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Leicester City’s Indefensible Defense

20th on the table, 1st in goals allowed!

AFC Bournemouth v Leicester City - Premier League Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

With Nottingham Forest getting a point against Aston Villa today, Leicester City have returned to the foot of the table. In nine matches, we have one win, one draw, and seven defeats. We’re on pace for 17 points, a total that would have us bound for the Championship by the end of March.

So, what’s happening? We’re actually scoring a reasonable amount of goals. Our tally of 15 places us 7th in the league in scoring. On the other hand, we’ve shipped 24 goals so far which is...not good. It’s the most goals allowed by any Premier League club. The only teams in the top four levels of English football to have surrendered more goals are Hull City (26 in 13 matches), Forest Green Rovers (25 in 12), and Burton Albion (28 in 13). None of them come close to our 2.7 goals allowed per match.

Therefore, I will proceed under the assumption that the biggest problem facing the club right now is that of preventing goals. To illustrate this point, let’s take a closer look at Saturday’s defeat against Bournemouth. Not only does this match provide plenty of examples of our defensive frailties, it’s also a lesson in how a team with excellent defensive organization can beat a more-talented side.

Let’s start with the tactics. The teamsheet said we were in a 4-1-4-1, at least when we didn’t have the ball. Let’s go with that. Boubakary Soumare was the holding midfielder filling the gap between the midfield and defence, James Maddison was deployed on the right wing, and Patson Daka was up top.

In attack, width on the right was coming from the fullback, Timothy Castagne, letting Madders drift inside. As a right-footed left-back, James Justin was operating in a more defensive position, allowing Barnes to get forward. Wout Faes and Jonny Evans were holding a high line. In theory, Soumare would drop in between them, but sometimes, it was Justin operating on the left of a back three.

The formation on the right is taken from looking at the heatmaps from the game and selecting the single position they occupied the most often (as opposed to an average position). What you can see here is Tielemans operating further right to provide cover behind Castagne, Soumare in the most advanced position of any of our midfielders, and Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall dropping back to help out the defence because Evans and Faes were getting pulled wide and there were too many gaps in the middle.

OK, enough with the hypotheticals and the positioning map; let’s take a look at the match as it happened. Early on, the Foxes were nearly caught out by a simple ball over the top:

There was no turnover here. Bournemouth were playing out from the back and tried a speculative long ball down their right wing. Justin should have easily dealt with it. Spoiler alert: He did not.

Bournemouth are now off to the races, with three attackers and only Faes and Evans tracking back to deal with them. Leicester were fortunate that Christie (the man with the ball) dawdled, allowing Justin to get back. Had he squared it for Cook on the left, it would have been a dangerous chance.

Less than 15 minutes later, the Cherries opened Leicester up again out of essentially nothing. With Justin out of the play on the left, Faes came out to close the attack down, leaving just Evans and Castagne to cover the middle.

Bournemouth got the ball through to Cook, taking the midfield and Faes out of the play. Once again, the hosts had a 3-on-2 at the back. Cook was guilty of making a poor decision, shooting when Marcus Tavernier was in acres of space vacated by Castagne, who was covering for Faes.

Let’s take a look at the Bournemouth defence. Here’s what the Foxes were facing:

This is what a compact line looks like. The back four are allowing some width, but they’re working as a unit. Jefferson Lerma, the defensive midfielder, is stationed right in front of the back four, and the remaining midfielders are tracking back. This was actually one of the better Leicester chances of the half, as Madders found Castagne in space on the right and his cross just missed Daka. But, that’s down to Madders being one of the best in the league at breaking down a tight defence rather than any failing on the defenders’ part.

Here’s an example of what the Foxes’ backline looked like:

Faes and Evans are too far apart, Justin is literally next to Faes, and Castagne has come out to close down cook. Tielemans is trying to occupy the defensive midfielder’s position as Soumare has been caught out by a run down the middle. Nothing came of it, but this is a defence that’s being pulled out of shape far too easily.

OK, enough of the chances, let’s take a look at the first Bournemouth goal. It came from a throw-in. KDH lost track of the ball near the midfield stripe and let it go out. Bournemouth took a quick throw to try to catch Leicester napping.

If this doesn’t look too threatening to you, you’re mostly right. It shouldn’t have been. Faes has a step on Dominic Solanke and no other opponents are even in the picture. Justin probably should have been the one chasing Solanke, and in any event, Faes got a toe to the ball but only tipped it into the striker's path.

Now Solanke has absolutely done Faes but Evans did a fine job cutting off his run. He and Youri managed to block the former Liverpool man’s shot, but neither Amartey nor Soumare are alert to the rebound, which falls to Philip Billing, who smashes home from close range.

Rodgers got a lot of stick for his substitutions which, OK, we did concede twice immediately after he made them. You can see what he was trying to do, though. Bournemouth were creating chances and no midfielder was really helping out on defence, so he added a third central defender.

After the match, we heard a lot of talk of “individual errors” and, to be sure, those were present in abundance. That’s not the whole story, though. We lost individual battles, but that will happen to every defence. What I saw were players who weren’t in the right position and other players who weren’t covering quickly enough when we got out of shape. I saw a unit that wasn’t working as a unit.

After watching the entire match a second time, I feel comfortable in saying that Evans and Tielemans were the only players who combined effort with alertness and were generally in the right place at the right time every time. Faes likes to run around and aggressively confront attackers, but we knew that when we got him. Where are the midfielders and fullbacks slotting in when he does this? They were almost completely absent on Saturday.

Of course, there’s one other elephant in this already-crowded room: Danny Ward. It’s been a rough start for Leicester’s new #1. It’s true that he has faced a staggeringly high number of quality shots. FBRef.Com has him with the 3rd-highest expected goals against at 17.2, behind only Dean Henderson at Forest (19.0) and Bernd Leno at Fulham (18.5). However, he’s allowed 5.8 more goals than expected, which is comfortably bottom of the table. It’s the unfortunate combination of a poor defence and a keeper who is making the worst of a bad situation.

So where does the problem lie? Is it a problem of personnel, or of system, or of effort and concentration? In a word: Yes. It’s all of the above. Losing Wesley Fofana was always going to hurt even if Faes even if the Belgian turns into the second coming of Çağlar Söyüncü. Speaking of Cags, we’re no closer to understanding why he can’t even make the bench even after the club blocked his move to Turkey in September. In addition, in spite of having three nominal defensive midfielders in the fold, we only have one who makes an impact on defence, and with Wilfred Ndidi injured, we don’t really have a replacement.

That leads me to the system: Rodgers has the club playing a system very similar to Liverpool’s: A 4-3-3 where the players are expected to press to win the ball back in the opponents’ half of the pitch, the fullbacks provide the width, and the DMC drops back to provide defensive cover. None of that is working. The press isn’t effective enough, the fullbacks are getting caught to high up the pitch, and too many attacks are finding Evans and Faes isolated. With Ndidi out, three at the back seems like an obvious answer, even if the 3rd is Daniel Amartey.

The issue with effort is the most disturbing one. Rodgers has never been one to prioritize defence. He finished 2nd in the league with a Liverpool side that allowed 50 goals. I think it’s fair to question whether he brings the same tactical intensity to preventing goals as he does to scoring them. Someone needs to hold this unit accountable. The coaches, the manager, the captain...someone. The standards have slipped to unacceptable levels and unless they’re raised, Leicester City will be in the Championship next year, and the club have accomplished too much over the last decade for that to be an acceptable end to the story.