Tactical Watch: Blocking the ball in behind

By SFC Media time Tue 30 Nov Saints vs Leicester
Photo by Matt Watson | Mohammed Salisu

Southampton begin the first of back-to-back home games against Leicester on Wednesday night. Sam Tighe assesses what to expect from the Foxes in the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.

After beating Watford 4-2 in what looked more like Winter Wonderland than the King Power Stadium on Sunday, Leicester City head south for a less frigid affair under the lights at St Mary’s Stadium.

With vision obscured and the Premier League’s yellow ball barely visible at points, it forced a Foxes performance that took them back to their title-winning roots in a way. With passing almost impossible, Leicester went long and found plenty of joy with direct balls and runs in behind.

It led to four goals and a first league win in four, with a slice of irony coming in the fact it came against – of all people – Claudio Ranieri.

But with no blizzards forcing an emergency change in tact, expect Leicester to return to their more patient, possession-based template here. There’s a big emphasis on playing out from the back via the goalkeeper, with the ball moved wide via the centre-backs, across the midfield and, ultimately, switched to the other flank.

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28: Jamie Vardy of Leicester City celebrates with teammates after scoring their side's third goal during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Watford at The King Power Stadium on November 28, 2021 in Leicester, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Leicester reverted to a more direct style against Watford

The success of this possession structure this season has been mixed. The team’s been destabilised by a series of injuries to its spine, continually placing the system off balance. It began with Wesley Fofana in pre-season, then went through Jonny Evans, Wilfred Ndidi and now Youri Tielemans.

The idea of a system is it endures the players, but when you lose that much quality, it’s tough. Teams have been able to press Leicester’s build-up and predict its patterns, leading to turnovers and opportunities. Ralph Hasenhüttl could well choose to uncork Southampton’s press in this fixture and try to do the same.

That said, pushing up and leaving too much space in behind is a dangerous game to play against Leicester; it always has been, and it always will be as long as Jamie Vardy is around.

Sunday’s snowy climate suited him brilliantly as Leicester played safety-first football and launched it far more often than usual – 76 times, to be precise, when the typical number falls around 50.

Vardy’s clever off-the-shoulder runs suddenly came to life in this context, and when others followed suit, the Foxes suddenly had plenty of players running beyond the ball and causing trouble.

if Tielemans’s absence continues, Maddison is the man in the middle who must be closed down and harried.

sam tighe
on leicester's danger man

Key to making use of these runs is a resurgent James Maddison, who impressed in the Europa League against Legia Warsaw and carried that momentum into the weekend.

His ability to find space between the lines, turn, and pick passes is a formidable threat; if Tielemans’s absence continues, Maddison is the man in the middle who must be closed down and harried.

The big question Hasenhüttl will be concerned by is whether Brendan Rodgers rotates his team and how that affects things. If an unchanged XI is named, that would mean the majority of the players play their third game in the space of just six days, so there’s clear scope for shuffling.

Kelechi Iheanacho, Patson Daka, Ayoze Pérez, Jannik Vestergaard and more will be waiting for their chance, with Iheanacho capable of completely altering the look of the attack. He’d need to be paired up with another forward, and his inclusion might signal the use of wing-backs, rather than wingers.

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