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Is it too early to be concerned by Craig Shakespeare’s tactics?

Shakey’s looking slightly shaky in the early going

Club Atletico de Madrid v Leicester City - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: First Leg Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Leicester City have earned three points from their opening three matches, which is what I think most people who aren’t die-hard Foxes fans would have expected. Losses away to Arsenal and Manchester United and a win at home against newly-promoted Brighton and Hove Albion didn’t require an especially powerful crystal ball to predict. There’s no reason to panic based on the results thus far.

What is of concern, however, is the way in which City have arrived at this set of results. In 208 minutes of match time prior to making any substitutions, City have scored five goals and allowed just two, leading two matches and level in the third. After the initial substitution, in 62 minutes, Leicester have scored no goals and allowed four. It’s a small sample of data, but there’s a worrying gulf between our performance with the starting XI and when new players are introduced.

Arsenal

Substitutions:

  • 72’ Daniel Amartey for Shinji Okazaki
  • 82’ Kelechi Iheanacho for Matty James
  • 88’ Demarai Gray for Marc Albrighton

Score before substitutions: 3-2

Final score: 3-4


Neither defense looked like shutting down the opposition in this Premier League opener. Jamie Vardy gave the Foxes a 3-2 edge with his second goal on 56’. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger , sensing that Leicester would be vulnerable to an all-out attack, made the first changes, bringing on Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey on 67’.

Craig Shakespeare’s response to these attacking changes was to bring on a right/back defensive midfielder for a striker. This was, to be generous, a puzzling move. If you have any idea what formation Leicester were playing after this change, I’m eager to here about it. After another attacking change by Wenger, Shakespeare responded by bringing on a striker for a central midfielder.

This move appeared to confuse the City players further as their shape began to resemble a pack of bodies centered around the penalty spot more than anything else. The more Arsenal attacked, the more confused the Leicester defense looked. It was no surprise then, when Ramsey and Giroud scored two simple goals in quick succession. The gaffer made one more late substitution, but the game had gone by that point.

“Pardewed”? Ouch.

Brighton and Hove Albion

Substitutions:

  • 76’ Islam Slimani for Shinji Okazaki
  • 93’ Demarai Gray for Jamie Vardy

Score before substitutions: 2-0

Final score: 2-0


City are built to exploit space behind defenses which have wandered unwisely far forward, so playing against a team with the Seagulls’ defensive intent was always going to be a cagey affair. Or, at least, so I would have thought. Instead, after a promising move by the visitors broke down, City countered quickly and scored an opener in the first minutes.

That might as well have been the end of the match for all the attack the south coast side mustered. By the time the manager made his first move, the Foxes were in cruise control. It’s worth noting, though, that this was the most Leicester of substitution patterns: Okazaki off for another striker, like-for-like without any need to change the shape that was working. We looked approximately as threatening as we had the rest of the match, although without any reward in the form of a goal. The final change was made deep into injury time to kill a few seconds and nothing more.

Leicester City v Brighton and Hove Albion - Premier League
Not exactly the “Okazaki for Ulloa” move, but close enough.
Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Manchester United

Substitutions:

  • 60’ Andy King for Shinji Okazaki
  • 60’ Demarai Gray for Marc Albrighton
  • 76’ Islam Slimani for Jamie Vardy

Score before substitutions: 0-0

Final score: 0-2


This is the most difficult match to judge from a tactical standpoint because the scoreline was a bit misleading. Yes, City were level on the hour before any moves were made, but our backs were to the wall and we could easily have been down by several goals at that point. The first pair of moves were interesting; while defense in the centre was shored up by replacing a striker with a midfielder, the change on the left wing was one that assisted the attack at the cost of some defensive acumen.

Red Devils’ manager Jose Mourinho has been quick to take credit for outfoxing Shakey, and in this case, you have to say he has a point. He brought on Marcus Rashford on 67’ to match up against Gray and it worked a treat, with the young striker scoring just three minutes after his introduction. His next two substitutes, Jesse Lingard and Marouane Fellaini, combined to put the contest beyond doubt.

Manchester United v Leicester City - Premier League
Losing to United made this man happy. I find this intolerable.
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Conclusion

Craig Shakespeare inherited what was essentially Nigel Pearson’s and Claudio Ranieri’s team and with that, a tactical template that has at times been remarkably effective. When Ranieri reverted to his tinkerman ways, both the performances and results suffered. In fact, Shakespeare’s initial success was down to reverting back to the tactics which had won the league the previous year.

The point is that changing things up with this particular set of players is risky. Against both Arsenal and Manchester United, the Leicester manager got away from the “just substitute Okazaki on 60’ and keep the same shape” plan that has served City so well. Getting away from that scheme invites scrutiny, especially when the results go against you.

In the end, you must conclude that Shakespeare’s tactics at the end of matches have not been effective. If each match had ended at the time of the first substitution, City would have two wins and a draw, or seven points from three matches. If the matches were just from the first change until the final whistle, we’d have a draw and two defeats.

Two of the best managers in the game, Wenger and Mourinho, appeared to get the better of Shakespeare when it came to changing players and shapes. We’re only three games into the season, but if this trend continues and if the Foxes are consistently dropping points late in games, questions will be asked.