Leicester City are changing rapidly under Claude Puel. The ‘new-manager bounce’ is well and truly in effect – since he was appointed they have beaten the likes of Everton and, on Tuesday night, Tottenham Hotspur, while they have also picked up points on the road against both Stoke City and West Ham United.
However, there is also an obvious stylistic shift underway. The Frenchman’s tactics may not have fitted in at Southampton, where his football was labelled dull by critics. However, in a different context, with him now in charge of a team built on solid defending and direct counter-attacking, his ideas seem exciting. And the full-backs are playing a key role.
The names and faces remain the same; Puel has not, after all, had a transfer window in which to plunder the market for fresh talent. However, work done on the training ground is already paying off, with Leicester looking a more cohesive attacking force than they have done for a long time.
Danny Simpson, Christian Fuchs and Ben Chilwell are their first-choice full-backs, and the four-man back line is still the go-to defensive setup. But the way these players are operating within that setup is entirely different, at least when the team has possession of the ball.
Here, Football Whispers looks at these changes, and why the full-backs could become Leicester’s most important players under Puel.
SAME FORMATION, DIFFERENT SHAPE
Simpson was quick to comment on the new demands placed on him by Puel. The right-back, who was a core member of the 2016 Premier League title-winning side, stated within weeks of the new manager’s arrival that: “He has come in with his ideas and they are fairly new.”
“It is not going to happen overnight but for me, when we are playing against a team like Stoke who defend in numbers, he wants me to push forward and leave space in the hole for Riyad Mahrez or Demarai Gray, or whoever.
“He wants me to be an outlet and if I can get in behind and fire in some low crosses for the strikers, that is what I will try to do. It is a different role, an exciting role. I am looking forward to it. I feel like already, although I said it wouldn’t happen overnight, you can see everyone helping each other out and covering for each other.
“I am used to covering for Riyad and not [being] allowed to go past him, but now he is encouraged to get forward and get in the hole a bit more, and I can be an option on the outside and the central midfielders can cover.
“It is a new style of play and fresh ideas. When he speaks you have to listen. He is an experienced manager who has managed some big teams. He comes in with ideas and you have to take them on board as best you can.”
Puel has not changed Leicester’s system – they still line up in what is nominally a 4-4-1-1 with a second striker supporting Jamie Vardy up front. However, the way they move within that system is different to anything seen under Claudio Ranieri or Craig Shakespeare.
The most noticeable shift is in the way the full-backs operate. As Simpson discusses, they were previously seen as primarily defensive players responsible for maintaining shape and providing support to their more advanced team-mates, but now they play a more fluid role.
Simpson on the right and Fuchs or Chilwell on the left are now expected to take more ownership of their respective flanks. In the attacking phase, they now push up towards the attacking third, making overlapping – and, occasionally, underlapping – runs.
WHY THE FULL-BACKS ARE SO IMPORTANT
As an attacking outlet, Chilwell is perhaps the most confident and effective of Leicester’s first-choice full-back options. Fuchs has a good left foot and is an accurate crosser of the ball, but lacks the pace and energy to patrol the flank, while Simpson has the energy but perhaps lacks the finesse.
These differences are perhaps demonstrated statistically by the fact that Fuchs, with 0.9 per game, averages more key passes than the other two, while Simpson, with just 0.1 per game, averages the fewest of the trio.
However, their ability to cross is not the only reason Puel instructs them to push high up the pitch in attacks, and it is also not the reason why they could become Leicester’s most important players. Rather, they can become Leicester’s key men because of what they enable their team-mates, and the team as a whole, to do.
Puel wants his side to pass out from the back and centrally through the thirds more than was seen previously. While the Foxes have earned renown, and respect, for their counter-attacking style, the new manager wants them to be more patient and establish possession rather than look for the instant ball over the top to Vardy.
He has good reason for this – Harry Maguire is one of England’s finest ball-playing centre-backs, and Mahrez is one of the most technically and creatively gifted attacking midfielders in the Premier League.
Those two players were being underutilised by their previous managers’ penchant for a direct counter-attacking game, but with more emphasis on possession their qualities on the ball can be maximised.
However, in order for Maguire to make those penetrative through balls, and for Mahrez to drift inside with the intention of receiving said through balls, the full-backs must take higher positions on the wings.
Doing so allows the attacking midfield three – two wingers and the second striker – to play more narrowly, try and get behind the opposition midfield line to receive, then turn and run at the opposition defence.
Simpson, Fuchs and Chilwell may not be the biggest names in Leicester’s squad, but their new responsibilities should see their importance to the club grow. They will not only help to get the best out of their star team-mates, but to enable Puel’s new tactics to function.