As teams like the Netherlands squad of the 2014 World Cup exemplified the height of reactive counter-attacking tactics across the precipice of football, Leicester City’s astonishing title win last season was perhaps the final glint off the ocean of tactical ideas that sees purely reactive systems fade into the sunset, waiting to dawn again at a later date. Claudio Ranieri’s not-so-fantastic Foxes have a whopping 13 points from 14 games in the Premier League, and although the 5000-to-1 champions are enjoying a European romance with their newfound Champions League place, a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Porto sheds light on the bubble that everyone thought would pop last season; their lack of tactical depth.
Like any tactical system worth its salt, the Ranieri System last season accentuated the strengths of his key players. Due to the heart of their defense being devoid of pace, Leicester always sought to defend a small space and attack a large one. The confines of such a limited defensive area became the perfect environment for N’Golo Kanté, since it allowed the Frenchman to make an insane number of interceptions and tackles due to the limited areas in which the Foxes boxed the opposition into.
The emphasis from opposing teams to try and break down the seemingly impregnable Leicester defense left ample space on the opposing end; the perfect area for the surprise champions' attacking players. Danny Drinkwater, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez often only needed one pass to devastate a defense, making the most of their pace, dribbling ability, and finishing. Though Drinkwater’s affinity for a Hollywood ball may have been wasted in a system that sought to have more possession, the English central midfielder’s long balls were an ideal source of chance creation for the onrushing Jamie Vardy.The England forward hasn't replicated that form in front of goal this season, and some may attribute his lack of goals to the fact that he benefitted from an abnormally high conversion rate, but the nature of Ranieri's system allowed for the majority of those chances created to be of the highest quality. Vardy enjoyed an abundance of his preferred service (over the top) last season and is only feeding on scraps this year.
The lack of sufficient service to their star man may be a result of a variety of things, but the fact that Ranieri’s system was only built to be reactive is likely the most influential factor. As opposed to last season, the majority of teams are acutely aware of how Leicester play now, and what their star players need to succeed. Honing in on those strengths and suffocating their ability to enjoy any offensive prosperity has been far too easy, but this weekend’s matchup against title contestants, Manchester City, may be a more exciting contest than the league table would usually suggest.
With a scoreline that perhaps flattered Antonio Conte’s Chelsea more than it should have, Guardiola and his City team haven’t been as fantastic in the league as some might have expected.Though they’re only four points off the top, this year’s title race is shaping up to be a fierce one, making any opportunity to take points off of lower fidelity opposition a must. However, though Leicester’s lack of form as of late may have the Foxes feeling depleted, their obvious team strengths actually pander to how one might expose City’s glaring weaknesses.
As stated before, Leicester is a team that seeks to attack a large space, something Manchester City may suffer from considering Pep Guardiola intends to defend a large area without an abundance of pace at the back. Though the former Barcelona manager’s possession system may be constricting enough to secure a comfortable win against last year’s champions, Chelsea gave counter-attacking teams a blueprint on how to expose the Mancunians.
Without the likes of Sergio Agüero and Fernandinho due to suspension, Guardiola may find this game more complicated than it first appears. Though City maintain a number of high-quality players at their disposal willing to make the most of Leicester’s less-than-efficient defense, defensive efficacy has been the flaw holding this team back from greatness. If City can overcome their problems in defense and shine in less than favorable conditions, Leicester may be the perfect team to beat in order to show that they have what it takes against a counter-focused team.