Leicester City’s fixtures over the last two weeks have been very revealing, showing what this team can and cannot do when the regular starting XI aren’t available for selection. To say things didn’t go smoothly would be a reasonable assessment, but in the end, we took a point away against a surprisingly strong Huddersfield Town, and then knocked Liverpool out of the Carabao Cup at the King Power.
The results are the most important thing, but this was also an opportunity for players who aren’t getting regular pitch time to make a case for selection on Saturday. Ben Chilwell, Demarai Gray, Vicente Iborra, Aleksandar Dragovic, Kelechi Iheanacho, and Islam Slimani all did some good things, but none of them forced their way into the side. That may be down to the system they were being asked to play as much as anything they did.
One of the key features of City’s Premier League-winning side was the consistency of both lineup and system. This worked out pretty well, so we’ve been playing the same system with as many of the same players as possible ever since.
Predictably, as players leave and new ones are brought in, the unique Leicester City flavor of 4-4-2 isn’t as effective as it was two years ago. City started five players against Hudderfield who weren’t regulars two years ago and were roundly outplayed by the Terriers*. The Foxes struggled to get the ball out of defense and Jamie Vardy was an isolated figure up front.
Craig Shakespeare rotated the squad for the Carabao Cup match against Liverpool but kept the system the same. The result looked a good deal like the Champion’s League match at Porto after Leicester had already wrapped up the top spot in the group, minus the Portuguese side’s ability to finish. Liverpool dominated the first half and should have put the game out of site by half-time.
Warning: rough (and entirely accurate) language
To my untrained eye, what this demonstrates is that the system we’ve used for the last couple of years is highly dependent on having specific personnel in specific roles. Iborra and Slimani are top players, but they’re not Danny Drinkwater and Jamie Vardy. They’re not going to play long balls over the top to get in behind defenses, and asking them to do that isn’t playing to their strengths. Iborra looks for all the world like a man who belongs in a three-man midfield, and Slimani is best used as the target for the final ball, not in link-up play.
We saw the same against Hudderfield; Iheanacho is a great striker but he’s not Shinji Okazaki. As it turns out, no one else is Shinji Okazaki. I never thought I’d say this, but I believe that the Japan international is the single most important player in the Leicester starting XI.
City won fully half the games in which the former Mainz man played more than 60’ last year, but you don’t have to dig through the statistics to see why he’s so important to the side. His absence at Huddersfield left the attack bereft of ideas beyond “hope Riyad Mahrez can beat the entire defense off the dribble.” Against Liverpool, the game changed completely when Okazaki’s energy was injected into what had been a lethargic attack. We were suddenly the better side when he came on and provided a link between the midfield and the attack.
Another important takeaway from the Liverpool match was that it was the first time this term Leicester have decisively “won” the second half of a match. Several times this year, we’ve seen a good first half performance wasted when our substitutes are outplayed by our opponents’. Shakespeare pushed all the right buttons against the Reds and conjured a win from a dismal first half. More of that, please.
Of course, it’s no huge surprise that City improved when Okazaki was introduced into a system custom-made for him. The challenge for the gaffer is to find a way to adapt his system when lineup changes call for it. As someone whose first exposure to football was Martin O’Neill’s marvelous 3-5-2, I dream of seeing Iborra, Dragovic, Iheanacho, Maguire, and Slimani playing that formation. Maybe that’s not the answer, but sticking to the long-ball 4-4-2 when key players are missing just does not work. If you doubt me, watch the Huddersfield match and the first half against Liverpool. If those don’t convince, nothing will.
* I know I picked them to go down before the season, but not only are Huddersfield going to stay up, they should do so quite comfortably. They’re hard-working, well-organized, and have a style of play that is difficult to beat.