Have Norwich set a tactical precedent for beating Leicester?
For Alex Neil and Norwich, Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Leicester City will have been a familiar tale of disappointment for a side who have now lost six of their last seven games in the Premier League. For 89 minutes the Canaries out-did themselves, forming a strong three man defence that sat deep and prevented any of Leicester’s star players from exploiting space on the break. Leonardo Ulloa’s winner was perhaps slightly against the run of play, especially in light of the fallow performance of Norwich striker Cameron Jerome, who squandered some vital goalscoring opportunities.
Leicester had their chances, granted, but Ranieri and co. will be wary of the precedent this Norwich performance will set at the King Power stadium for Leicester’s run of don’t-dare-lose home games, which includes encounters against West Brom, Newcastle, Southampton, West Ham, Swansea and Everton. In reference to his decision to start with three at the back, Neil explained how he “looks at how other teams set up against certain opposition”, and that “the only team who has played that way against them has been Manchester United. I watched that (United) game- it was 1-1 but Man United should have won. I looked at that and thought we could deploy that and it would help us”.
Barring the absence of the suspended Danny Simpson, this was a full strength Leicester side fuelled with a desire to extend their league lead. Of course, the application of players in a system is more important than the framework in which they play, and Neil instructed his team to sit deep, to close down aggressively only in their own half, and to hit Leicester with a taste of their own medicine– to embrace any opportunities for quick transitions, and to exploit the lumbering pace of Robert Huth and Wes Morgan. Jerome should have had a brace following a one on one with Kasper Schmeichel and a gloriously free header from six yards out after a corner. If either of those chances would have been converted, it would have been interesting to see the mental capabilities of a team who’re still unfancied by many.
Leicester subsequently enjoyed 59% possession, the third time they have held the ball for longer than their opponents in a league game this season, but they managed just three shots on target, their first after 58 minutes. Seemingly, with no space to exploit, the explosive and flair-filled strengths of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez were largely nullified. But additionally, Leicester remain one of the few teams in the league who consistently play two strikers up front. Three at the back has long been famed as the tactical remedy to this scenario; Ryan Bennett picked up Vardy, Timm Klose shadowed Okazaki and Russell Martin swept behind, leaving Norwich with a spare man at the back at all times. Robbie Brady and Ivo Pinto operated the flanks on their own, rarely individually overloaded by an overlapping fullback, sitting in front of Marc Albrighton and Mahrez without the ball, before racing ahead of them with it.
There’s nothing original or groundbreaking about Alex Neil’s pragmaticism in this sense, but Leicester should be wary of their need to be able to break down teams who may have ‘figured out’ their counter-attacking ways. Ranieri will know that Norwich have conceded the joint most goals of any team this season in the league, and that stronger, more impenetrable defences await. He will also know that Leicester’s forthcoming matches will finally see his own side be respected and accounted for on a weekly basis. He will know, therefore, that unless he can formulate a plan B as coherent as his plan A, Leicester’s dream year may fall away at the final hurdle. How both West Brom and Leicester line up on Tuesday will be fascinating, but Alex Neil’s precedent may be greater still; have Leicester finally been de-coded?