The decline of the 4-4-2 in English football has become increasingly noticeable throughout the last few years, with the majority of big teams switching to variations of the 4-5-1, 4-3-3 and perhaps most commonly, the 4-2-3-1. Harry Redknapp was one of the last managers to see a fair amount of success in this formation between 2009 and 2012, with his Spurs side offering exciting and open football which earned them their first top 4 finish in the Premier League. However, teams started adapting in order to overcome this style of play, with the majority of teams switching to a somewhat more structured versions of the 4-2-3-1, which allowed them to outnumber the opposition’s two central midfielders, offered an extra midfielder to help deal with the 2 strikers, and equipped them with 4 attacking players to trouble the opposition themselves.
Since the rise of this formation, there has been an evident decrease in the effectiveness of the 4-4-2, with the formation seemingly only used by relegation battling teams and Arsenal when Wenger runs and options for a much needed goal. At Spurs, Tim Sherwood learned the hard way that a simple 4-4-2 is highly flawed in the modern game, with his side looking almost suicidal at times, and he changed his style upon his arrival at Villa.
However, in a season full of endless shocks and unpredictability, Leicester continue stride towards that Premier League trophy. And it is almost just as surprising to see them do so whilst operating in a formation that most thought was dying. Ranieri has worked wonders since arriving at the King Power Stadium, and is often praised for the energy, determination and winning mentality which he has brought to the club, but despite the constant praise for his players’ performances, his tactics are very rarely mentioned when it comes to the praise that his side are receiving through fans and the media.
Ranieri’s adaptation of the 4-4-2 is a clever one. Sticking to a set formation isn’t something Ranieri has found easy over his career, receiving criticism for constantly switching tactics at high profile clubs such as Chelsea and Valencia. But the Italian has found a method that works at Leicester, and it doesn’t look like he’s willing to change that. Here is a brief analysis of the tactics Ranieri has employed to convert Leicester City into serious title contenders.
In goal, Kasper Schmeichel has the obvious task of… Well, goalkeeping. But the Dane also has a secondary role of building from the back and starting counter attacks. He has a great range of distribution and is usually relatively accurate with both his kicking and throwing. From throws he tends to look for the wide players in Albrighton and Mahrez. This has been a feature in Leicester’s counter attacking style; getting the ball to the wide players as quickly as possible. When the chance to counter attack isn’t there, Schmeichel will look for a long ball to one of the strikers, with Ulloa providing strength in the air and Vardy providing pace in behind.
The full backs in Leicester’s squad are very much ‘old school’ full backs. The modern full back will act almost as a wing back at times, often providing an extra attacking outlet for their teams. Leicester’s full backs have taken a different approach. Fuchs and Simpson have both been a massive part of Leicester’s defensive success. They put an emphasis on defensive solidity and prioritise staying as part of a back four, as opposed to bombing forward to join in with attacks. They both provide excellent cover for the two centre halves, Huth and Morgan, neither of which are the quickest. They do well to maintain the defensive line, and stay narrow when defending to avoid the exposure of their centre backs. This defensive discipline means they need to choose their attacking moments wisely, and they do this very effectively, joining attacks only when they know that they have a midfield player to fill in for them. Even when not directly joining attacks, both full backs find space behind the ball, in order to help re-build the attack or recycle possession. Fuchs and Simpson are both competent on the ball, and their ability to provide the wingers with service down the line has been a factor in the success of Albrighton and Mahrez.
At Centre Back, Robert Huth and Wes Morgan have formed a powerful partnership. They both share a similar defending style, acting as traditional stoppers, and rarely stepping out of defence. Morgan can sometimes drop slightly behind Huth to act as cover, seeing as he is probably slightly quicker than Huth, whilst Huth is stronger in the air. Their experience and communication forms a vital part of the way Leicester play, with both of them constantly instructing and ordering their teammates. On the ball, they aim to keep it simple with their passing, primarily aiming to play the ball into midfield, or to either full back. They both have an average pass length of 20 metres, with Morgan being the slightly more accurate of the two. The strong duo have been almost faultless and error free all season, with neither putting a foot wrong. They have formed a reliable wall at the back, and have become a crucial part of Leicester’s spine. Their formidable partnership has certainly been a key component of Leicester’s title challenge.
Their intriguing central midfield situation is one in which I have great interest. The conventional, successful, modern day double pivot of a midfield pairing usually involves one ‘destroyer’ type midfielder, and one ball player. A prime example is the midfield of last season’s Champions, with Matic being the destroyer and Fabregas alongside him in the deep-lying playmaker role. This type of two man midfield has been increasingly popular and effective throughout England. Arsenal had their most successful spell of the season with Coquelin as the destroyer and Cazorla as the ball player, Spurs have found their ideal pairing in Dier and Dembele, and Man City have often set up with the destroyer of Fernando alongside the makeshift ball player of Fernandinho in the centre of the park. However, this season’s Leicester City are constantly breaking the ‘Premier League norms’ on which we base our expectations, and this is just another example. Kanté and Drinkwater are two of the most all action, box to box midfielders you’ll find in the Premier League, and they are also, arguably, the best midfield combination, limiting highly rated summer signing, Gokhan Inler, to just 5 league appearances.
The two central midfielders have very similar roles that consist of winning the ball back quickly, and turning defence into attack as quickly as possible, however there are some slight differences in their qualities and playing styles. Kanté has put in more tackles than any other player this season, and has the second most interceptions. Although him and Drinkwater both take up similar positions off the ball, his stamina, technique and anticipation give him the ability to retrieve ball more times than the majority of other players, including his midfield companion, Drinkwater. However, on the ball Drinkwater has a slight edge, completing more passes at a greater average distance than N’Golo. Despite this, they do not differentiate their roles to much of an extent. They both attack and defend in equal measure, covering the defence and supporting the forwards. In a team that relies on counter attacking football, rather than possession, the two midfielders find themselves defending and retrieving the ball, more often than keeping it, but because of their mindset and ability, this causes few problems. Despite only having a goal each to their name this season, they do provide adequate service to the strikers and wide men, with 7 assists between them and 62 chances created in their 30 matches this campaign.
A key component of Leicester City’s success is their wing play. Mahrez has been giving full backs nightmares all season down the right, whilst Albrighton’s somewhat under-appreciated work has been giving this Leicester side balance, whilst offering a consistent threat down the left flank. Both wingers have operated with their strongest foot on the inside, giving them an unpredictability to their approach, as they can cut inside onto their fullbacks weaker side and cause problems, but they also have the versatility and ability to go down the line and whip their crosses in that way. Mahrez has the second highest take on completion in the league, and his skillful and speedy approach epitomises the way Leicester play their counter-attacking game. Albrighton on the other side may not have the skill and speed to constantly beat his man, in the way that Mahrez does, but he does create chance after chance with his constant crosses and accurate delivery. He has created 56 chances, and has the most amount of successful crosses in the league with 34. Mahrez offers the side plenty of pace, with a quality end product leading to 16 goals and 11 assists, still with seven games to go, whilst Albrighton’s steady and constant style down the left has added balance and poise to Leicester’s attack, whilst creating plenty of opportunities for the strikers.
Up front, Leicester have frequently started with Vardy and Okazaki up top, with Ulloa acting as the backup striker. With an overall consensus on hard work, the responsibility is on the strikers to lead from the front, and press defences when the opportunity is there. The two strikers will often alternate between pressing the player, and cutting passing lanes. On the ball, Vardy and Okazaki will look to stretch defences, using their pace and stamina to make constant runs in behind defences or down the channels, whereas the physically strong Ulloa acts as a target man to offer an alternative option to Leicester’s play. As the focal point of the attack, Leicester City’s front men will look to quickly shift the ball out wide, or drop it back into midfield, in order to allow them to pick up threatening positions further up the pitch. Vardy has undoubtedly been the star striker out of the three, picking up 19 of their joint account of 27 Premier League goals, but Okazaki and Ulloa’s physicality, skill and work rate have been influential in the way Leicester play, and the success they’ve had.
Ranieri had seemingly formed what looked like a basic 4-4-2 that carried very little chance for success against the tactically ‘superior’ formation deployed by the big teams in the modern, English game, but in actual fact has been very effective. A solid, deep lying back four, with strong centre halves and disciplined full backs makes their defence very hard to break down, and with the workman like grit of Kanté and Drinkwater overwhelming midfields that may be carrying and extra player, chances created against this Leicester side are limited even further. In attack the wingers and strikers all collaborate well as an offensive unit, and their speed in breaking forward and harrying defences makes them an extremely difficult team to play against. Could the 4-4-2 be the formation that wins The Foxes the league?
By Dan Grimes, TFN Columnist on 01/04/2016 at 14:04
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