Everton head to the East Midlands on Boxing Day to to meet champions Leicester City. The Foxes are currently 15th in the table, just 3 points away from the relegation zone, but won their Champions League group and will meet Sevilla in the round of 16 in February. Meanwhile Everton dropped to 9th after succumbing to defeat in the Merseyside Derby on Monday.
We all know about Leicester last year: riding a lightning-quick attack, supernova seasons from three key players, and some good old-fashioned luck all the way to the title. This year, you might have noticed, things are a bit different. Leicester have won just 4 games so far, and during a particularly brutal stretch early in the season lost to Liverpool, Manchester United, and Chelsea by a combined score of 2-10. These were the sides they tore down from traditional perches last year; losing to them so emphatically suggested that the usual order had been restored.
Inquiring minds will want to know what changed from last year. There’s not much I can say here that Dustin Ward didn’t already cover last week at Statsbomb. You should definitely go and read that article right now but it boils down to two things: (1) the league adapted, and (2) N’Golo Kanté left. I’ll add a third, related factor: the luck ran out.
By “the league adapted”, I mean that teams no longer take an aggressive approach against Leicester because they know it will play into their hands. Ward points out that teams are attempting to win the ball in Leicester’s half much less often than during last season. This simple change of approach from the opposition has had numerous negative effects on the Foxes’ offense, including but not limited to:
- Reducing the speed at which Leicester play (best shot tempo last year; middling this year)
- Reducing the frequency at which Leicester get the ball into the final third
- Forcing Leicester to play much shorter passes on average than last year
- Forcing Leicester to play much fewer aggressive passes than last year (passes that get Leicester 10+ yards closer to goal)
- Forcing Leicester to play more backward passes than last year.
Losing Kanté exacerbates every single one of these issues. He was an absolute machine in transition, mopping up and moving forward with devastating quickness and precision. To quote Spielverlagerung’s analysis of Leicester from the end of last season:
Kanté is basically an assistant all over the pitch. He has a hand in all things that happen. To put it in a nutshell, Kanté is football.
Again, all of the above is from Ward’s work; if you want go get more into the weeds I strongly suggest checking it out. The takeaway for us is that Leicester are now just a slower and clunkier version of themselves.
I mentioned that they’ve also been a bit unlucky. All of the breaks that seemed to bounce their way last year are not this year. Specifically it seems that opponents for whatever reason are finishing chances against Leicester at an impressive rate. Despite doing a half-decent job at limiting overall chance quality, Leicester’s opponent’s have been outpacing expected goals. In their last seven games, for example, they’ve averaged about 1.2 xG for versus 1.0 xG against, according to Michael Caley’s model. In terms of actual goals they’ve averaged 1.5 versus 1.75 against. As a result they lost 4 and drawn 2 despite never playing that poorly. These things happen though, especially in football. Leicester are still not as good as last year, but they’re probably better this year than you think they are.
Matching up with Everton
While Claudio Ranieri has been steadfast in sticking with his 4-4-2 and his style that got him the title last year, Ronald Koeman has spent much of the season tinkering with his squad and his tactics. They flirted with a press near the beginning of the season, they attacked down the wings successfully against weaker teams, they counter-attacked effectively against Manchester City, they fielded a 5-3-2 against Chelsea and got absolutely wrecked, they were an attacking black hole in a 4-2-3-1 against Southampton, they stumbled into a pragmatic 4-4-2 against Manchester United, they used a totally chaotic 4-3-3 and deservedly beat Arsenal (???), then were dominated by Liverpool once they got tired trying to do the same thing. I think I even missed a few tweaks in there, but you get the point, which is that really anything is on the table right now.
Maybe that’s okay—this is RK’s first season, and he wants to find some things out about his players. But it seems like he gets it right about as often as he gets it wrong, and it’s hard to know what to make of that, especially when it sure seems like there are obvious things to not do against certain opponents.
Take the derby, for example. Everton went all out in the first half, with the entire team running around like mad trying to disrupt everything Liverpool were doing. I wrote last week about why that was not a great idea, but then it worked! .....for about 35 minutes:
First of all, there was no way Everton were going to maintain those energy levels for 90 minutes (yes, even if McCarthy doesn’t get injured). Their best hope with this strategy was to grab a goal from a press or counter-press, but it never happened. It never really that came close to happening (see above). When the energy ran out, it was 0-0 and there was a big chunk of the game still left to play. Eventually Everton found out that if you abandon the idea of defensive shape, good teams will burn you.
Anyway, I apologize for the rant but it is relevant to the Leicester game because again we have a team with a fairly well-defined style that will prey upon teams who walk into their (somewhat obvious?) traps. To be fair, the last person to walk into that trap was none other than Pep Guardiola, so at least Koeman would be in good company if he decided to go at Leicester.
In all seriousness though, if Everton get lazy with their positioning and try to outwork the Foxes rather than outfox them (ha), Leicester will do this to them:
It helps that Jamie Vardy is out of this match due to suspension, but Leicester will still try to do what they always do: suck you in and counter. With that in mind, the match calls for a measured approach from Everton. They need to maintain stability and structure, as Leicester thrive on chaos. It remains to be seen whether or not Ronnie and co. know how to do this against decent opposition.
I’m sympathetic to the idea that Koeman needs time and resources to build the squad that he wants. In the meantime, we can learn about his tactical acumen and ability to communicate with his players by seeing how he approaches these sorts of matches.