Leicester City’s unprecedented rise from relegation certainties to title contenders throws itself into contention for one of the best stories in sporting history. The fairy-tale nature has presented journalists around the world with a problem, albeit an enticing one: how have they done it? Myriad valid theories have been communicated, but they’ve all failed to touch upon an important strand in the Foxes’ DNA that has allowed them to belligerently force their way to the summit.
Ranieri’s side are set up in a conventional 4-4-2, a slap to the face of football hipsters who lament the sins of this traditional mode of formation. Yet, ‘The Tinkerman’ has fused, quite masterfully, elements of the modern game to a traditional structure, orchestrating an ‘unconventionally conventional’ 4-4-2, leaving opposition managers dumbfounded.
Teams do not know how to deal with Leicester. Surprising when one considers the formation employed: surely, this anachronistic style is easily defended against. It’s simple, really. They deploy a back-four, two central midfielders with two wide-men, and two strikers. It’s nothing special. Yet, repeatedly, experienced managers such as Klopp and Pellegrini, are left baffled on the side-lines, watching helplessly as their defence is left bewildered at how the ball has found itself in their net.
Managers and players have become so attuned in setting up to nullify the importation of continental tactics, that they have forgotten how to approach a team organised into a 4-4-2. In the case of Otamendi and Demichelis, they had also forgotten the basics of defending. Full-backs have forgotten how to stop a cross, centre-backs have forgotten how to deal with rapid strikers, and central midfielders have forgotten how to cope with their box-to-box counterparts.
Let’s start with the inadequacies of opposition defending. Marc Albrighton looks to dispatch a cross at every opportunity, hoping that either Vardy, Ullloa or Okazaki are there to meet it. Twice against Manchester City Albrighton delivered an early cross and twice Vardy could have scored. Full-backs, brainwashed by the dominant philosophy that they should leave a yard between themselves and the winger, fail to block these crosses, to the detriment of the score line.
Centre-backs are clueless in how to cancel out the threat of Vardy. The same mistakes are made every week; defences play a mid-to-high line, leaving themselves vulnerable to Leicester’s love for a ball over-the-top allowing the indefatigable Vardy to latch onto. Shockingly, one of the worst teams in the league realised how to deal with this danger before anyone else: Aston Villa’s defence adopted a deep line against the table-topping side, eradicating the chance of being caught out by air-born through balls. Granted, it didn’t work for Leicester’s single goal in the match, but if a team currently occupying last position can almost eliminate such possibilities then why couldn’t Manchester City? Perhaps, as pointed out by Alyson Rudd in a podcast conducted by The Times, it boils down to a lack of respect – why should we, Manchester City, alter our way of playing?
N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater have repeatedly embarrassed players with international pedigree. In fitting with the traditional 4-4-2, there are two box-to-box central midfielders, each capable of creating and neutralising. Three-man-midfields are becoming increasingly popular, be it a triangle through a 4-2-3-1 or a linear system in a 4-5-1. Despite this, Leicester’s two central midfielders are always snapping at the heels of their opposite numbers and running through the centre with baffling ease. Two box-to-box midfielders have been such a rarity that midfielders do not know how to manage them.
Having being concerned with the traditional elements of a 4-4-2 which has perplexed teams this season, let’s move onto how Ranieri has adapted this formation to include modern characteristics. The former-Chelsea manager has done so in two prominent ways.
There isn’t a target man for defenders to lump the ball into, rather, as stated, there is a player, in the form of Vardy that will relentlessly chase balls down. Alongside him is usually the Japanese international Okazaki, who makes intelligent runs behind the defence; this notion of forward players running in behind isn’t a completely novel concept, but differs to what one would expect from two forwards in a 4-4-2. Leicester have abandoned the principle that dictates there be a centre-forward who can flick the ball onto his partner, opting to employ the fairly modern idea of forwards sensing space in-behind the defence.
Ranieri’s second implementation of the modern game into a traditional format arrives with Riyad Mahrez; the Algerian is not a typical winger, but embodies the attributes of a contemporary wide-man. He has the ability to cut-in, shimmy past a defender and either fire one into the goal, as seen in the Foxes’ demolition of Manchester City, or slide a defence-splitting pass to his two forwards. His dizzyingly quick feet, coupled with his intelligent play, have been the tools that have rocketed him to one of the best players in the league.
Leicester’s orthodox 4-4-2, infused with progressive ingredients has moulded them into the most dangerous team in the Premier League.
The Foxes’ title hopes took a knock when they suffered a defeat in the dying embers of the game against Arsenal; a game that was ruined by the dismal of Danny Simpson for two yellow cards, and the cowardice of the referee who refrained from handing out the same punishment to Arsenal’s Coquelin. Neutrals are hoping that this blow won’t be crippling.