It’s been a weird season in the Premier League so far, and no club epitomises that bizarreness quite like Leicester do. After narrowly scrambling to survival last year thanks to a sudden upturn in form late on, The Foxes, rather astonishingly, have built upon those bright performances monumentally under Claudio Ranieri and are sitting pretty at the top of the table with 25 games gone. A convincing 3-1 win away at Man City in isolation would have been considered a surprise prior to the season starting, but for it to be the game that most recently secured them their five-point lead? Now that’s something else entirely.
There’s been an almost perfect concoction of factors that has led to them getting into this position in the first place, including things (like the overall quality of both the league itself and the top teams) which are undoubtedly out of their control, and amongst all those is the importance of the defined style of play which Ranieri has implemented: one which is a great fit for the players he has and the environment that he’s in.
With an average of just 43.7% possession per game, the third-lowest figure in the league, Leicester definitely don’t aim for long spells on the ball throughout matches. Instead their style is very much counter-attack orientated, based around soaking up pressure before transitioning and bursting into the space which their opponents vacate when they’re trying to break Leicester down. It’s a very different way of playing to the other members of the top four who usually have much more of the ball, Arsenal (55.4%), Man City (55.4%) and Spurs (55.1%), but it’s what works best for them for a number of reasons.
We’ll start off with the defensive side of things first. Rather than looking at Leicester’s own style from the off however, initially it makes sense to have a quick look at the typical issues that the opposite, possession-based method of playing can bring about.
Where defending successfully is largely about being compact and narrow, a key part of attacking well typically involves being spaced out and considerably wider in shape – something which is enhanced even more if you’re keeping lots of the ball and trying to break down the opposition when they’ve got a number of players back in their own half. That’s fine to do if you’re good on a technical level and are brilliant at counter-pressing like, say, Bayern Munich and Spurs, but if you aren’t then regular losses of possession when you’re spread out in such a manner can leave you extremely vulnerable on the break and prove costly time and time again.
Having very little emphasis on controlling the ball however means that Leicester have far fewer instances where they can be caught wide open like that; they’re the ones who are sitting back, just inviting pressure and looking to hit the other side on the counter. It’s also a useful thing to do if you’ve got centre-backs (Robert Huth in particular) who aren’t comfortable playing in a high line as they get to play deeper, while simultaneously ensuring that they’re rarely caught in one-on-one situations due to the central midfielders (most commonly Danny Drinkwater and N'Golo Kanté) covering the space just ahead of them.
It’s no use defending deep with lots of men behind the ball if you aren’t taught to keep a good shape though, of course. So fortunately, Ranieri has continued to make sure that they’re capable of coping with the pressure that they invite upon themselves. They normally do this by taking up a very standard 4-4-2 shape without the ball, with Shinji Okazaki and Jamie Vardy being the two most advanced players who cover lots of ground to try and block passing lanes. Directly behind them are the midfield pair of Drinkwater and Kanté, while Marc Albrighton and Riyad Mahrez tuck inside from the wings and help to make sure that the ball can’t go into the half-spaces or through more dangerous zones in the middle of the pitch.
It’s something that’s seen them have a pretty decent record of conceding only 27 goals in 25 games, just one more than Man City for the sake of perspective, despite them not really having any particularly great defensive players (Kanté and the left-back Christian Fuchs are possibly exceptions to that) on an individual level. With them all in such a well-orchestrated team unit that has a clear structure, however, you definitely wouldn’t think that. There have even been a few calls for Joachim Löw to call Huth up to the Germany side for Euro 2016 in the summer, for example: it’s amazing what playing in a system that suits them can do for a centre-back.
Back at Ranieri’s Leicester though, defending in such a way hasn’t necessarily helped them to actually reduce the amount of shots taken against them (13.5 per game is the Premier League’s seventh-highest). Instead, what it’s done is enabled them to limit the quality of shooting opportunities afforded to opponents; they block 4.6 shots per game on average (the league’s third-highest), and just 8.0% (the sixth-lowest) of efforts taken at their goal find the back of the net. Some of that also comes down to Kasper Schmeichel simply having a brilliant season, but they’re definitely defending the right areas effectively.
So a big reason for their good record at the back is that they know how to keep a good shape and have regularly set themselves up in a way that keeps them, for the most part, protected from the threat of conceding more dangerous chances from counter-attacks. That’s a danger which is particularly prominent in the continuously fast-paced, unorganised chaos that is the Premier League – and on the flipside of things their own ability to counter-attack opponents is definitely helped by that very nature of the competition.
Except for Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs, who unsurprisingly have the best defensive record in the division because of it, no sides are currently set up in a way in which they can counter-press effectively (or at the very least get back into position quickly) to limit the danger of transitions. When teams have been building possession from the back and looking to attack their opponents, it’s been more common than ever to see the next chance of the game come after a turnover of possession and a quick break back against the side that originally had the ball.
By having a combination of energetic midfielders, quick runners, and attackers who excel in one-on-ones, Leicester have been able to expose the common faults of most teams in the league and utilise that pattern of play to full effect. They again haven’t got the most brilliant individuals on a technical basis, but, much like with their defensive methods, they’ve found a style that works impeccably for them. And with the drawn-highest goal tally in the league (47), that's pretty indisputable.
When Leicester win the ball back, often deep within their own half after good pressing in those areas forces a mistake, all hell breaks loose. Players push forward to support the attack, tearing into masses of space at rapid speed. Rather than a chaotic kind of hell though, there’s actually a beautiful synchronicity about it – it’s just carried out at an electric pace.
Mahrez and Vardy may be their two best players as well as the ones who thrive the most in such a system, but the initiation of the attack often originates from the central midfielders, Drinkwater and Kanté. They both cover lots of ground in front of the defence, and as a result are typically the ones who get possession back for Leicester. Sometimes that happens as a result of a tackle or interception (especially from Kanté, who averages a huge 4.7 of each of those per 90 minutes), other times after a cross is cleared out to them on the edge of the box, but whatever the method of recovery those two are regularly the key to bringing the attackers into play in the final third.
Drinkwater is the more ball-playing midfielder of the pair, progressing these attacks with long passes towards the runners ahead of him, whereas Kanté has a lesser passing range but is brilliant at carrying the ball forward with his feet. The two are very different in that sense, and it’s something which is quite beneficial due to the variety it gives them – this way the tempo and method of attacks can be mixed up and avoid becoming too predictable.
After those two get possession, or even prior to it in anticipation in some instances, the wingers and the forwards start to make their runs. Where these are aimed towards vary depending on the individual situation and where the space is, but with Okazaki and Vardy in particular there are very common patterns with their movement. The pair work together well, Vardy almost always pulling out wide into one of the channels while Okazaki either goes central or drifts outside in a similar fashion on the opposite flank.
Vardy’s runs are habitually on the opposite side of the field to where the ball is, enabling long diagonal passes across the pitch that he can catch up to, and usually involve him dragging a defender wide with him: a one-on-one battle which the pacey striker will often win comfortably. His strike partner Okazaki doesn’t quite have the same acceleration or ability to beat his man, leaving Vardy as the main target for these longer balls forward, but he makes a number of intelligent runs nonetheless.
As for Albrighton and Mahrez, their deeper starting positions mean that the movements they make are more orientated around what the strikers do than vice versa. If Okazaki and Vardy have both gone wide, like with Mahrez’s goal against Man City in the 3-1 win at The Etihad for example, then one of these two will provide the penetration in the middle. Should they be more central however, then the wingers can provide overlapping runs into the space beyond them.
They can also offer a simpler, alternative passing option for Drinkwater and Kanté, in the event of the route to either of the strikers not being the most effective. Mahrez’s incredible ability to commit players before dribbling past them can always prove handy, and he’s also (as demonstrated in the picture above) very capable of picking out through-balls. The other winger, Albrighton, isn’t quite as effective, and is pretty one-dimensional in fact, but crucially for Leicester’s counter-attacking system he’s still extremely quick and can cross a ball quite well. Every one of their players has something to offer in this style, and that’s why it works so well.
If these players weren’t afforded the space to break into space as regularly they do, there’s a good chance that the likes of Albrighton and Vardy wouldn’t be nearly as effective as they have been this season. In fact it's quite surprising that more teams haven't tried harder to cut off space against them in some way or another up until this point. Put them in a defined system like this and play them to their strengths, though, and suddenly a number of Leicester players have been right up there with the very best performers of this Premier League campaign.
Ranieri’s team have mastered the art of the transition, and the Italian deserves an immeasurable amount of credit for getting this set of players into a very genuine title challenge. Not only are they a new face at the top of the table, but they’re also an incredibly entertaining and brilliantly coached side on top of that – it’s no wonder The Foxes have quickly become the neutral’s favourite for the league.