Tactics Explained: Leicester City under Brendan Rodgers

Words By Alex Stewart Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 27, 2019

Brendan Rodgers has taken over at Leicester City after Claude Puel’s divisive reign. Rodgers looks to be a good fit for the former Premier League champions, with his strong track record in youth development that began coaching Chelsea’s youth team under Jose Mourinho, and a reputation for playing attractive, possession-based football.

When Leicester City dramatically won the title in 2015/16, though, the side played a very different style that seemed created to get the best out of striker Jamie Vardy. While Vardy got most of the goals for the title-winning side, other key figures such as N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez, and Danny Drinkwater have departed, which suggests that Leicester are ripe for adaptation.

Under Claudio Ranieri in 2015/16, Leicester City played a functional 4-4-2. Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs were disciplined full backs, only getting forwards when safe to do so, while N’Golo Kante screened a deep sitting defence that set up as two banks of four, with Vardy and Shinji Okazaki or Leonardo Ulloa loitering for the counter attack.

In attack, Leicester would send Vardy and Okazaki down the channels, attacking the space behind opposition full backs, while Mahrez cut inside. Often, Vardy would break the offside trap himself and be through on goal, but Mahrez and the second striker were often in space for a cross as well. Leicester would also look to switch play quickly through the long passing of Drinkwater, dragging teams to one side then releasing an attacker in space on the other.

Key to this was Leicester’s direct approach – less possession and fewer passes than most top sides in the league, coupled with their ability to defend deep, win the ball back, and launch raking counter attacks through a combination of intelligent long balls and the pace and movement of Vardy, Mahrez, and Okazaki or Ulloa.

The title was obviously Leicester City’s greatest triumph, and the most unlikely league win of all time, so why now have they turned to a coach who is, on paper at least, a proponent of everything that that side was not?

Rodgers’ tactical philosophy is clearly influenced by the possession-based style that is advocated by someone like Pep Guardiola, but there are elements of pragmatism there too, perhaps influenced by Rodgers’ time at Chelsea. His preferred 4-2-3-1 often uses full backs that push high, a screening midfielder who can play good switching passes, and inverted wingers.

But, as at Swansea, Rodgers also often deploys a genuine striker who plays high and looks for crosses or to run in behind, as well as participating in intricate passing moves, while his use of Gylfi Sigurdsson as a late-arriving goal threat, as much as a creative one, showed a dynamism that belies the idea that that type of possessional football can be sterile and ponderous.

It’s also worth noting too that at Liverpool, Rodgers built his side around the extraordinary abilities of Luis Suarez, creating a pressing, counter-attacking midfield diamond set-up that could look like a 4-3-3 and thrived on the pace, intelligence, and movement of Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, and Raheem Sterling in his breakout season. This set-up saw Jordan Henderson as an all-action pressing midfielder, while Stephen Gerrard supplied long passes to switch play or release the front line, and Coutinho added driving runs from central midfield.

Indeed, this same directness was employed by Rodgers at Celtic, where the usual 4-2-3-1 could seem more like a 3-2-4-1 against teams that sit deep; he also used the system in Champions League football. Kieran Tierney is a very attacking left back who operated at times like a winger, while Michael Lustig would tuck in at right back to make a three, allowing Celtic’s attacking midfield three to shift across.

The midfield double pivot, or even the defence, could then sit off and direct long passes towards the front four or five, or switch play quickly to shift the focus of the attack, against teams who sat off and did not allow Celtic to play a more intricate game in the attacking third.

This shows that there are elements of Rodgers’ play that bely his reputation for patient build-up and possession-based football. Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that his spell at Swansea has led to a characterisation of his style that ignores Rodgers’ ability to adapt or be direct when needed.

And, indeed, his first game in charge of Leicester, a loss against Watford, showed that Leicester may well exploit quick switches of play, especially when wing backs Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira combined to generate pulled back crosses into the danger area.

Playing behind Jamie Vardy, the excellent Harvey Barnes and James Maddison, with Demarai Gray also an option, can also provide the kind of movement that allows Leicester to use the intelligent pivot of Wilfred Ndidi to break up play and Youri Tielemans to release Leicester’s attacking talent.

In addition, Leicester City could well play the sort of patient, probing 4-2-3-1 that Rodgers used at Swansea, with Barnes, Gray, and Maddison all playing behind Vardy. But this will be much of what attracted Rodgers to Leicester City. They are a team whose previous success was built on a certain style, but who are ripe for adaptation, with exciting young players capable of playing differently. And Rodgers, himself an adaptive manager, will happily change approaches based on opponent to get the most from his charges. The Foxes may never repeat the unlikely Premier League win of 2015/16, but under Rodgers, they will be an upwardly mobile club once again.

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