It is arguably the most remarkable turnaround in fortunes in Premier League history. Saturday afternoon’s victory at Goodison Park ensured that Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City side will sit atop the league tree this Christmas – a far cry from 12 months ago, when they languished at its foot.
Ranieri returned to English shores this summer under a cloud, after an embarrassing failed stint in charge of the Greek national team – an ordeal that saw the country lose home and away to the not-so-mighty Faroe Islands. The Italian’s prospects of continuing the resurgence his predecessor, Nigel Pearson, oversaw in the second half of last season were rated as slim at best. Scaling these lofty heights was completely unthinkable.
Yet scale them Leicester have. And they have done so by turning in an uncanny impression of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. Atletico, of course, sensationally upset the odds two seasons ago to capture the La Liga crown and come within seconds of clinching an unlikely first Champions League title.
Ranieri, like Simeone, has turned back the years by employing an old-fashioned 4-4-2 formation. The 4-4-2 had previously been thought obsolete at the highest level since the emergence to prominence of one-striker systems like 4-2-3-1 at the turn of the millennium. Managers were wary of exposing themselves to potential overloads in the middle of the park, where teams with more layered formations could catch them between the lines.
The 4-4-2 of Simeone and Ranieri resolves this potential pitfall by minimising space in midfield. The distance between the back four and the two strikers – who are both pulled back to form a third defensive barrier – is extremely slight. This ultra-compactness has its benefits both when a side is on the attack and on the defence. Choking off the opposition midfield by sheer weight of numbers increases the number of successful tackles and interceptions that can be brought to bear.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Leicester City are the second best tacklers in the league and the best interceptors. They managed 29 of the former today and an almost silly 36 of the latter – with holders Andy King and the marvellous N’Golo Kanté managing seven and six respectively. The seasonal per-game averages across the league for both defensive statistics are roughly 19 and 16 respectively.
The congestion facing the opposition is further exacerbated by the narrow roles played by the wide midfielders in the defensive phase. Ranieri asks both Riyad Mahrez and Mark Albrighton to tuck in beside their central colleagues to further guard against those aforementioned midfield overloads. The task asked of them is a very physically demanding one, with both also expected to spring into wide areas on the counter-attack when the ball is won.
Mahrez’s stellar performances this season have been well documented, but it was Albrighton who typified the workrate necessary to fulfil a wide role in this system on Saturday afternoon. The English winger finished as the game’s joint-top tackler and it was his harrying that blocked down Seamus Coleman’s attempted clearance to prompt Leicester’s third goal. Leicester’s first goal – a Mahrez penalty – also resulted from the lost-cause chasing of Shinji Okazaki.
The short distances between players in the defensive phase is also a primary reason why Leicester have scored the most goals from counter-attacking situations in the Premier League this season – ensuring that when the ball is won, the successful tackler/interceptor is more likely to have an available passing option. Augmenting this threat on the break is the sheer number of bodies Leicester commit to the attack, increasing the potential for a successful direct pass out of defence. Here they reap the benefits of a two-striker system, with both frontmen often joined in the final third by both energetic wingers in a pseudo 4-2-4.
That would be a difficult prospect for any Premier League side to defend against at transitions. For Roberto Martinez’s Everton, who often leave Gareth Barry stranded in front of their defence thanks to their adventurous 4-1-2-3 formation, it was a particularly tall order.
Although Barry matched Albrighton’s game-leading tally of five tackles, he was unable to singularly prevent the stream of through balls that Leicester attempted to thread in behind Everton’s defence. The victorious visitors were allowed to chance their collective arm with seven of these. The league per-game median is below two.
Unsurprisingly, Everton were eventually punished for the space vacated by the advanced positioning of Tom Cleverley and Ross Barkley. Witness the time Mahrez had to thread one through for Jamie Vardy, leading to Mahrez’s second spot-kick – and goal – of the game. Few observers would have been surprised to see two of the league’s three best players this season – the other being Mesut Ozil – combining successfully yet again.
Leicester’s latest success stands in stark contrast to the latest failure of one Louis Van Gaal, whose Manchester United side suffered a predictably dull 2-1 home reverse against Norwich City. It’s certainly worth noting that the ultra-direct table-toppers lie in 18th in the average possession table and sit 20th in the average pass completion ratio standings.
The season-low 59% pass completion ratio from the Chelsea game was very nearly matched here against Everton (60%). Yet, the Foxes managed more shots on target than the outgoing champions on Monday night. They also matched Everton’s tally today, despite seeing only 35% of the ball. In other words, Ranieri has his side in pole position – comfortably outscoring their competition – despite putting seemingly no faith in the supposed primacy of possession. So much for Louis’ blunt and bankrupt “philosophy”.