10 shots for 0.6 xG (and more importantly, 0 actual goals) against Manchester United. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Leicester have taken almost the same number of shots as their opponents (53 to 52) but their xG per shot is 0.07 compared to 0.13. Goes a long way to explaining why the Foxes’ goal difference is -6 after 5 match weeks.
So what’s going on? Last year, even with fans complaining about an occasionally anemic attack, the team was taking shots that were almost twice as good. Looking at FotMob’s shot map for the ManU match makes the issue pretty clear - there’s just very little activity in the opposition’s penalty box. It was obvious watching the match and it bears out in the data - 130 touches in the attacking third and only 12 in the box leads to a lot of speculative long-range shots.
Part of this trend stems from the fact that quite a few Foxes fancy a shot from outside the box - Maddison, Barnes, Youri, and KDH especially. But when everything’s going well, these shots are mixed with attacking play that results in closer shots to provide some variety in the attack. This season, it just looks like the result of a team with no clear plan.
@markrstats shared a possession map and passing network as seen below, and they would probably give any youth coach an aneurysm.
Maddison is theoretically the right attacking mid but is always going to drift into the center which Rodgers either approves of or is ignoring. The problem is, that plan only really makes sense if you’ve got a marauding right back in the mold of Ricardo Pereira. Castagne has done an admirable job filling in (he has the most attacking third touches in the team this season), but this is something James Justin is still working on and why I think for now he’s better suited on the left where Barnes takes on more attacking responsibility. Certainly we’ll be rotating players with double matchweeks, but Rodgers seems wedded to viewing only strikers as attacking subs when Castagne could have also provided a burst of attacking energy on the right (assuming no fitness issues we are unaware of). This also would have pinned United’s left back Tyrell Malacia a bit deeper to reduce his attacking contribution.
The other main issue was the amount of overlap and redundancy in midfield. To oversimplify things, Leicester often use a steady short passer (Soumare/Ndidi), a progressor (Tielemans), and a chance creator (Maddison) with Vardy, Barnes, one of the fullbacks, and attacker X as the attacking options. Ideally Dewsbury-Hall should have been attacker X here, but Rodgers started him in the left midfield where he clashed with Soumare/Maddison/Barnes and wasn’t able to link with them effectively in buildup. I’d be curious to see what he could look like at right attacking mid (as an inverted option similar to Barnes). It might be a bit of a waste of some of his strengths in midfield, but it makes more sense if Thomas and Justin are going to be at fullback where they’re not fully confident/effective in the attacking half.
We can see the results of this when looking at the moment just preceding Barnes’ shot in the 37th minute. Maddison and Youri switched roles with Maddison threading a nice pass between the lines and Youri about to touch the ball off to Barnes. Harvey might always be thinking shoot-first here anyways, but he also didn’t have many other options. The switch might be on for Justin, but ideally you would also have a right-sided attacker getting into a more dangerous position. That would either provide another attacking option to make the switch more effective, or would stretch United’s defenders a bit more to free up Vardy and give Youri more room to cut into. Instead, KDH is in a not entirely useful position, neither providing overlap on the left nor cutting into the center to draw defenders. Nothing that is his fault per se, but just a predictable result of the way Rodgers set up the team combined with the limitations players face when playing out of position.
Looking at the attacking zone pass map (also from @markrstats), it’s clear that there’s very little penetration into the deeper half spaces and almost no lateral passing closer to the penalty box in ways that can freeze or break up the defense. While Leicester did draw some fouls in dangerous areas of the pitch, it was often a result of having the ball in a good position and then hesitating with no clear next steps. The players didn’t seem clear on what their roles were in the attacking third, which allowed United time to drop into shape and cut off any other options (even if they sometimes chose to simply foul instead). It also meant that when Leicester lost the ball, they weren’t counter-pressing high up the pitch where it’s most effective and so weren’t able to convert any turnovers into shots, a key feature of previous seasons.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix-it for this issue. Rodgers has 4 center mids who lack pace and don’t make many off-ball attacking runs, and no right winger to complement Barnes. Starting Castagne on the right and having him push up while Justin covers defensively more on the left will help as would instilling more positional discipline in Maddison in that right half space. KDH in that right attacking role might work but would certainly require time to gel. Otherwise, we’re left with hoping Rodgers will abandon all of his prior principles and simply start trying out new ideas. Iheanacho and Vardy have worked well in the past, but Kelechi’s inconsistency probably drives Brendan mad and he seems loath to drop Barnes or Tielemans/KDH. Leicester could try Barnes up top next to Vardy with a diamond midfield, move to a back 3 with Wout Faes coming in who is quite comfortable with that, or maybe look at giving Vardy more of a rest and letting Daka’s off-ball movement stretch the defense, as he did for the buildup to Justin’s shot at the end of extra time.
My simple take on the issue is that Rodgers and the players want to play the way they always have, but aren’t set up to take advantage of their skills. That means that opposing teams both know what they have to try to stop and what weaknesses they can take advantage of. It’s not pretty, but sometimes the easiest response is to just force a change. When Barnes was injured in early 2021, Rodgers switched to a 3-4-1-2 and Leicester handled his absence as well as could be hoped. Ricardo’s injury (honestly more than Fofana’s departure in my opinion) has left a similar void in the team’s plan, and unless Rodgers adapts, fans will keep thinking that another manager might be able to do better, even if better only means something different.