When Greece won the UEFA European Championship in 2004, Otto Rehhagel had his side man-marking. Forwards brought up to play against zonal systems found themselves unable to cope, and over the six-game span of a tournament, no opponent was able to rediscover the art of bypassing man-markers.
What Claudio Ranieri has done at Leicester City has a similar sense of invoking an old style of play and discovering that modern sides have no answer.
When Ranieri arrived, he did nothing. Christian Fuchs and Kasper Schmeichel have both spoken of the way he said hardly anything for a week or so on their pre-season tour of Austria, just walked around and watched and learned. He knew the players had had a strong bond with the dismissed Nigel Pearson and realised the last thing needed was somebody to come in and start ripping apart the structures that had led to the surge to safety at the end of last season.
He did, though, make one significant decision early: The back three that had been such a key part of Pearson’s strategy would be replaced by a back four. “Because a lot of teams play with 4-3-3, if you play three at the back, you end up with three against one, and I don't like that so much," Ranieri explained recently.
That back four has played extremely narrow all season, Danny Simpson on the right and Christian Fuchs on the left limiting their forward forays. Because the back four has sat deep, there’s been little space in behind them. That has essentially given opponents two options: play through them or look to get wide and get crosses into the box.
With the two central midfielders sitting deep and the full-backs tucked in, there has been limited space for teams to try to pass through. Leicester have essentially ceded the wings to the opposition, knowing Robert Huth and Wes Morgan are good enough in the air to win the majority of crossed balls—Huth has won 3.3 aerial duels per game and Morgan 2.5 in the league this season.
It took a little time to get the shape right—Leicester didn't keep a clean sheet in their first nine matches. The 5-2 home defeat to Arsenal in Leicester’s seventh game of the season proved pivotal. Until then, Ritchie De Laet had played at right-back and Jeffrey Schlupp on the left. Thereafter, having been ravaged by the pace of Alexis Sanchez, Simpson and Fuchs became the first-choice pairing.
The key to protecting that defence was N’Golo Kante, a player of extraordinary stamina, who buzzed in front of the back four, mopping up loose balls, intercepting and pressuring opponents. Nobody made more than his 4.2 interceptions per game and his 4.5 tackles per game this season. That in itself would have made him an extremely valuable player, but he also scored a goal, registered four assists and completed 81.2 per cent of his passes, 0.8 per game of which were key.
He was not, in other words, just a destroyer but also kept the ball moving as a midfield lubricant, and even more than that, he offered a creative threat. Repeatedly as the season wore on, he could be seen picking the ball up deep and driving forward, carrying it 20 or 30 yards to transform the angle of an attack.
Kante also had the perfect foil in Danny Drinkwater. He contributed on the defensive side—2.9 tackles and 1.6 interceptions per game—but he also registered seven assists, a goal and 1.2 key passes per game.
His link-up with Jamie Vardy was exceptional. The opener in the 2-0 win at Sunderland in April was perhaps typical—a perfectly weighted long pass over the top for the striker to run onto—but that was one of just five goals Drinkwater has laid on for Vardy this season.
That ability to get the ball forward quickly was key, even as it left Leicester with the worst pass-completion stats in the league. “I told them we are like the RAF,” said Ranieri. “We are so fast and they believed in this...when we were losing 2-0 or it’s 2-2...man, that generates a lot of enthusiasm and confidence and everything started to go better and better and better."
So vital was the ability to get forward quickly that when Vardy was suspended and Ranieri brought in Leonardo Ulloa, he added Schlupp in place of Marc Albrighton on the left to ensure they still had pace.
At the start of the season, a lot of teams, expecting Leicester to be relegation fodder, pushed up and took the game to them, leaving the space for Vardy to exploit. As the season went by, the tactic was understood, but teams still found themselves unable to resist. In part, that was because Vardy was so lethal; his first goal at Sunderland was his first meaningful involvement of the game—one lapse was all it took.
But in part it was because opponents were chasing. When Leicester went to Manchester City in February, for instance, there was a sense Manchester City had to win because Leicester already had a lead in the table.
Other sides have played similarly, although perhaps without Vardy’s ruthlessness. But what really elevated Leicester was Riyad Mahrez, who added magic to the stable base. His ability to beat a man, to conjure a chance from nothing, meant Leicester were always dangerous.
"I watched Mahrez during last season, and every time he made a difference he was on the right side and he cut inside," Ranieri said. "Then I knew very well Albrighton could make a lot of crosses on the right, but I had to choose between him and Albrighton. Then I changed, and I put Albrighton on the left and Riyad Mahrez on the right so they can come inside."
The balance was perfect, the creator being on one side and the more workmanlike, conservative option on the other.
The final part of jigsaw was Shinji Okazaki, darting around behind Vardy, leading the press and running himself into the ground. It wasn't quite an old-school 4-4-2, but neither was it exactly a 4-2-3-1. Okazaki’s positioning drawing defenders out of position and challenging centre-backs to play against two centre-forwards is something that has become increasingly rare.
Leicester, essentially, played an old-fashioned system opponents had forgotten how to deal with. Others will follow them, but Leicester’s success lay in their novelty, the fact they executed the plans so perfectly and that so many players found form at the same time.
All quotes obtained firsthand. All advanced stats per WhoScored.com.