Premier League 2019/20: Leicester City vs Manchester United – tactical analysis
Leicester City were among the title contenders back in December 2019. They even had a 14-point gap over Manchester United in the Premier League up until February. Then, the unwanted hiatus came and everything turned upside down. The Red Devils fixed their consistency issues, while the Foxes somehow were running out of gas in the most crucial time of the season.
Both teams then had to face each other in the penultimate game of this campaign. The stake was even higher because both Leicester and United needed a positive result to secure a UEFA Champions League ticket for 2020/2021. Yet, the home side fell short after two sloppy mistakes. Without further ado, this tactical analysis will inform you how the match unfolded.
Brendan Rodgers opted for 3–5–2 despite a heavy defeat to Tottenham Hotspur using a three-back system last week. He probably chose this cautious system due to the absence of Leicester’s first-option defenders. The trio of James Justin, Wes Morgan, and Jonny Evans was chosen to start at the heart of the defence. Upfront, Jamie Vardy was partnered by Kelechi Ịheanachọ to lead the home side’s attacking line. Their bench was filled with names like Demarai Gray, Harvey Barnes, Ayoze Pérez, Dennis Praet, and George Hirst.
Oppositely, Ole Gunnar Solskjær went for the regular 4–2–3–1 in this game. The defensive duet of Victor Lindelöf and Harry Maguire started in the backline while Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Brandon Williams provided width in the flanks. In the attacking line, Solskjær still relied on Anthony Martial, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, as well as the teenage sensation Mason Greenwood. Players like Jesse Lingard, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Odion Ighalo, and Scott McTominay had to start the game from the bench.
Leicester’s well-planned defensive strategy
In this part of the analysis, we will start by looking at Leicester’s calculated defensive tactics. The Filberts would move to a mid-block 5–3–2 when they didn’t have the ball. Their defensive strategy focused more on closing the central lanes and made United play wide.
To be more specific, the midfielders and the forwards would form a cage-like structure. The objective was to prevent Nemanja Matić nor Paul Pogba to be accessed vertically. It also forced United’s centre-backs to build through the full-backs.
United responded quite cleverly. Solskjær would allow Matić to drop alongside the centre-backs and help to progress the ball. It means that the Serbian could drop in between Lindelöf and Maguire or moved to be a temporary left centre-back. By doing so, United would have an overload at the back: three players against Leicester’s attacking duo.
However, Leicester seemed to know this approach would happen. The Filberts would let United play the ball to the flank but then would bite when the ball reached the wide area. In the process, Leicester’s ball-side wing-back would step up next to the midfielders and press United’s on-ball flank player. By allowing the wing-back to make the press, Leicester could conserve their midfielders’ energy. Not only that, but it would also prevent United from easily switching the play as the Foxes still have enough presence in the far side.
The impenetrable wall
After moving the ball wide, United would try to send it back inside and play in between the lines. Then, the narrow attackers could combine before continuing the attack into the dangerous area. Yet, Leicester didn’t allow that to happen. How?
Firstly, Leicester were very compact; both vertically and horizontally. It means that Leicester wouldn’t allow any gap between their players for United’s vertical passes. Not only that, but their compactness would also limit the space in between their defensive lines. This compactness was even more visible when Leicester had to defend deeper.
If United tried to access their attackers centrally, one Leicester defender would come up and immediately close down the receiver. To be more specific, this task was mostly done by the ball-side centre-back. By doing so, he would limit the time and space of the receiver, thus forcing him receiving uncomfortably. Even better, he could also win the ball and initiate a transition.
United then used another variation to try unlocking Leicester’s defensive block. That was by allowing Rashford to create from a deeper area. In the process, Rashford would drop into the left-back position. That’s why sometimes we could find him temporarily switching position with Williams.
Rashford then had to provide lofted diagonal balls for one of his attacking comrade in behind. The attacker would start his run in between Leicester’s defenders, before utilising his speed advantage to chase the ball. However, Leicester’s backline could easily control the chaos, mostly due to their numerical advantage against the single runner.
Leicester’s ineffective direct play
In their very compact 5–3–2, Leicester’s attacking duo would rarely drop to join the defence. Even if there were such a drop, only one of them would do that. The objective was to keep at least one player up front to be the outlet in counter-attacking situations.
Leicester’s strategy in their transitional attacks wasn’t complicated. The on-ball defenders would only need to abandon the midfielders, then directly play the ball to Vardy or Ịheanachọ. However, this approach didn’t bear much fruit. Let’s take a look at the stats for some proof.
Albrighton ended the match with zero accurate long passes from five attempts. Evans indeed had five, but those came from 11 long-ball attempts, which equals to not-so-special 45.45% accuracy. His main partner Morgan wasn’t better either, with only one successful attempt throughout the match.
Speaking of direct approach, sometimes Leicester also allowed the goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel to deploy aerial balls to the forwards. That’s partly in their attempt to bypass United’s press, which we will discuss later. Unfortunately, the outcomes were similar to the defenders. The Dane only managed two (33.33%) accurate passes when sending the ball directly to United’s pitch.
United’s pressing system and Leicester’s answer
Solskjær set his team up in a mid-block 4–2–3–1 when not having possession. For some, this structure was quite unusual because United had four defensive lines; thus allowing lesser compactness in some areas. But, Solskjær had a particular purpose in deploying this rather unique configuration.
In their mid-block 4–2–3–1, United would try to close the central lanes. The objective behind this was to prevent Leicester from building their attacks centrally. To be more specific, Fernandes’ presence just behind Martial was important because the Portuguese would prevent Wilfred Ndidi (and/or his midfield partner) to be accessed in the next line of Leicester’ attack.
However, sometimes United had to face the natural issues of their defensive shape. That being the lack of presence against Leicester’s defensive trio as well as compactness issue in the midfield area.
When having possession, Leicester would try to build through their outside centre-backs. They did this quite easily due to their numerical superiority against only Martial in their first build-up phase. The outside centre-back then was tasked to send the ball vertically to an advanced player in between the lines.
That player was Ịheanachọ. The Nigerian would actively drop from his position, come from Matić’s blind-spot, and receive the vertical pass. Then, Ịheanachọ could combine with up to three of the midfielders in a more advanced area. With three to four players in the midfield line, Leicester would outnumber United’s midfield duo. This also happened because Fernandes and the wingers would rarely track back and help the midfielders.
The Foxes with the wing play
However, Leicester didn’t plan to attack centrally. Instead, they would try to find the far-side wing-back to continue their attacks. The wing-backs would have ample space and time since United’s wingers didn’t defend much in this game. Then, the wing-backs were tasked to provide crosses for the forwards inside the box to finalise the attack.
The statistics show that the Filberts finished the game with quite a good crossing accuracy rate. For a fact, Thomas managed to find a teammate with all four of his crosses. Justin also managed a 100% accuracy, but only with two crosses. Despite all of that, the conversion rate begs to differ. Leicester were only able to convert three (25%) of their crosses into shots. Their expected goals (xG) tally from the particular situation only stood at 0.27. Such a number was not good enough to get a goal, let alone to win a Champions League ticket.
Some may argue that United got their goals with much luck. Two errors in Leicester’s own third lead to United’s 14th penalty in the league as well as Lingard’s first Premier League goal since … who knows when. Were those purely happened because of luck? Let’s take a deeper look on the stats to know the answer.
United’s penalty started with a rare combination from the home side: Schmeichel passed the ball to Choudhury. Throughout the game, that was the only pass he made to the number 20. To underline that finding, the statistics show that Schmeichel only made a total of two passes to his three midfielders.
Upon receiving, Choudhury squared the ball to Morgan, who played the ball to Evans quickly. Interestingly, that was Choudhury’s only pass to the captain throughout the match. Martial and Fernandes reacted to the bizarre sequence by pressing Evans and Morgan respectively.
Evans then tried to find Choudhury in the midfield line. For a fact, he only made two passes to the Englishman in this match. Choudhury — who received the ball by opening his body to Greenwood — lost the ball to the teenager. Fernandes then won the loose ball and pushed it to Martial in behind. United’s central-focused 4–2–3–1 worked effectively and won them the crucial penalty.
To be honest, United could bear more fruit in the second half via open-plays. That’s mainly because Leicester somehow reduced their compactness and allowed the Red Devils quite some space in between the lines. Upon finding the tucked-in attacker(s) in between the lines, United would try to find Martial in behind. However, sometimes United were too slow on possession or lacked quality in their final ball; which made them unable to capitalise the issue effectively.
In the opposite side, Leicester attacked more often from the right flank after Fernandes’ goal. In the process, they relied on Gray’s individual brilliance to create chances from the right-side wing. The numbers show that 78% of Leicester’s attacks in the latter half were targeted to the side where Williams and Rashford were playing.
Gray himself finished the game with three (60%) successful dribbles and one accurate cross. He also made three goal-scoring attempts in just 26 minutes. That’s equal to 25% of Leicester’s total (12) in this game. Quite impressive, indeed, but not enough.
Won the Golden Boot, but not the Champions League ticket. Surely a bittersweet Sunday for Vardy. The 33-year-old’s elite performance throughout the campaign made him the oldest-ever Premier League top-scorer since its inauguration in 1992. However, this negative result marked Leicester’s third defeat in the last four matches. Rodgers surely need to improve his squad and tactics to challenge for the title next season.
Oppositely, United’s dressing room is full of happiness at the moment. They finished the league in the third place to secure a spot in the Champions League. All credits must go to Solskjær and his unpredictable tactics this summer. Does he have what it takes among the elites in Europe’s most prestigious football competition next season?
Let’s just wait and see.