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New manager Claude Puel teaching old Foxes new tricks

Not all 4-4-2 formations are the same.

Stoke City v Leicester City - Premier League Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Looking at the Foxes’ team sheet for the Stoke match, you might be tempted to think that new manager Claude Puel had reverted to the setup that has has been City’s default for two years running. Jamie Vardy up top with Shinji Okazaki restored to the lineup behind him. Riyad Mahrez on the right flank, Demarai Gray replacing Marc Albrighton on the left, and Wilfred Ndidi and Vicente Iborra in the centre. Simpson and Fuchs as the full backs, Morgan and Maguire in the middle, and, of course, Kasper Schmeichel in goal. Looks familiar, doesn’t it?

While the lineup and shape were nothing new, the tactics against Stoke were all Puel. When City won the Premier League in 2015/16 they were happy to allow their opponents to boss possession, luring the defense forward, and then hitting on the break. Some of the most difficult matches were the ones where the other side allowed Leicester to keep the ball, daring them to break down a packed defense. This because the template that the Foxes would return to over and over.

In light of this, City’s tactics on Saturday were nothing short of revolutionary. Leicester had 53% of the possession against the Potters at the ̶B̶r̶i̶t̶a̶n̶n̶i̶a̶ bet365 stadium, and it wasn’t due to Stoke putting 10 men behind the ball. The Foxes completed a season-best 79% of their passes, building from the back and playing fewer long balls over the top for Vardy to chase.

“We created a lot of chances away which is a good thing. It is a good opportunity now to work on this and create some things.” - Claude Puel

The man who best demonstrates this change of style is right back Danny Simpson. Simpson is a solid defender who seldom makes big mistakes and is frequently in the right position to cover when other defenders are out of position. He isn’t the sort of full back who makes marauding runs into enemy territory and overlaps with the wings. He’s still looking for his first Premier League goal. He is not known for his offensive contributions.

To demonstrate his typical positioning, here is the heat map of Simpson’s touches a few weeks ago against West Brom:

Simpson spent most of his time on the right touchline in the Leicester half of the pitch, seldom touching the ball in an offensive position. Contrast this with his heat map against Stoke City:

Simpson spent far more time in an advanced position. This is typical of what Puel expected of his fullbacks at Southampton. Their job is to provide a safe outlet pass on and create triangles in the opponent’s territory. Even if he isn’t expected to make key passes, he can keep the attack ticking by providing an option other than the patented Leicester “hoof it back to Schmeichel” pass.

From an attacking standpoint, the early results look good. Although the Foxes only scored on goal from open play, there were several good chances that went begging. We took 14 shots, 5 of which were on goal, and looked as though we might overwhelm Stoke in the first half. It was an impressive debut for a new style, and one expects that the passing will get crisper as the players grow accustomed to the new system.

There’s more work to do on the defensive end. Just as Leicester could have had several more goals, Stoke broke through the City defense several times and Leicester were fortunate not to concede more than the two they did.

One thing that is rarely discussed regarding Leicester’s long-ball counter-attacks is how it benefits the City defense. The long, low-percentage passes gave the opponents the benefit of having the ball for the bulk of the match, which meant a great deal of defending. But, it also meant that the defenders and even the midfield were seldom commited far enough forward to give the other team a chance to break.

With a patient, possenssion-based attack and the fullbacks positioned in deep in the opponents’ territory, the defense will have to make adjustments. For example, with right back Simpson far forward, Wes Morgan was frequently drawn out of his central position:

When a centre-half is getting most of his touches that far from his own box, there are going to be gaps at the back. Only one of the goals was from open play (and as Russ McCuen pointed out, the defending of set pieces needs work as well), but if not for some brilliant saves by Schmeichel, there could have been more.

Just pass the ball to where Maguire is supposed to be.”

It’s too early to say if the changes Puel is making are going to work or not, but we’re definitely seeing him stamp his mark on the club. Rumors of the French manager’s style being “boring” look to have been well off the mark. He has some interesting attacking options to work with and his style suits Iborra (and Andy King, who looked very sharp after coming on for the former Valencia man) and both Vardy and Mahrez seem to be adapting comfortably. If the defense can adjust to a different set of challenges, we should be in for some very entertaining football in the coming months.