I’ve been struggling to find full match replays from last weekend’s games (hence the lack of post-Wolves breakdown), so apologies for the quality/lack of clips.
Leicester have started the season like a house on fire and we’re going to have a hard time putting it out. Here’s a quick look over some of the main arsonists.
Good artists borrow; great artists steal
At times last season, it seemed like Leicester tried to synthesise the best bits of both Liverpool (Pereira/Chilwell as the primary attacking outlets down both flanks) and Man City (Tielemans/Maddison as Silva/KDB style “free 8s”; Ndidi doing the Fernandinho job of mopping up behind to kill counters; a ‘keeper with good long distribution; veteran poacher-type upfront who contributes little in possession). For the most part, it worked out pretty well — if you’re going to copy, copy from the best.
The similarity with City has become even more uncanny, with Rodgers and Guardiola both suffering the same problem — the loss of the solo destructive midfielder who holds everything up (Ndidi to injury; Fernandinho to physical decline)— and arriving at the same conclusion concurrently: switch to a 4–2–3–1 with a pair of DMs.
Leicester don’t have a like-for-like replacement for Ndidi so, rather than using an individual, they’ve done it structurally, padding out the centre of the park with two responsible, disciplined players to compensate for the absence of Ndidi destructive prowess. Leicester’s Tielemans/Mendy axis is arguably performing better than the Rodri/Fernandinho one currently doing its stuff at the Etihad, both in and out of possession.
A massive part of that is down to mobility: they cover ground far more easily than City’s double pivot does. They’ll be a real test for us because, unlike the Ceballos/Xhaka and Neves/Moutinho CM duos West Ham have faced since shifting to the 3 at the back shape, Tielemans/Mendy is a far more dynamic pairing, one that’s adept at wriggling away from pressure and getting around the pitch quickly.
Nampalys Mendy is ostensibly the Ndidi stand-in, but he’s a vastly different player. Aside from the obvious physical differences, Mendy is slightly less risk-averse in his passing and a less capable destroyer but compensates for that in other ways. He’s comfortable receiving the ball in tight areas and uses his low centre of gravity to hold off opponents who are pressing him, always offering his defenders an outlet in any sticky situations.
Mendy’s short stature means he’s quite nimble and that, coupled with his composure, allows him to turn away from pressure sharply and break the lines with ease:
He tends to move the ball quickly with one and two-touch passing to keep the team ticking over. Tielemans, meanwhile, holds onto the ball a little longer and is the one looking to play probing passes into Leicester’s players higher up the pitch:
The Belgian has a fantastic range of long and short passing using both feet (that big right-to-left switch and the through ball into the right channel with his left foot are recurring themes) and when there’s not a pass on, he can progress the ball by carrying it himself.
Tielemans has already developed a good understanding with Timothy Castagne and the marauding right-back’s two assists so far this season have come from passes played into him by Tielemans. As our left-sided CM, Declan Rice will need to get his positioning spot-on to disrupt that connection and support Masuaku/Cresswell defensively.
Finding a way to stop these two playing is key but the duo’s press resistance makes it dangerous to overcommit to closing them down. Leicester’s first goal against City came about because Fernandinho rushed forward to press Mendy but couldn’t prevent him from turning; we can’t afford to get caught out like that. Picking the right moments to apply pressure is vital.
Burnley and WBA both tried to sit off Leicester’s midfielders when they had possession in deeper areas so they could retain their shape and intercept any passes through the middle, and it worked to a certain extent. I imagine we’ll adopt a similar approach, with Fornals/Rice/Souček/Bowen narrowing things up again so they can spring counters from deep. Their concentration and spacing will have to be faultless, because Tielemans has the ability to pick us off if he’s granted the opportunity.
Leicester’s double pivot are quite loose positionally in possession — both of them roam and crossover one another and end up staggered rather than a flat two a lot of the time. If we can catch them in transition, there will be space to exploit.
Totally un-sinister football
Prior to Christian Fuchs coming on for the last 10 mins against City last Sunday, Leicester had played almost 3 full Premier League games without fielding a naturally left-footed player.
That might change now that they’ve brought Cengiz Ünder in on loan from Roma, but they hadn’t been doing too badly going all-in on the right-footers. Admittedly it’s less of an issue when you’ve got a couple of the most two-footed players in the Premier League to choose from at centre-back: Jonny Evans plays 31% of his passes with his left and Söyüncü 25% with his left.
Although his % is lower, Söyüncü in particular is unafraid of attempting more expansive passes with his swinger:
His ability to carry possession forward at pace on the dribble is a useful tool against stubborn defences. If we can get Antonio to limit his time on the ball, it’d give Leicester one less way to hurt us. Alternatively we could use our pressing shape to funnel the ball into Söyüncü, allow him to run forward, turn it over, and then look to capitalise on the space he’s vacated. Given his passing range, that would be the riskier approach, but one that has the potential to pay off handsomely.
Barnestorming runs from the left
Related to that bizarre absence of left-footers is Harvey Barnes. Barnes (84 % of passes with his right) plays on the left wing and almost always cuts inside, like a mirrored version of Arjen Robben. Much like Robben, it’s one thing knowing it’s coming and another stopping it:
Barnes minimises the predictability of his game by alternating between inside and outside starting positions and he’s able to disguise his passes and shots well with his upright running posture. He’s quickly becoming a massive problem for teams to deal with.
Turns out that young left-sided attackers who did well on loan at WBA in the Championship become excellent Premier League players. Who knew?
Barnes’ tendency to cut in does occasionally upset the balance of the team and Leicester’s narrowness on the left is compounded by playing another right-footer, James Justin, behind him. Justin has plenty of experience playing on the left of a back four for Nathan Jones at Luton, although that was in a diamond and it does seem like Justin is still figuring out the dynamic of having a wide player in front of him.
Justin regularly supports attacks by getting himself into the box and against Burnley he had more touches in the penalty area (5) than Vardy did (4). His dedication to being an auxiliary striker in these situations presents opportunities for us on the counter — Antonio’s goal vs Arsenal came due to some lax tracking back by a left-sided defender — although Justin does have good recovery pace.
Sometimes having both Barnes and Justin on the left completely narrows up Leicester’s attack, grinds their momentum to a halt, and makes their possession go a bit stagnant due to a lack of wide passing options. One way Rodgers has worked around that is to get his forwards to run inside on the underlap when Justin/Barnes are pinned out wide:
The player most often making those runs in Denis Praet and, although it might be down to Maddison’s injury problems, having him playing as the number 10 has offset some of Leicester’s balance issues. He interprets that role in a fairly atypical way, forgoing creativity in favour of pressing activity:
His stamina and tenacity helps to break up opposition build-up play but despite his usefulness in that regard, it seems quite likely that Rodgers will go for Maddison in that role here in a game where they’ll expect to dominate possession.
The right side of our defence continues to be an issue: we struggled with Saka and, although Wolves were largely toothless, Pedro Neto still caused Balbuena problems down that side of the pitch. The desire of Leicester’s left-sided attackers to cut inside should work in our favour — we have a lot of players in the centre of the pitch in our 5–4–1 defensive shape — but those underlapping runs from deep could be an issue as our players haven’t been great at re-organising when faced with that kind of movement.
Justin at the back stick
For all his attacking merits, the easiest way for us to get at Leicester is through James Justin. Burnley bullied him and scored their two goals by isolating him at the far post:
He’s not strong, he’s not tall, he doesn’t have a great leap, he gets too tight and he’s easily drawn under the flight of the ball. He’s the weak link in this team.
We managed to get Souček in this position with Saka against Arsenal:
… and it’s something we should be looking to replicate here. Justin has a similar build to Saka and could be exploited in much the same way.
All this West Ham side really have going forward is crosses. If we’re going to go down that route, do it properly and do it smartly. Target the weak link.
Leicester had the joint-best defensive record last season from set pieces, conceding only 6 times in 38 Premier League games and they were pretty good on the xGA front in those situations too:
On the attacking end, I couldn’t spot anything noteworthy or interesting in their set-up. They do quite often take short corners from the left to Justin though, which could be something we see a lot of as Leicester look to avoid the height in our team.
I’ve not even mentioned premium goal goblin Jamie Vardy yet. He’s scored 5 goals in 3 games so far, 4 of which have been penalties and he seems to have a genuine knack for winning them. Vardy is basically designed to cause Ogbonna problems — he’s clumsy at the best of times, let alone when he’s got someone buzzing around him who is just waiting to buy contact. It wouldn’t be a shock if he gave away a penalty here.
Beyond that, it’s difficult to see how this one shakes out. On paper, it’s a game that suits us — Leicester look to dominate possession and they’re missing Ndidi who acts as the safety net so they don’t get caught in transition — and one where we’ll try to do to Leicester what they did to Man City. But WBA attempted a similar shape and approach to the one we’ll be using and Leicester had little trouble dispatching them.
Both Castagne and Justin like to launch forward at every available opportunity so that’s where the space will be and getting Antonio into those wide channels will be vital to our chances. If we can do that and get the Souček/Justin mismatch when we’re crossing the ball, there’s every reason to think we can get something here.
If we don’t find the right way of stifling Mendy and Tielemans in the centre of the park though, it could well be a different story.