Alex Keble looks at the tactics Brendan Rodgers needs to use to beat former club Liverpool when Leicester visit Anfield on Saturday.
Not since Leicester City’s title-winning campaign in 2015/16 have English football’s biggest clubs suffered a collective paralysis on the scale seen so far this season, and although the stakes are lower for Brendan Rodgers’ team the similarities are not lost on Foxes’ supporters. They sense another seismic shift in power, another chance to usurp the Premier League royals.
On strength of personnel alone Leicester are Champions League material and yet what really separates Leicester from the rest of the aspirational middle-class is the tactical nous of their manager. In just a few short months Rodgers has swept aside the tedium of the Claude Puel era, has reinvigorated the players with an intricate and innovative strategy that gives Leicester the most rarefied of traits: identity.
Match Odds: Liverpool 4/9 | Draw 100/30 | Leicester 5/1
Both teams to score: Yes 8/11 | No Evens
Price Boost: Vardy & Salah both to score 8/1
Every Premier League club yearns for a ‘Way’ these days, a symptom of the narrowing scope of achievements open to the vast majority; in an era of competitive stasis, identity – something to grab onto, a sense of meaning - is found not in tangible success but in the abstract. The ‘West Ham Way’ is suddenly important when the measure of on-field success is restricted to the differences between finishing sixth and ninth.
And so it is a marvel that Rodgers has already streamlined Leicester into something so coherent, so easy to define in a few choice words: they press hard, transition quickly, and attack vertically; a mini-Liverpool, only funnelled through dual playmakers in the Man City mould. Belief in what their manager is trying to build has already united the players around a common goal, and as the 5-0 victory against Newcastle United showed, this team is ready to make the top four.
High engagement, fast transitions
Leicester aren’t particularly interested in holding possession. Instead they look to engage in a press high up the pitch – they win more tackles, 23 per game, than anyone else – and very quickly get the ball into the final third via assertive forward passes. The style of their distribution is what makes Leicester markedly different from the rest of the division; from Caglar Soyuncu to Ben Chilwell to Youri Tielemans, the aim is to break the lines with a vertical pass as often as possible.
They rarely move sideways or rest in possession, because to do so would be allowing the opponent to reset. Like Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Leicester want to tackle high and then counter into the final third, the only difference being that Rodgers prioritises directness even when playing out from the back. The football should be piercing and, as such, confusing for the other side. Wilfried Ndidi is the under-rated linchpin for this, not only tackling better than anyone in the division but always looking to sweep passes into advanced positions where other defensive midfielders would go for the safe option.
Double playmakers and releasing Vardy
The most eye-catching part of the system is the dual playmakers. James Maddison and Tielemans operate in tandem as false-eights, shuttling up and down the half-spaces to increase the vertical passing outlets for the Foxes defenders. These columns to the left and right of centre are football’s most fertile areas, the spaces Pep Guardiola has always prioritised – hence the David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne axis from which Rodgers has taken the idea.
Before opponents have the chance to fall back into a defensive shape, Tielemans and Maddison have shimmied into the gaps between the row of midfielders, making themselves available for line-splitting passes. The biggest advantage of catching the other team higher up the pitch, of course, is that Jamie Vardy can make runs in behind once either playmaker has received the ball. Punching through the centre in two or three passes is the foundation of the Rodgers approach.
Over-lapping, under-rated full-backs
But like Liverpool, this would be far too narrow a tactical approach without a serious threat coming from the flanks. Opponents cannot afford to simply remain compact to swarm Maddison and Tielemans because the Leicester full-backs need marking too. Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira are arguably the two most under-rated full-backs in the division, and it is their overlapping runs that either a) use the space left on the wings by narrowing defenders or b) create space for the playmakers by pulling the opposition shape wider.
The combination of Leicester’s double number tens and advancing full-backs, all following clear tactical instructions from Rodgers, is one that is capable of scoring goals and winning points against any team in the division. Add in the excitement of Harvey Barnes’ playing style and the nuanced touches of Ayoze Perez, and - both tactically and in terms of individual quality - Leicester are as good if not better than Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea.
All that’s lacking is self-belief
But Rodgers is his own worst enemy at the moment. He appears to lack the self-belief to be adventurous in the bigger matches, abandoning the above system for a more conservative 4-3-3 against Tottenham, Man Utd, and Chelsea this season. Against Liverpool on Saturday, he will probably once again pick Hamzah Choudhury, shunting Maddison out to the left flank.
At Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford Leicester didn’t seem to realise they were the better team, tentatively looking to absorb pressure rather than boldly attack as equals. This hesitancy meant they couldn’t build attacks with any real fluency, and no wonder: Choudhury isn’t capable of fast vertical passes, while Maddison is isolated without a winger to pass to after he inevitably drifts infield.
Can they beat Liverpool?
Liverpool’s 100% start to the season could easily be ended at Anfield. It isn’t hard to envisage their slightly stodgy midfield trio struggling to get past Ndidi, Vardy breaking that ultra-high defensive line, or Barnes countering into the spaces behind Trent Alexander-Arnold. But it is far more likely Rodgers will again play it safe, significantly reducing the number of passes into Vardy.
Counteracting Liverpool’s gegenpress demands sharp midfielders with the bravery to evade the tackles and release the forwards on the counter. Rodgers has the personnel to do this, but not if Choudhury and Ndidi sit side-by-side at the base of midfield. Leicester’s biggest barrier to taking points on Saturday is their own attitude and yet, no matter the result at Anfield, Rodgers is building something special. A top four finish is definitely attainable.
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