This article is part of a regular series from Leeds United stats supremos All Stats Aren’t We – the team also host a brilliant podcast that goes in-depth into the tactics of Marcelo Bielsa and a deeper look at the underlying stats
Some tactical thoughts ahead of #lufc’s game against Leicester City on Monday evening.
This season, Leicester City are a curious proposition. If you look at their position in @experimental361’s expected points table, they’re middling:
A little bit of xG over-performance—to the tune of nearly 4 goals—has clearly helped. But they’ve also played Manchester City and Arsenal (and beat them).
Curiously, it’s teams like West Ham and Aston Villa who Brendan Rodgers’ team have struggled to break down; teams that they would be expected to be better than but who they’ve struggled to break down.
Add to this their injury woes this season—Timothy Castagne and Jonny Evans added to a list that includes Ricardo Pereira and Wilfred Ndidi and has included James Maddison and Jamie Vardy this season—and it’s hard to see exactly where Leicester are at at this point.
This week, @Worville had an interesting piece up in The Athletic looking at Leicester’s underlying numbers which is well worth a read.
TL;DR – there have been slight tweaks to Leicester City since the coronavirus pandemic hit. They press slightly less. They keep slightly less of the ball. And they use their full backs differently.
All of these factors can be explained by a change in formation caused by an injury to their midfield linchpin, Wilfred Ndidi.
As @tomd_underhill explained over the summer, last season, Leicester City were more likely to go for a single pivot structure:
Now, with Ndidi out, Leicester have played a double pivot system with Nampalys Mendy and Yuri Tielemans.
This has seen them play two broad systems: a back three system—a 3-4-3 which becomes a 5-2-3 or 5-4-1 in defensive situations—and a 4-2-3-1 when Rodgers wants his team to be on the front foot a little more:
Going forwards, there are three interesting aspects to Leicester’s approach:
1) Their front line stays very narrow. Harvey Barnes and Ayoze Perez or James Maddison or Dennis Praet will tend to stay central and close to Jamie Vardy.
2) This allows the wing backs/full backs to overlap. Although, notice how Leicester use their full backs in an interesting way. Where Castagne will try and hit the byline and play low balls into the box, the right-footed James Justin will tend to go more direct:
They will also both attack at the same time so you’ll see Justin making blind side runs into the box to pick up loose balls at the back post:
3) Harvey Barnes uses his pace as a means of pushing up as almost a strike partner for Jamie Vardy where the right-sided forward will often sit a little deeper to help out defensively.
In fact, at times, Barnes will push out onto the sideline and play almost as a winger in possession, allowing Justin to underlap him.
Here’s a nice view of Leicester’s 3-4-3 set up in build-up with Barnes at the very bottom of the screen at the juncture of the halfway line and the sideline:
Dennis Praet, the wide right player, however, is much more central, almost forming a midfield three with Mendy and Tielemans.
Defensively, the 3-4-3 becomes a 5-2-3, which is nicely represented in this picture vs Manchester City again:
As you can see, the wing backs drop in alongside the centre backs and the front three stay very narrow, with the double pivot sitting just in front of them.
The plan here is to sit deep, absorb pressure and then decompress quickly through the wing backs, the speed of Vardy and Barnes and the guile of James Maddison.
Given the fact that this tactic has been kryptonite to Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United and proved pretty effective for Wolves against Leeds a couple of games ago, it seems fairly likely that this will be the approach taken by Rodgers on Monday.
That said, the injury crisis that Leicester are currently undergoing could complexify things in that regard: with Jonny Evans joining Caglar Soyuncu on the injury list and Timothy Castagne also being out, Rodgers might have his mind made up for him.
The good news for Leeds is that, regardless of which approach Rodgers goes for, it should be fairly easy to segue between the two systems.
Against 3-4-3, Leeds go 4-1-4-1 but actually push the defensive midfielder into a more advanced role and push one of the 8s into a second striker role:
Against a 4-2-3-1, expect the central shift forward to revert:
This means that Bielsa can not worry too much about which formation Leicester will use on the night because it shouldn’t require any personnel change.
More interesting will be the tweaks within the system. We’ve already said Leicester will sit narrow in forward areas to allow space for their wing backs. This will drag the Leeds full backs more central and will mean the Leeds wingers will have a lot of ground to cover defensively.
There is also the threat of Jamie Vardy and Harvey Barnes going over the top which could hurt Leeds on Monday. Against Wolves, Leeds didn’t really have to deal with raw pace on the counter until Adama came on. On Monday, this will be a worry.
We’ve always celebrated Robin Koch’s “backwards defending” on here. Monday will be a pivotal game for the 24-year-old having to keep Vardy quiet.
Not only that, the Leeds press will have to be sharp to prevent James Maddison from getting time and space on the ball to find the channels in behind the Leeds’ defence.
At the other end of the field, it will be another case of trying to break down a packed and well-organised defensive system. Both Rodrigo and Pablo Hernandez are useful foils in this regard, but the best approach will always be trying to catch Leicester out before they can sit.
For all of their defensive responsibility, the wingers should look to get in behind the Leicester wing backs as much as the Leicester wing backs look to get in behind them. That will be the fascinating battle of transitional phases.
It’s easy to overlook Brendan Rodgers as a good manager but his Leicester side will be tough to beat. There are side in the division who will look to sit deep and counter Leeds so the match on Monday will offer another bench mark for Leeds.
If Vardy, Barnes and Maddison can be kept quiet and spaces worked in the Leicester defence, then a result might not look completely out of the question. But it will be a hard match either way.
In other Leeds United news, ‘Severe bad luck’, ‘We’re finished’ – Some Leicester fans fuming after update for clash v Leeds