Leicester City remain three points clear at the top of the Premier League table on Tuesday evening, thanks to a trademark display of defensive and counter-attacking prowess against Liverpool at the KP Stadium.
By now, every manager in the Premier League knows precisely how Claudio Ranieri is going to set up his side. With few exceptions, the Foxes approach each game in a compact, narrow 4-4-2 formation, employing a deep defensive line and tireless pressing in midfield. The relative close proximity of Leicester’s ten outfield players to each other renders them far more effective in both the defensive and attacking phases; no Premier League side has completed more tackles, more interceptions or scored more goals from counter-attacking situations.
Yet, despite the predictability of Ranieri’s tactical approach, few of his opposite numbers have been capable of devising a plan to stymie it. Jurgen Klopp is one of two to manage a league victory over the season’s surprise package – with a 1-0 victory at Anfield on Boxing Day – but even that rare slip owed more to Leicester’s small squad than any tactical triumph; star players Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez were hamstrung by fever and fatigue respectively on that particular occasion.
Tonight, Klopp’s plan was clearer; his 4-4-1-1 was geared towards exploiting the space that Leicester’s ultra-narrow defensive unit leaves on the flanks – particularly down Leicester’s right, where Mahrez isn’t as busy as the industrious Marc Albrighton on the other side. Left back, Alberto Moreno, was therefore often the focal point of the visitors’ attacking play, with captain Jordan Henderson instructed to pop up at the back post from the right of midfield.
Ploughing this particular furrow looked like it would pay dividends for Liverpool early on. James Milner’s 11th minute left-wing cross created his side’s only genuine clear-cut chance of the game. Henderson back post header teed up Roberto Firmino who shot straight at Kasper Schmeichel from point-blank range. Henderson’s presence at the back stick also forced left back, Christian Fuchs, into a nervy first-half headed clearance that almost flew into his own net.
Unfortunately for Liverpool, despite the space afforded to Moreno, the Spaniard’s use of the ball was largely wasteful. His evening was summed up when he blazed over in the 39th minute, after a Firmino pass had found him unmarked in the area.
Meanwhile, Leicester’s rampant midfield pressing was creating counter-attacking opportunities as per usual. Although N’Golo Kanté is the league’s top interceptor (and second best tackler), it was his partner, Danny Drinkwater, who shone the brightest in this regard this evening. The Leicester midfielder dispossessed Henderson near the centre circle in the 8th minute to create the home side’s best opening of the half. The resulting counter-attack saw Shinji Okazaki feed strike partner, Jamie Vardy, down the left channel, where Dejan Lovren was beaten for the first of several occasions in this clash. Vardy’s cross found Okazaki in behind Sakho, but like Firmino minutes later, the Japanese headed straight at the goalkeeper.
While the above paints the picture of a scrappy first half of parity, the second period was anything but even. The Foxes, who had enjoyed a relatively high possession share of 44% in the first half (by their low standards), retreated even deeper in the second half. Yet, despite a greater share of possession, Liverpool were arguably even less incisive than they had been in the opening 45. Space in wide areas continued to be wasted, with Moreno’s deliveries remaining culpable. Liverpool, with the rotating diminutive front two of Firmino and Lallana, were crying out for a target. In the 66th minute – coinciding with a switch to a 4-3-1-2 shape – it arrived through the introduction of Christian Benteke.
But by this point, the visitors were already one down, through a goal that encapsulated the fearsome counter-attacking threat that Leicester City’s ultra-direct approach can bring to bear. Drinkwater won the ball in his own box on the hour mark, allowing his side to feed Mahrez. Jamie Vardy’s run in behind Mahmadou Sahko was perfectly timed with the Algerian’s turn infield to outfox his red-shirted opponent. Vardy ran onto Mahrez’s incredible subsequent 50 yard lofted pass, beat Lovren again, and scorched an incredible half-volley over Simon Mignolet and into the Liverpool net. Truly a goal of the season contender.
Vardy completed his brace soon after thanks to some typically comical Liverpool defending; Sakho allowing Albrighton’s long punt to bounce, resulting in a deflected Okazaki effort that Vardy was first to react to at the far post.
Liverpool, in their narrow auxiliary formation, never looked like threatening Leicester’s resolute backline. They finished the game with two shots on target; further evidence that Klopp’s style is not suited to breaking down teams who play with a low block. Meanwhile, the potential fairytale is still alive for Leicester City and Claudio Ranieri. If they keep executing their plans to perfection like this, it’s difficult to see anyone devising a way to stop them.