Brendan Rodgers is a manager who often divides opinion in the footballing sphere; some see him as the next manager from the UK that is destined for great things. Others see Rodgers as nothing more than a bright young manager that would fade out in the Premier League. His first taste of Premier League football came at Swansea, where he conducted a beautiful Swans symphony, guiding the Welsh side from the Championship and finishing 11th in his first season in the top flight. The Swans’ possession-based style set the Premier League alight, as the style was very uncommon for a team with such limited resources. That season, they completed famous victories over Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool.
Then Rodgers made the step up to coach Liverpool, bringing them back into Premier League contention within seasons of taking over. He got Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling firing Liverpool to the summit. However an inexplicable collapse at the end of the 2013/14 season saw Liverpool denied a Premier League title. Rodgers moved on to Celtic where he brought major success to the Scottish Club, an unbeaten league season capped off with a domestic treble. Then Leicester city came calling, after Claudio Ranieri, Craig Shakespeare and Claude Puel, the club was seeking a fresh face in the dugout to lead the Foxes into their new era.
Leicester kicked off their 2020/21 Premier League campaign with three wins from three games, the Foxes were looking to put last year’s disappointment of missing out on the Champions League behind them; a 5-2 thrashing of eventual Champions Manchester City was a sign of things to come. However as the season progressed; key injuries to players like James Justin and Ricardo Pereira left Leicester in a bad spot. James Maddison was also having an underwhelming start to the campaign due to injuries too, Brendan Rodgers had to find a solution. But this particular fix to Leicester City’s style was not something he discovered this season, as during the business end of the campaign last year, Rodgers used the 3-4-2-1 to devastating effect. Let’s analyse Leicester City’s season and the shift from their 4-2-3-1 to the 3-4-2-1
Let’s start with Brendan Rodger’s preferred system, this shape is built on the midfield foundation of Youri Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi, the perfect combination of silk and steel. A ball winning midfielder paired with an energetic box to box player who can also dictate tempo from deep. Even when Rodgers took charge, his aim was to try and diversify Leicester’s attack, as over the years it had stagnated and become too dependent on the runs of Jamie Vardy in behind. Thus, Rodgers used the influence of the fullbacks more, pushing them high and wide during attacks. Leicester’s introduction of proper width was key after the loss of Riyad Mahrez to Manchester City a few seasons ago, the lack of consistency from wide attackers was one of the main reasons Harvey Barnes became a mainstay in the team before his injury.
Defensively, the Foxes lineup in a 4-4-2 block, with Maddison/Iheanacho and Vardy up top, the wingers tuck in to provide cover for the fullbacks while also being close enough to the midfield to block easy access into central areas. This deep compact block is a nuisance to penetrate as the midfield line of Leicester possesses dynamism not a lot of teams in the league can match: Ndidi and Tielemans can combat opponents in midfield and win possession, while Albrighton and Harvey Barnes put in their shift defensively to stop overloads in wide areas.
Leicester begin their build up phase with the Goalkeeper splitting the center backs and the fullbacks hugging the touchline. One of the midfield pivot drops deep to receive the ball to initiate attacks. The staggered midfield with one dropping deep and the other moving to find space off the ball coupled with James Maddison dropping into midfield opened passing lanes into the attack.
Leicester attack with as many as five players; the ball side winger often underlaps the fullback and the far-side winger stays wide anticipating a switch of play. Vardy and Maddison often occupy the box, with Tielemans starting his runs from deep where he is usually not picked up by his markers. When attacking in possession, Rodgers’ often uses rotations to break down the opponent. The most common pattern being Barnes and Maddison overloading the left flank with the fullback before cutting it back into the box for Vardy to finish.
The foxes also pressed their opponents high with this shape, the 4-4-2 block allowed them to press the ball side, forcing the opponent to turn the ball over, or switch play to the far side where they had players positioned to stop the attack.
The new system offered a more natural shape in the build up, and with capable ball carriers like Fofana and Johnny Evans, opponents were often confused between stopping the center back driving into midfield or moving out to engage them, which would open a nice passing lane into the Leicester midfield. The build up would start with the 3 center backs spreading across the width of the pitch; the wing backs would position themselves high and wide in the opponent half. The midfielders would position themselves between the lines with Vardy the only player on the shoulder of the last defender anticipating passes in behind. Pressing a back three is very difficult, and this gave Leicester an element of unpredictability in attack, as they could launch attacks from the flanks using the wingbacks, progress the ball using Tielemans in midfield and the looming threat of Jamie Vardy was enough to keep the opposition on their toes.
Defensively, the back three/five was well drilled. The introduction of Daniel Amartey from injury was key as a player who could function at right back or center back was a natural fight for the right center back role. The new system allowed Leicester to be more rigid defensively; the principles were similar to that of the 4-2-3-1; compact shape with no access in between the lines. Sometimes the midfield line would drop close to the edge of the box, congesting the space where the opponent’s attacking midfielders occupied.
Leicester attacked with a 3-2-5 shape, with the wingbacks stretching the pitch out wide. The attacking midfielder joins the two strikers, and two of them rotate to receive the ball in between the lines. The midfield pivot and back three close up the space from the halfway line to stop attacks in transition.
One thing the new system allowed Leicester to do was counterpress more effectively, the midfield four were very disciplined and diligent in the press. One of the best examples was in the FA Cup final, where Leicester’s shape forced Reece James to try and penetrate the midblock. His pass was intercepted and Leicester within two passes were through on goal.
Brendan Rodgers is flexible when it comes to tactics, the shift from the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 to the 3-4-3/3-4-1-2 was due to injury to key personnel at various points of the campaign. This is not a case where the system was not working and thus change was needed, but rather a manager being forced to change and adapt to his squad.
The best thing the new formation provided Brendand Rodgers was defensive solidity. The new system brought a compactness to Liecester, the principles of the defence were there to see: shutting down attacks in central areas, closing down overloads in wide areas which has allowed them to cause more turnovers and transition quickly. The system offers more numbers at the back during transitions and allows the team to play in a settled defensive block.
The 4-2-3-1 under Rodgers’ primary route to attack was winning the ball quickly and releasing Jamie Vardy in behind. With the 3-4-3/3-4-1-2, it allowed Leicester to create more attacks with possession. This was one of the reasons behind Youri Tielemans’ brilliant form during the campaign, as he was involved more in attacks with the ball. The new system allowed Leicester to create from all areas of the pitch; out wide with their flying wing backs Castagne and Albrighton, from midfield with Tielemans and Maddison and up top, it unleashed Kelechi Iheanacho, who was a perfect foil for Jamie Vardy up top.
Playing with so many men behind the ball meant that sometimes, Leicester became too defensive and reactive when they could take the game to opponents. The foxes found themselves unable to sustain attacks anytime their opponents were very good on the ball. In many games, Vardy and Iheanacho were stranded up top with no service.
A title challenge? A deep Europa League run? Reports say Leicester are already targeting midfielders for the upcoming campaign. Depth in the center of the park would be necessary as Ndidi, Tielemans and Maddison could not stay fully fit throughout this season. Rodgers and Leicester must focus on improving the squad as they will be competing on more fronts for silverware. Another striker would be needed as Jamie Vardy reaches the end of his career and Iheanacho has not shown enough to be the first choice striker consistently.
Leicester’s ambitions have grown bigger and bigger ever since they clinched the Premier League with Ranieri, and with a great manager in Brendan Rodgers and a very quality squad, the main aim would be to cement their place in the top 6.