Leicester City missed out on the Champions League places by only four points last season. They won the title four years ago.
And yet despite sitting top of the table after eight games and enjoying their best-ever start to a top-flight campaign, few consider them genuine contenders for the Premier League crown or even a top-four finish. Perhaps Brendan Rodgers had a point when he implied he doesn’t get enough credit for his tactical acumen.
Rodgers has a history of exaggerating his own talents that dates back to that Liverpool documentary and the widely mocked Brentisms that have followed him around ever since. His eagerness to talk tactics in press conferences betrays his desire to be taken more seriously; to be viewed with the same hushed awe as someone like Marcelo Bielsa.
In his defence, he probably should be praised more often for his tactical flexibility. The explosive verticality of his Leicester team, where prosaic possession football is suddenly interrupted with quick forward passes to get Jamie Vardy in behind, is markedly different from the styles of his Swansea City, Liverpool or Celtic teams.
But that style has, by accident or design, notably shifted this season, complicating any discussion on whether they can go all the way again.
The basic idea of their attacking style is consistent with last season, in that the wing-backs are expected to provide the width while the wide forwards sit narrowly in the half-spaces to receive those abrupt forward passes into feet.
The manager still wants his team to cut balls between the lines out of nowhere, with two or three sharp passes filtering through James Maddison and into the penalty area. So far this season these bursts of energy are startling opposition defenders into committing fouls, hence Leicester’s eight penalties.
Leicester’s two new attacking signings have all improved on this tactic, too. Cengiz Under’s movement has injected energy off the bench and the Turkey international is already linking well with Vardy, assisting twice in just 70 minutes of Premier League game time. Timothy Castagne is superb on the overlap, helping pull opposition bodies wide and in turn creating space in the number ten zone for Maddison, Harvey Barnes, and Ayoze Perez.
Tactical shift this season
However, Rodgers moved permanently from a 4-1-4-1 to a 3-4-2-1 formation in July, and unsurprisingly the change has impacted how Leicester play.
Starting three at the back and taking out a central midfielder is limiting Leicester’s ability to hold onto the ball, play those quick forward passes, or indeed press as hard as they used to. Eight games is a relatively small sample size, but there are signs to suggest Leicester are sitting deeper and playing less expansively, focusing on defensive solidity and quick counter-attacks where in 2019/20 they were an aggressive possession side.
According to WyScout, their possession has dropped from 55.1% to 50.4%. Their PPDA (opposition passes per defensive action, measuring pressing intensity) was 9.13 last season, the second best in the division, but has dropped to 15.87 in 2020/21, putting Leicester 14th in the table. This drop in intensity helps explain a lower possession figure and points to a deeper and more conservative setup for the Foxes.
Unsurprisingly, pressing with less intensity and holding less of the ball also affects Leicester’s ability to play their vertical passes through the middle. They play 63.14 progressive passes per game this season, the 14th most in the division, compared to 71.75 per game last season, which was the fifth highest. Similarly their deep completions, measuring non-cross passes targeted within 20 metres of the opposition goal, have fallen from 9.21 per game (5th most) last season to 7.97 per game (9th most).
In summary, Leicester are holding much less of the ball, making fewer forward passes and fewer passes into the final third, and are pressing with less intensity: they are becoming a more cagey counter-attacking team focused on their own solidity rather than expansive attacking football.
This is most likely the natural consequence of shifting to a 3-4-2-1, a formation that easily becomes a 5-4-1 with few options in midfield for vertical progressions. Indeed, most of Leicester’s wins this season have been won on the counter after long period of opposition territorial dominance, such as the 5-2 at Manchester City, the 4-1 against Leeds United, and the 1-0 against Arsenal.
Defeats to West Ham and Aston Villa add further weight to the idea that Leicester have been converted into a reactive team.
The most telling statistic of all is that Leicester City make the fewest key passes, 5.6 per game, of any Premier League club this season. Those seven penalty goals have been vital in setting the narrative of a strong start, when in reality Leicester are not quite their usual selves, rarely creating opportunities and struggling to hold onto the ball.
Some of this can be accounted for by Maddison’s absence from the side. He has only managed to start two league games this season, and those were against particularly rigid defences in Wolves and Arsenal. Once their number ten is back firing, Leicester may improve their ball retention and creativity, allowing them to push higher up the pitch and play as they did through much of the 2019/20 season.
Nevertheless, it means we should treat Leicester’s table-topping start with a note of caution. The version we are currently watching is unlikely to hold for an entire year, and while that could mean a decline is on the horizon it may also be a sign that Leicester are only getting started; if this is their form when playing within themselves, just how much better with they be once Rodgers improves their creative output?
In a chaotic Premier League season overshadowed by the effects of the pandemic, there is every chance we will have a surprise winner. The congested fixture list means fatigue and injury will scramble our expectations, while coaches will have very little time to work on tactics in the week, further destabilising the division.
If that’s the case, then Leicester City stand as good a chance as anyone of upsetting the odds and maintaining a title challenge. So far, they’re top of the league despite failing to press with intensity, failing to hold as much possession as they would like, and failing to create chances from open play.
The league leaders will only get better. It would be unwise to rule out another Premier League crown.