FA Cup 2019/20: Leicester City vs Birmingham City – tactical analysis
The FA Cup fifth round saw Premier League side Leicester City and Championship team Birmingham City face off. Somewhat surprisingly, the hosts find themselves sitting in third place in the Premier League, although they have struggled for form of late and are without a win in 10 matches. The visitors went into the clash in 15th position in the EFL Championship; they look safe from relegation and are currently on a 13 match unbeaten run. To add, whilst it may be unlikely, a late run for a playoff spot is possible if the club can convert the draws experienced on their unbeaten run into victories. This match, however, was all about earning a place in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
This tactical analysis will investigate how Leicester and Birmingham played via an analysis of match tactics. Specifically, the analysis will include information on offensive, defensive and transitional components of play from each team, as well as other key match events and stats.
Given the context of the match and their current form, Leicester boss, Brendan Rodgers, picked a close to full-strength side when compared to previous team selections. Jamie Vardy, however, was out injured. Birmingham manager, Pep Clotet, made four changes to his team from their draw against QPR last weekend. Both teams operating with strong sides outlined their intentions to reach the quarter-final.
Average positions and formations
As the graphic highlights, Leicester were the dominant team in terms of their progressive positions, while Birmingham were happy to sit within their block.
Both teams maintained their starting shape for the majority of the match, with Leicester converting to a 4-2-3-1 when trying to push for the win. Once in the lead, they saw the game out by bringing on fresher, more defensive-minded players.
The first half was a tight affair, with neither team creating any clear goalscoring opportunities. Leicester tried to threaten the Birmingham goal from range, while Birmingham attempted to strike via set-pieces and direct balls into their forwards.
The second half began and Leicester seemed to up the tempo of their passing in order to try and move Birmingham around and exploit the spaces created. They took the lead via a Ricardo Periera header late in the game and held on for the win. Birmingham’s best chance came in the final few minutes and only some last-ditch defending from Leicester prevented them an equaliser.
Overall, the match featured few chances with opposing styles of play, which will be discussed in more detail, cancelling each other out for large periods of the game. Leicester had numerous half chances but both teams had one clear chance. The Foxes scored theirs, whilst Birmingham did not. However, on the balance of play, Leicester dominated the ball, were more creative and ground out a 1-0 win. The xG, possession, shot and other metrics will confirm this storyline.
Leicester City dominated possession throughout and created enough chances to score the game from an xG perspective within the second half. Birmingham City attempted to exploit the Leicester defence with long passes as per their long pass share.
The above statistics follow a similar pattern with Leicester dominating the ball, having more attacks per minute and due to their high shape, pressing at a more intense rate when they lost the ball.
Leicester try to play
With the ball, Leicester tried to play patient, fluid football. They played out from the back and their central defenders positioned themselves on the halfway line, sometimes higher, during slow build-up phases. In front of that, the full-backs pushed high, with Ben Chilwell and Pereira both bombing on, although caution was shown when the ball was on the one side of the pitch, the full-back involved was given full freedom, whereas the full-back on the opposite side held their position somewhat in case the move broke down, moving up as and when the switch of play occurred, this ensured they were always on the correct side of the ball in an attacking and defensive sense.
Wilfred Ndidi held his position at the base of midfield, however, in front of that, there were fluid rotations between the four attacking midfielders. Kelechi Iheanacho generally stayed within the width of the 18-yard box unless he was needed for support out wide, or positional rotations meant he could open space for others. When attacking, both full-backs occasionally pushed on to try and create overloads, options out wide and the opportunity for the wingers to move inside. The Leicester players would pass, move and try to operate between the spaces of Birmingham’s two banks of four.
As Birmingham have been mentioned out of possession, it seems apt that more detail is provided on this. Birmingham City were happy to allow Rodgers’ side to play out from the back from a pressing point of view. Birmingham played a very traditional 4-4-2. Their strikers dropped off to the halfway line and the midfield line and defensive line were two lines of four players, with the midfield line closing down while the defensive line stayed in position within a low block. This worked really well in the first half as they reduced Leicester to efforts from afar.
In the second half, as Leicester upped the tempo, the defensive unit became more exposed. Initially, Leicester attackers were rotating in order to find space between the midfield and defensive line, turn and attack the last line of defence. Whilst the players received the ball in these positions, they struggled to create from there. Leicester realised they were struggling to go through the defensive lines and added a wider strategy in order to go around the Birmingham defence and cross the ball, albeit with few aerial threats in the box, meaning the crosses needed to be whipped in low, with pace and accuracy. This method did create half-chances, but, Birmingham were generally quite happy to deal with more floated aerial balls due to their superior defenders in the air. The wide approach helped Leicester’s narrow play as the defensive lines of Birmingham were stretched wider on occasion. Whilst the Birmingham backline seemed comfortable at dealing with crosses, the frequency of crosses proved too much in the end. Marc Albrighton got on the end of a cross, stood the ball back up and the advanced full-back Pereira produced a wonderful header to score the opening goal after slack marking. Again, this highlights the freedom of the full-backs under Brendan Rodgers.
Birmingham’s style of play
As mentioned, without the ball, Birmingham were happy to drop into shape. When they won the ball back, they did not overcomplicate their playing style. They used the high positioning of the Leicester centre-backs to play direct balls into their two target strikers, Lukas Jutkiewicz and Scott Hogan, to isolate the Leicester defenders 1v1, 2v2 or hopefully 2v1 if a Leicester centre-back had stepped out. From there, the strikers could try to knock the ball down to one another or supporting midfielders, run the centre-backs or win freekicks to gain territory for their team and the chance to swing the ball into the box. It felt like this was the correct transitional concept by Birmingham given how deep they usually won the ball back from Leicester possession. If they tried to play, they would’ve been pressed high by numerous Leicester numbers and given their players were in deep positions, playing out would have been difficult. If Birmingham did try to play and beat the press, it would have allowed some Leicester players to retreat and outnumber the Birmingham forwards who had isolated the Leicester defenders. This approach for Birmingham worked better in the first half than it did in the second.
Birmingham’s strategies in possession and transition essentially merged into one. They rarely had long passing sequences and always tried to turn defence into attack as quickly as possible to try and exploit a high Leicester defence and generate some pressure-free time for the defence.
Leicester were the more aggressive team in the press due to the high positions they took up. It was more efficient to try and win the ball high, rather than dropping off instantly and allowing the Birmingham defenders time and space on the ball. However, given the direct nature of Birmingham, the press rarely resulted in high turnovers and chances for Leicester.
A non-existent Leicester counter-attack?
Given that Birmingham rarely produced possession sequences or build-up play in which their units pushed up the field, their defensive structure was rarely manipulated in regards to positioning which could be exploited by Leicester. Leicesters best hope of a counter-attack was a high counter between Birmingham lines rather than behind their defensive line. Leicester were slow and struggled to exploit these instances in the first half. In the second half, they were more accurate and increased the pace of their play in all areas. This helped them to repeatedly occupy the Birmingham box and eventually score the winning goal.
Birmingham play for set-pieces
Birmingham played for set pieces. From corners, their main set up was to place their most effective targets near the edge of the box to make a run onto the ball when delivered. Their smaller players waited for flick-ons, knockdowns or rebounds around the six-yard box. Clotet’s team committed more men forward as they saw corners and other set pieces as their best chance to score. This was enhanced by the fact that the Foxes missed the pace, directness and finishing of Vardy, should Leicester win the ball and counter. Unfortunately for Birmingham, their set-pieces did not provide fruitful in terms of clear chances or goals.
Overall, this match featured two-opposing styles which led to a tight affair. In the first half, both teams struggled to create. In the second half, Leicester stepped up the tempo and kept plugging away at the Birmingham defence. Eventually, the chance fell and was scored by Pereira. After the goal was the only time Birmingham played with freedom and moved up the pitch as a whole. Unfortunately for them, it was too late to get back into the game after their best chance was well defended. Premier League side, Leicester City march on into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.