After the first leg had ended, many thought Claudio Ranieri had done enough to see out the season amid a poor domestic campaign. Jamie Vardy’s late goal at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán had given his side, who were in their first ever UEFA Champions League campaign, life and a reason to fight another day.
As it happened, however, Ranieri, the manager who led them through the fairytale that was the 2015-16 Premier League season, was now gone, sacked the day after their 2-1 defeat to Sevilla. He wouldn’t be on the touchline scrapping it out with Jorge Sampaoli; he’d be elsewhere, away from the Champions League atmosphere, where many at King Power stadium would never in a million years have thought they’d witness their Foxes competing for top-flight European glory.
But while the Italian manager’s chapter ended in the story of Leicester City’s history, their Cinderella fairytale was still being written. Their 4-4-2 was still going to have a chance to show his old face again, his old form, and help keep the story going. And what better time to do it?
Since taking over from Ranieri, Craig Shakespeare has managed to revitalise a Leicester City squad that now resembles the championship winning team of last season. They’re hungry and intense, and are showing their ability to start and finish matches with their star personnel showing consistency again. Simply put, Leicester is not a team to take lightly anymore.
Sevilla, on the other hand, have dropped points in La Liga, earning draws in their past two matches against newly promoted sides Alavés and Leganés. The creativity and fresh positional play is still there with this Sampaoli-led side, but the intensity and quality spark has dipped – their kamikaze football is now a fighter jet that seems low on fuel.
Coming into the match, this scribe picked the Andalucians to get the job done, but I knew a Leicester side in the mold of their fairytale form was not something to take lightly. Make no mistake – this is still an outfit that is built for tournament football when at their best.
Teams and strategy
With Shinji Okazaki partnering Jamie Vardy in attack, the Foxes being home, and Sampaoli opting to go with Wissam Ben Yedder up top, it seemed likely that this Sevilla side wasn’t going to be as interested in high-pressing as they did in Spain. In fact, with the electricity in their air and Ndidi in N’Golo Kanté’s old positon – the only change from the Leicester of last year – I thought the Foxes were going to try and score a goal as fast as possible and then opt to defend their lead.
Sevilla were going to try and use their love affair with the ball and their three-at-the-back formation to frustrate Leicester City and try to impose their positional play on them. In their 3-4-2-1, Vitolo and Samir Nasri were going to be just behind Ben Yedder to offer creativity, while Leicester City’s 4-4-2 was going to move to the tune of classic, direct football and team defending. It wasn’t going to be a clash of defensive football versus attacking but an old English philosophy with some modern dynamics pitted against Spanish structure with Latino unpredictability.
Jamie Vardy sets the intensity tone and Leicester City follow suit
As the two teams felt each other out, it became obvious that Leicester City weren’t going to necessarily defend low and narrow, but nor were they going to high-press like Liverpool. Instead, they were going to respect their opponent, track back to a mid-block and rely on individual tracking of runs and balls to really give Sevilla a fight. Maximum individual intensity was expected from every Leicester player, and it started with Jamie Vardy.
Below, we see that Sevilla are in transition from defence to attack while Leicester’s forwards (red arrows) make their way back while the midfield (red circles), instead of counter-pressing, collapse to help their centre-backs (out of frame). They’re going to play at minimal risk and await Sevilla’s build up.
However, the orange circle above shows Marc Albrighton disinterested in joining the collapse right away – he’s anticipating a switch to his zone and he’s about to time his run perfectly. In the next screenshot, we see that the ball (blue circle) is about to be received by Steven N’Zonzi (red circle) while Albrighton (orange) is already in full sprint toward his opponent.
Next, we see that Albrighton has forced N’Zonzi to make a quick, high-risk pass (blue circle) to Pablo Sarabia (yellow circle) while Leicester’s Christian Fuchs (red circle) is right behind him and applying pressure.
Lastly, we see that Fuchs (red arrow) has since stripped the ball from Sarabia (green circle) while Albrighton orange circle continues his intense running to collect the 50/50 ball.
This play illustrates the work rate and anticipation that was essential to Leicester’s strategy of stopping Sevilla’s build-up phase. It was nothing fancy, just good old fashioned hard work. Now, on to Jamie Vardy’s superb lead-by-example tackle.
The Foxes have just cleared the ball with Nicolás Pareja (green circle) being chased down by Vardy (red circle). Vardy’s run was at maximum intensity and while it looked as if it was brought on by pure desperation, the run was also slightly curved to prevent a potential pass back to Pareja’s defensive partners.
The screenshot above shows the three-man high-block of Mahrez, Okazaki and Albrighton playing high to disrupt Sevilla’s play out the back. We can see that Okazaki and Albrighton have screened Pareja’s closest passing options on his right flank. In closing of this play, we see that Vardy executes a powerful and perfectly timed tackle to close down the ball and prevent Pareja’s long ball down the flank.
Tactically, the screenshots above don’t display the uniqueness of today’s modern game, but they display the bigger picture in that in terms of one versus one defensive actions, Leicester City were up for it. As it happened, the ball went flying into the air for Pareja to quickly clear it as Vardy was about to come around again – a Leicester throw-in was awarded.
Good passing and movement by the Foxes
In addition to Leicester’s intensity and willingness to defend well in all areas of the pitch, the Foxes weren’t afraid to possess the ball and give it a go toward Sevilla’s penalty area. Below, we see that Sevilla’s defensive structure to stop Leicester’s build-up down the flank is quite poor – they’re all over the place.
The red lines above indicate that Sevilla are mostly man-marking and aren’t really in a structured block when they should be. The ball (blue circle) is at a certain point in their half where it can be a little bit risky not to organise properly. Anyway, Sevilla are opting to break up Leicester’s play (orange triangle) with three players (red circles) while the man-markers shut down and screen the passing lanes.
However, since Sevilla are busy focusing on the players and not the spaces, Leicester are about to form another triangle to move the ball up. Below, we see that since Sevilla’s man marking relies on one versus one, Leicester City have an easier time forming new positions to occupy as the Andalusians are neglecting the spaces they’re going into. As a result, the Foxes quickly form a new triangle and move the ball upfield.
Sevilla’s impatience in possession hurts them
Very briefly, we’re going to go over Sevilla’s game plan once they were able to enter Leicester’s half through a proper build-up. Simply put, they showed impatience and an unwillingness to actually take advantage of their best qualities – that is meticulous passing through long skirmishes with the ball.
With Sevilla down 1-0 after Wes Morgan’s opener, Vitolo (red circle) can be seen below with his head up as five Sevilla players (red lines) enter the Foxes penalty area.
Sampaoli’s side did this for two reasons:
- They’re trying to create a set-piece situation through open play to quickly generate chances on goal.
- When and if an opportunity for Vitolo arises where he can get closer to the penalty area, the five players are going to scramble in different directions to create positional options and superiority.
Unfortunately for Sevilla, neither of this happens. Vitolo will travel down the left side and will cross a ball that will meet Mahrez’s head and will be cleared away. As mentioned earlier, Leicester was up for it defensively.
Leicester City’s low-block to hold the lead
There’s no way around it: Albrighton’s goal nearly 10 minutes into the second half was down to individual skill and to Sevilla’s poor penalty area defending. But as the half stretch carried on, Sevilla’s possession-play improved. However, Leicester City hung on through vintage means – they parked that bus.
Below, we see that Nasri has the ball (blue circle) with four Leicester players surrounding the pass outlet in the penalty area and Fuchs (red circle) keeping his eye out for Vitolo all the way on the right.
Above, we also see that Leicester’s two holding midfielders (orange circles) have mirrored the defence in width (orange lines). In short, they have numerical advantages in the dangerous areas around the goal and also where the ball is being played.
In Sevilla’s defence, Nasri’s sending off in the 74th minute really heart their chances of being able to improve their play further, while N’Zonzi’s laughable penalty blew his side’s chances of changing the whole make-up of the match. But Leicester were superior collectively, there’s no way around it. They gave it their all and took advantage of some poor Sevilla defending. The Foxes continue their remarkable story and that is great news for football
By Carlo Valladares @C_V_News