Regardless of how ‘the big teams’ failed last year, Leicester’s title win should be regarded as a tactical triumph.
Not for a long time had we seen a side win the league playing two strikers, yet Okazaki and Vardy’s partnership and ability to not give the opposition defence a second’s rest was integral to them winning the league.
Fast forward a few months, and it appears that same formation is struggling. Leicester are currently 12th in the league, having conceded 11 goals in six games. At the weekend they were outplayed and outclassed by a Manchester United side whose midfield completely outran their own.
Being outran in midfield was something that nobody could have said about Leicester last season, but there was one big difference back then; N’Golo Kante.
The Frenchman was praised last season as being one of the key reasons for his club’s success. Defensively he was peerless, leading the way for tackles and interceptions. What elevated Kante above other defensive players, however, was the speed at which he would get around the pitch. Under Ranieri, Kante almost combined the roles of the midfield anchor and box-to-box player, meaning Leicester rarely suffered even if they were outnumbered in midfield and were effectively playing with 12 men.
Kante has now moved on to Chelsea, and Leicester have not been able to adequately replace him. That is by no means an easy task; the only player I can think who filled a similar role (or roles) to Kante was Yaya Toure in his prime. In Nampalys Mendy they looked to have found a like-for-like replacement, but the Frenchman has yet to fill those boots and has seen his playing time limited by injury so far.
The two other players tried next to Drinkwater have also struggled. Andy King was almost a pedestrian as a battling Hull side earned a deserved victory on the opening day and while Amartey has played well in most games, he was been unable to deal with the swarming tactics of Klopp’s Liverpool or the passing play of United.
So what is the alternative for Ranieri? Well, if your four-man midfield is getting beaten, change it to a five-man.
The Italian did this at half-time against United. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez were replaced by Andy King and Demarai Gray, with Leicester switching to three in the midfield and Gray and Albrighton (and eventually Schlupp) on the wings.
One presumes this move was made mainly to save Mahrez and Vardy for the tie against Porto. It was noticeable, however, that having an extra man reduced the influence of United’s midfield and allowed King to bomb on. Leicester even managed to pull a goal back through Demarai Gray’s superb curling effort.
Hindsight is obviously 20-20, but you have to wonder how Leicester would have fared against Hull, Liverpool and United had they played five in midfield instead of 4-4-2. Would Klopp’s men have found it quite so easy to cut through the Foxes’ ranks? Would Gray’s goal have proven to be the winner rather than a mere consolation?
A move to five in midfield would raise questions; namely who would start out of Vardy and Slimani? The Algerian’s strength would seem to make him the preferred option, but to many, Vardy is undroppable. It may be the case that one has to be sacrificed.
By no means should Leicester abandon the 4-4-2, though. It was the cornerstone of their title success and has seen them win comfortably against Swansea, Burnley and Club Brugges in the Champions League this season. It is worth noting that Leicester have struggled against Liverpool and Untied, losing to Klopp’s side at Anfield and failing to beat United in both games last season and the Community Shield at the start of the year.
So perhaps it’s time Leicester at least look at abandoning their 4-4-2 when the fixture calls for it. Regardless of how much of a triumph it was in the past, having a plan B is never a bad thing.