Securing one of the most astounding league title wins in football history might’ve felt like a fitting end to the Leicester fairy tale which captured so many hearts over the course of last season, but the resulting qualification for this year’s Champions League (their debut in the competition) meant that there was guaranteed to be at least be one more chapter added to their story. And after getting quite possibly the easiest group stage draw that they could’ve realistically hoped for, Claudio Ranieri’s side travelled with high hopes to the Belgian capital to take on Club Brugge in their opening game.
Unsurprisingly Leicester set themselves up in the same system as the one which brought them so much success in 2015/16, a simple, balanced and well-structured 4-4-2 shape with Jamie Vardy and the big money new signing Islam Slimani leading the line. Brugge, though, also the current holders of their own domestic league, took a less familiar approach and played in what for them was a relatively unorthodox 5-4-1.
Michel Preud'homme’s selection was presumably a method employed to counter Leicester’s strengths. Having three centre-backs would mean that Brugge had a spare man against a mobile, highly intense front two, and seeing as Ranieri only plays two men – Daniel Amartey and Danny Drinkwater – in the middle of the pitch they wouldn’t really have to worry about being outnumbered in those central zones. A very reactive approach within that shape in the extremely early stages both demonstrated and then further added to that caution, the home side sitting very deep, barely pressing and allowing Leicester plenty of time on the ball during the build-up phase.
That’s not something Leicester are used to, of course. Typically, they’re the ones who hold a low block and look to hit open spaces on the counter-attack, but here Brugge did it and they almost took a very quick lead through that method when their left-winger, José Izquierdo, was played past the defence after some quick progression of the ball up the field. The Colombian skewed his shot wide though, and it wasn’t long until they were rueing that missed chance even further when Marc Albrighton gave Leicester the lead in the 5th minute.
It was a largely avoidable goal from Brugge’s perspective (a long throw-in by Luis Hernández being misjudged by the goalkeeper, which allowed Albrighton to slot home at the far post) and the deficit swiftly put an end to what theoretically seemed to be a logical plan to nullify what their opponents do best. Now Leicester were in a situation which perfectly suited them, and as the game progressed there was more and more need for the home side to control the ball.
To be fair to Brugge, they did that. What they didn’t do, though, was create anything useful with their ever-increasing levels of possession. The majority of their time with the ball was spent moving it sluggishly from one side to the other, a ‘U’ shape being formed with little penetration offered through the middle of the pitch. Not having someone to pass progressively from the back was a big reason for that, especially when you factor in the opportunity cost derived from the decision to use three centre-backs; while defensively beneficial, if none of the trio can move the ball vertically then the absence of an extra midfielder is certainly going to be felt.
Izquierdo was the only one who showed any real threat. He used his pace to some success against Leicester’s right-back Hernández when the odd chance for a one-on-one appeared, although the away side were, for the most part, extremely comfortable at dealing with attacks in wide areas (the only zones of the pitch where Brugge could move the ball into advanced positions). Riyad Mahrez took up positions to support Hernández behind him when needed, while on their left Albrighton did the same to great effect. He and Christian Fuchs demonstrated a strong understanding, ensuring that the adventurous wing-back Ricardo van Rhijn was sufficiently nullified. Upfront, Abdoulay Diaby was well and truly isolated.
On the break after turnovers Leicester looked, as usual, very good, with Slimani and Vardy combining their movements well and some nice deep runs from Albrighton and Mahrez helping to support them. Drinkwater’s forward-orientated attitude with the ball in such situations, meaning he sought to move the ball vertically whenever he could as space appeared, was a good aid to that too.
In non-transitional phases they weren’t quite as threatening, Brugge’s lack of pressing combined with decent positional discipline on their part meaning that Ranieri’s team didn’t really play through them often. Because of their lead they weren’t in a situation where they were forced to do so with any real urgency, though, and typically one thing they commonly sought to do instead was exploit the diagonal movements of Vardy and (especially) Slimani to play longer aerial passes into wide zones. It was that kind of ball to the latter which helped win them the throw-in that resulted in their first goal, actually.
Much as that opener was poor from Brugge’s perspective, the second goal later on in the first-half was perhaps even more so. Mahrez’s 29th minute free-kick was extremely high quality, but Stefano Denswil giving the ball away to Vardy with an awful pass in the middle of his own half and forcing Timmy Simons into a last-ditch foul on the edge of the penalty area was the last thing that Brugge needed. It was perhaps lucky for them that Simons wasn’t given a straight red card for the foul; any feelings of relief on that front were quickly ended by Mahrez, though.
And all that goal did was reinforce the aforementioned tone of the game yet further. Leicester had even less reason to push forward now, leaving Brugge to continue to rack up greater levels of ball control. In the opening 45 minutes it was actually relatively even on the possession front, however in the second-half the home side had over 70% of the ball as they sought to pull back the deficit.
They only had two shots in the first-half, and it took until the 57th minute for them to finally have one that hit the target (not that Izquierdo’s effort was even close to troubling Kasper Schmeichel). More of a threat eventually came from them at least, their phases of possession coming higher up the pitch as Leicester held a deeper shape closer to their own goal, though doing anything meaningful to get Diaby and then his replacement Jelle Vossen involved upfront was still beyond them.
Ranieri didn’t really have to do much to cope with the slightly enhanced pressure that his side were put under. Something he did switch for the whole of the second-half, saying that, having done it for the occasional period in the first-half, was move Albrighton permanently over to the right. That meant Mahrez was on the left now, and appeared to be a tool to deal with Izquierdo and the wing-back behind him, Laurens De Bock, when they attacked together. Despite Leicester’s general comfort with it the pair did still combine to almost pull a goal back in the 63rd minute, the winger unfortunate to only strike the post.
It’s not as if that going in instead would’ve changed much though, as Leicester had extended their lead to 3-0 just two minutes beforehand. And in doing so their hat-trick of scoring from set-pieces – and Brugge defensive mistakes – was completed, when Mahrez coolly slotted a penalty past Ludovic Butelle to get his second of the night. It was the goalkeeper who’d committed the foul to bring about the spot-kick, though a second badly miscued pass right into the path of the electric Vardy, this time by Simons, was the reason why the opportunity arose in the first place.
There were numerous instances of other silly mistakes like that which the home side were fortunate to see go unpunished, De Bock, Tomás Pina and Hans Vanaken, the right-sided midfielder who occupied quite a narrow role to give Van Rhijn more space to push forward from the back, being the only ones who were particularly consistent with their passing. Otherwise Brugge were pretty poor technically and overall just lacked the quality of execution to break down a well-drilled Leicester side on the night.
So it finished 3-0 to Leicester, making it a Champions League debut to remember for the Premier League title holders and their fans. The rest of their games in UEFA's main club competition are bound to be more difficult than this one, but this was the perfect start; and they genuinely do have a great chance of progressing to the knockout rounds.