Leicester City have been on an amazing run in the Premier League this season. No one, even in their wildest dreams, would have imagined that come March, Leicester would be sitting atop the league table and be favourites to win the title. From being relegation contenders just about a year ago, to now being five points clear at the top with seven games to go, Leicester City’s story is one that even the most fantastical writer could not have scripted.
Needless to say, the Foxes’ rise and ascent has been discussed at length and has captured the imagination of pundits and analysts alike. From Vardy and Mahrez’s amazing season to their counter-attacking football style to the traditional powerhouses not living up to their potential, many reasons and factors have attributed to their success. While all of them have played their part in taking Leicester City to the summit, it is also important to credit Claudio Ranieri. We dive a little deeper into Leicester City’s tactics this season and see how Ranieri has transformed the playing style with a strong tactical game plan. It is easy to say that it’s all down to their counter-attacking football, but that would be just scratching the surface. In this article, we have tried to look at the key numbers more deeply and analyse their gameplay in detail.
We’ll start with looking at some of the passing statistics.
The numbers above show their passing averages till their last league game against Crystal Palace
But what do these numbers even mean in the larger context? To understand them better, let’s compare them against the other title contenders.
(These statistics are updated till Gameweek 31 – 20th March)
As can be seen, even though Leicester play less passes on average, a large % of them are played in the attacking third, and keeping the ball higher up the pitch means they have a greater chance to score. In fact, their final-third passing is higher than the other three title contenders. Their % of forward passes is also the highest amongst the four teams indicating they do not waste time or possession by passing the ball backwards or sideways, showing their directness in attack Their sole motive is to get the ball forward quickly, into the attacking third and create chances. They can afford to keep this high tempo in the opposition half thanks to the pace and skill of Vardy and Mahrez, and also the work-ethic of Albrighton and Okazaki, then to convert those chances and even half-chances for that matter.
In order to get the ball and keep it moving so high up the pitch, they need to press high up and win the ball as close to the opposition goal as possible, eventually getting chances to score. Leicester City have also been remarkable at converting their chances. They have scored from 14% of their total shots on goal, higher than any other Premier League club. The next best conversion rate is that of Everton, at 12%.
It shouldn’t be a surprise then that Leicester are 3rd worst in the league in the league when it comes to keeping possession – 44.7%, only West Brom and Sunderland are worse off. Also, they have the lowest pass completion rate in the League with most of their play taking place in the forward direction, increasing the risk factor.
A lot of their success has also been due to their work without the ball.
Leicester City have the highest number of interceptions per game (21.9) in the Premier League and are the 7th best in Europe’s top-five leagues. They are also only 2nd to Liverpool in the Premier League in terms of tackles per game (23) and 4th best in Europe’s Top 5 Leagues.
Below is a comparison of Leicester’s defensive work viz a viz the other title contenders.
As can be seen, Leicester City are streets ahead of the others in terms of proactive defending. The Leicester team covers a lot of ground, working their socks, off the ball, and are right in-your-face from the starting whistle.
The entire Leicester team defends together as a unit, something which is largely found amiss amongst the bigger teams who have been largely underperforming this year.
Not many would have heard of him, but Charles Reep was one of the first who introduced analytics in Football, as early as the 1950s. Reep would watch games at the stadium and take notes down meticulously. After attending thousands of games and following the same procedure diligently, he came to the conclusion that – ‘Most goals were scored from 3 passes or fewer. Therefore it is important to get the ball forward as soon as possible. The quicker the ball was played to goal, with fewer number of passes, the more would be the probability of scoring a goal.’ This eventually gave rise to ‘Long Ball’ football in the English game, although there have been counter arguments against the theory, challenging some of the basic assumptions made.
Below is a graph that depicts how Leicester’s goals have come this season.
16 of Leicester City’s 54 goals this season have come from penalties and set pieces. That is a whopping 30% of their goals. Leicester have also scored eight penalties this season, highest amongst all top division English teams, which is a result of their direct running at teams going forward, especially in the box. The directness and dribbling of the attacking players helps Leicester achieve their quick transitions.
It also turns out that Leicester have scored 22 out of their 38 goals in open play from 3 or fewer passes! That’s roughly about 58% of their goals in open play! Even if you consider the total goals scored by Leicester in the league till date, 22 out of 54 goals comes to about 40%, which is still an impressive figure!
Also, the popular notion that Leicester is a purely counter-attacking team is not quite right, as can be seen from the below graph.
All these statistics suggest that Ranieri has clearly taken a leaf out of Charles Reep’s notebook. Although the way Leicester play is definitely not exactly ‘Long Ball’ football, it is a much-more refined and polished version of the same. It cannot be defined as counter-attacking football in the true sense of the word either. The Foxes believe in getting the ball forward as quickly as possible and into the attacking third. But they do it in a very intelligent and efficient way. Reep advocated aerial passes as a means to go forward. However, Leicester play a lot of passes on the ground and work their way up the pitch quickly. It is rather a mixture of high pressing, complemented with high ball and counter-attacking football.
Quite clearly, Leicester have just kept it simple and reaped the rewards for the same.
The team defends together as a unit, presses with a high intensity, wins the ball and gets it forward into the attacking third as soon as possible. Ranieri has also instilled the necessary confidence and winning mentality into the team, while at the same time emphasizing a focus on the fundamentals and irrigating a defend-from-the-front philosophy. These tactics have worked wonders till now and it will be interesting to see if the teams that are yet to face them find a tactical loophole in this Leicester team. Or maybe in Europe next season. Until then, more power to Leicester!
Otamendi or Adam Smith? Who will make more tackles?
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