieri said of Mahrez after defeat to Watford, explaining why the Algerian is having such a hard time of it lately.

Of the starting XI which seemed to play every single week last season, Riyad Mahrez was the only one you'd describe as a playmaker and by stopping him from playing, rival teams have cut off Leicester's primary supply of goals and assists.

The tactic was clear from opening day against Hull, as Mike Phelan's team surrounded Mahrez whenever he got the ball:

 

Worryingly for all concerned at Leicester, this basic strategy seems to work. 

The only games in which Mahrez has made more than one pass to Jamie Vardy all season have been against Swansea and Burnley where he managed two and three respectively. With Mahrez marked out of the game he isn’t able to link with the man who provided the majority of his goals last season. Without service from Mahrez, Vardy, and his team, have seriously struggled.

Mahrez is receiving the ball in less threatening positions and being instantly closed down by multiple players. His passing accuracy has gone down from 77 per cent to 73 per cent this season, but it's not because he's got worse at playing the ball - defenders and midfielders are making life much more difficult for him.

Marking someone out of the game like this can often leave gaps elsewhere, but Leicester are so one-dimensional in the way they play that taking Mahrez out of the equation neutralises their attack.

Leicester just do not get the chance to hit teams on the counter. One of very few examples was against Burnley in a 3-0 win. A Burnley midfielder plays a poor backwards pass and Vardy pounces on it, has Mahrez running alongside and they counter together.

 

Slimani joins in and Burnley are caught out in transition - the forward trio have space to attack and the defence is disorganised.

 

Mahrez crosses into the box and Slimani scores. 

Leicester 2 - 0 Burnley (Islam Slimani, 48 min)

This is what Leicester used to do because other teams made mistakes and they capitalised on them. This season they haven't been as ruthless.

Winning the ball back

After 12 games in 2015/16, Leicester had made 267 interceptions. This season at the same stage they've only made 174. Over the course of last season they made 22.9 tackles per game, so far this season it's 16.7. 

There is clearly a massive difference in the way Leicester are defending which impacts the way they attack. Where last season Leicester won the ball deep in their own half and got it up the pitch as quickly as possible, this season they are finding that opposition teams have numbers back to defend.

Forced to then play a shorter passing game - which they are not great at - they get caught on the ball and hit on the counter. Leicester are being given a taste of their own medicine and unlike Calpol, it is not delicious.

 

Leicester are missing this manCredit: EPA

There is a massive N'Golo Kante shaped hole

The biggest difference for Leicester this season is an obvious one. N’Golo Kante is the best midfielder in the league and Ranieri's attempts to plug the gap he has left have failed miserably.

All of the problems listed above can be linked to Kante's influence. Daniel Amartey is the current Kante replacement, though Andy King and several others have tried.

In the opening seconds of the 2-0 defeat to Watford, Amartey can be seen jogging towards Danny Drinkwater, who is on the ball.

 

Drinkwater only has Simpson or Mahrez to pass to and makes a mess of it, giving Watford a chance to break. 

Last season, Kante would have sprinted across and stopped this move ever developing, Amartey isn't anywhere near fast or alert enough to do the same.

 

Watford burst forward, Drinkwater chases back while Amartey holds position in the centre.

 

Watford get to the box, Amartey strolls back making sure he's in space. While in theory this makes perfect sense, last season Kante would have come across to tackle or followed a runner from behind into the box.

 

Drinkwater and Simpson surround the forward but don't win the ball, the cross comes in from the left and Amartey is caught ball watching, as though his job is to occupy the space instead of to be actively involved with what's going on around him.

 

Watford score, Leicester are all over the place defensively. Albrighton should be defending on the left but has been drawn into help in the box, perhaps because Amartey is so ineffectual in this position.

Watford 1 - 0 Leicester (Etienne Capoue, 1 min)

Amartey and Drinkwater don't provide cover for the defence for the second goal either.

 

Watford attack down the left, Drinkwater is slow to come across to help out. 

 

Neither defending player gets close enough, Pereyra can skin Drinkwater easily and shoots from inside the box.

Watford 2 - 0 Leicester (Roberto Pereyra, 12 min)

It's a great goal but again you can see the difference in the defending. Generally it was Kante who closed down runners last season while Drinkwater doubled up. It was intense pressing that broke up most attacking moves but now Amartey tries to keep the midfield balanced and this has the effect of granting opponents space.

 

In the same game, Amartey spots the danger near the box and runs to close it down exactly as Kante would.

 

But he doesn't get his tackle right and leaves another Watford forward completely open. Kante is so quietly brilliant at dealing with situations like this that you never really notice him doing it, Amartey is exposed.

If he leaves this position he absolutely has to get it right or the repercussions can be huge.

 

Providing cover for the defence

The Drinkwater/Amartey partnership was even caught out by a low-scoring Man Utd, a sure sign that this setup doesn't work properly.

 

Here Pogba is an obvious threat but neither midfielder comes out to close him down. Nobody follows Zlatan Ibrahimovic's run either.

 

The defence is asleep, Leicester are lucky not to concede. Again it's hypothetical, but the reason Leicester concded so few goals last season was because Kante stopped chances like this before they ever became a threat. Instead of being proactive and closing the playmaker down, they are reactive and being punished for it.

United’s second goal could have been prevented too.

 

The two central midfielders hold their position well as United pass the ball but as soon as Mata runs towards them, the problems begin.

 

Drinkwater doesn’t tackle Mata nor block him off and the Spaniard plays a simple one-two, sprints past the static Amartey who then can’t get close as Mata scores.

 

Mata runs into space he should never have.

Man Utd 2 - 0 Leicester (Juan Mata, 37 min)

Later in the same game, while 4-1 down, Ibrahimovic takes a step back and has the entire final third of the pitch to himself. Amartey and Drinkwater are nowhere near him.

 

Leicester have struggled with set pieces this season but Robert Huth and Wes Morgan haven’t suddenly forgotten how to defend. The shield that Kante used to provide is no longer there and Drinkwater is not the same player. Without Kante's buzzing energy in the middle of the park, Drinkwater is pulled out of position and Leicester look a shadow of the side that won the league by 10 points.

It's not all bad - the slower pace of the Champions League and their reputation as underdogs suits Leicester's defensive, quick, intense bursts perfectly and they have been ruthless so far.

But as Chelsea’s spectacular drop last season suggested, it's often harder to stay at the top than it is to get there.

PL XI

 

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