Now that the game of musical chairs that is the transfer window has finally ended, Leicester City find themselves holding more wide players than they can fit on the pitch at once. Even leaving aside club record signing Ahmed Musa and occasional left midfielder Ben Chilwell, City have three wingers and only two wings.
The question, then, is how best to deploy the available talent, win matches, and keep everyone happy. There’s no easy answer, especially since each of the three options for the two spots bring very different talents to the audition.
- Maintain his value for his eventual departure
- Most creative attacking threat the Foxes have
- Offers little defensively
- Almost certain to be gone in January
Mahrez, the Pro Footballer's Association's Player of the Year in 2015/16, is a mercurial talent who can single-handedly win football matches with a moment of brilliance. If he wanted to stay, his would be among the first names on the team sheet every week. He would have left this summer if any club met City's valuation of the Algerian winger and seems likely to depart in Janaury.
While it's tempting to suggest that he should be confined to the bench since he's not part of the Foxes' future, but that's easy to say when your job doesn't depend on winning matches now. Craig Shakespeare would be taking a huge risk with his own future not playing the former Le Havre man. In addition, if City have any hope of getting the 50m return they held out for this summer, Mahrez must play.
- Tremendous work rate and defensive contribution
- A true hug-the-touchline winger who can play on either side
- Not a big scoring threat
- What you see is what you get, he's unlikely to improve
Albrighton is one of a dying breed in English football: A true winger who looks to cross first. He was born to play in a 4-4-2 system, playing clever overlaps with the fullback and minding his defensive duties when others get out of shape.
What he doesn't bring to the table, unlike the other candidates, is that moment of magic that can change a game with a single touch. He's a very good player who's seldom thought of as "great."* In addition, City can't take full advantage of the former Villa man's greatest skill, his ability to cross the ball, unless we give more pitch time to Islam Slimani and Leonardo Ulloa.
- Blistering pace and ability to beat defenders 1-on-1
- Needs to play
- No significant defensive contribution
- Unfinished product, often makes poor decisions with the ball
If things go according to plan, Demarai Gray is the future of Leicester City Football Club. As an attacking player, he can do it all. He can win games by scoring or by scorching his defender and passing the ball. He's a truly special talent with almost unlimited potential.
He is also, it pains me to say, not a great player at this juncture. He's still learning the defensive job, and he doesn't always read the game well. He'll try to do too much on his own when trusting his teammates is the better option. He's one for the future, but he's a risk if you're trying to win now.
Play all three together?
Could Shakespeare play all three of them at the same time? He could! A shift to the 4-2-3-1 formation that's all the rage today would allow Mahrez play at the centre of an attacking midfield trio. He certainly has the skill set to play there, and he'd see more of the ball in positions where his tricky dribbling and clever passing would be welcome.
However, while it might look good on paper, it's not a good fit for this club. Albrighton would be miscast as an attacking midfielder in this formation. Playing a single striker would make Leicester's glut of strikers look even...gluttier? More importantly, City have had tremendous success playing a #10 who tracks back and assists the midfield defensively. If you need other reasons, just watch the highlights from the Hull match on 14 August, 2016.
Rotate the wingers?
This seems like the simplest solution, but is it the best? Like most compromises, it won't make anyone completely happy. Looking back at the 2014/15 season, the last time we didn't have Champion's League football, City played 42 matches in all competitions. With a strict rotation policy, that would give 28 starts to each of the three. Albrighton recently hinted that this might be in the cards, stating:
“From my point of view, growing up, you can’t think about things too much, whether that’s being left out the team.
“If you’re on the bench one week, you can’t let it get you down. You pick yourself up and get back in the team and I’ve certainly found out that helps.”
How would it work in practice? In theory, when facing teams that threaten down their right, we could play Albrighton on the left and Mahrez on the right. When we need more of a defensive pressence on our right, we could play Gray on the left and Mahrez on the right. On days when we feel like punishing both Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs, we could play both Gray and Mahrez. We sacrifice continuity by doing this, and City have been at their best when playing a consistent starting XI.
I’ll admit that, when I started looking in to this, I expected to come down on the side of making Demarai Gray and Marc Albrighton the first-choice starters. My thinking was that, with Mahrez on the way out, it’s important to keep Gray happy as well as to find out if he’s our long-term solution or if we need to start looking elsewhere.
Now, I’m of a mind to take the coward’s way out and suggest that a rotation system might be the best solution to the problem. City’s system expects a lot from the wing; most attacks originate out wide. We substitute one or more of our wide men in most matches, so when a player starts the match on the bench, he’s very likely to see game time. If one of them gets injured, the team is in a much better place giving the three of them significant time on the pitch.
How the gaffer chooses to handle this will be one of the biggest tests he’s faced so far. He obviously has more information than any of us, seeing the players on the training ground and in the boot room. If he can manage to keep three players happy with only two starting positions and get some points on the board, he’s pulled off one heck of a trick.
* Full disclosure, I've just ordered a Marc Albrighton shirt and I genuinely think he's great.