Claudio Ranieri proves he will take risks with Leicester to chase title dream
After Leicester's recent games against Arsenal (a 2-1 defeat) and Manchester City (a 3-1 win), manager Claudio Ranieri warned his players that tougher tests were to come in the Premier League. It could be just one of those things that managers say to not sound complacent, but in Leicester's case it might actually be true.
For 89 minutes of their 1-0 win over Norwich on Saturday, Leicester looked nothing like the merry bunch of marauders who had carved their way through the best the Premier League has to offer, and instead were frustrated and disjointed in their attempts to play properly.
Norwich boss Alex Neil produced a blueprint of how teams probably will play against Leicester for the remainder of the season. His side sat deep, played a 3-4-3 system that often looked more like 5-4-1, and allowed Leicester to have the ball. Their defensive line was so narrow that Riyad Mahrez and Marc Albrighton, cutting in from right and left respectively, couldn't wreak the sort of havoc they usually do, while service to Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki up front was stymied and there was little space behind the defence for the former to exploit.
"I look at how other teams set up against certain opposition and the only team who has played that way against them has been Manchester United," said Neil after the game, about the three-man defence. "[That game] was 1-1 but Man United should have won. I looked at that and thought we could deploy that and it would help us."
Help them it did, as did the tactic of sitting back and forcing Ranieri's side away from their usual approach of playing on the counterattack; making them take the initiative and the ball.
Leicester have averaged a shade under 44 percent possession for the season and Saturday was just the third time they have had more of the ball than their opponents. In this context it shouldn't be a surprise that they didn't win the other two -- drawing 0-0 with Bournemouth and 2-2 with Southampton -- and, in a sport which relies on doing things with the ball, Leicester have excelled in having as little control of it as possible.
Leicester's next game, on Tuesday at home to West Brom, will perhaps be the ultimate test on these grounds. Tony Pulis' side are one of only two sides (the other being Sunderland) who keep possession less than Leicester, suggesting that this could be a game in which both sides simply try to give the ball back to their opponents -- like two overly-courteous people insisting that the other goes through a doorway first.
Pulis enjoys cramming as many centre-backs into his team as possible at the best of times -- he started Saturday's 3-2 win over Crystal Palace with a relatively conservative three, a situation rectified in the second-half when he introduced a fourth -- so who knows how many he'll try to find room for when trying to counter the threat of Leicester.
So, when you consider how the teams below them in the table could line up, it presents a slightly bleak picture for Leicester and a different reading of a fixture list that ostensibly looks rather friendly. Their next eight games are against West Brom, Watford, Newcastle, Crystal Palace, Southampton, Sunderland, West Ham and Swansea. The good news is that, on Saturday, Ranieri found a way to counteract Norwich's tactics.
Evidently thinking clearly among the excitement of his side's title bid, and the panic that letting it slip through his fingers might inspire, Ranieri first removed Okazaki and brought on Jeffrey Schlupp to play on the left, moving Albrighton to the right and Mahrez into the middle, in an attempt to stretch play and make the middle of the pitch look rather less crowded.
Then, when that didn't work, he went all out, introducing Leonardo Ulloa for right-back Daniel Amartey and switching to a 3-4-1-2 system -- keeping that width but giving Schlupp and Albrighton another man to aim at.
And it worked rather perfectly, Albrighton driving down the right and crossing for Ulloa to stab home the winner, via the slightest of toe-ends from Vardy. They required a degree of luck, but what successful team doesn't?
"I took a lot of risks," Ranieri said after the game. "I said: 'In or out -- it's not important now. One point is nothing, we have to win today.' You can lose but it's only one point less than a draw. We took the risk but the manager is hired for this reason. I enjoy when there is something to do from my side of things. Saturday was good because when you make a change and the change turns out to find the solution, it's fantastic."
This season, Ranieri has made a virtue of keeping things simple, of not overloading his players with too many tactical instructions and placing trust in his squad to play as they will.
"This is the pact I made with the players," he said in an interview with Corriere della Sera recently. "I'll explain some football ideas every now and then, as long as you give me everything."
Perhaps the most boring thing about this season's Premier League has been the announcement of the Leicester starting XI, because once injuries and suspensions are taken into account then you know exactly what the team will be. Consistency has been a key part of their success, going against the old stereotype of Ranieri as "The Tinkerman," an image he has very much moved away from.
But while not changing things has brought Leicester this far, Ranieri clearly isn't afraid to make alternations in order to take them further. The next games will indeed be tough as his side chase an incredible title at the end of the season, but the Italian will do whatever it takes to get them over the line first.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.