How much of an insight can Leicester’s pre-season friendly against Celtic give us? Defining it definitively is probably a recipe for being dredged up in three months when the current (English) Premier League champions are doing something completely different. However, there were aspects which were striking.
Leicester lined up in the 4-4-2 that was their usual in 2015-16.
New signings (or youth products in Chilwell) made up 6 of the starting 11, though this is not to say that all of these will stay in the line-up come August. Daniel Amartey and Demarai Gray may not strictly even count as ‘new’ signings, having been bought during last season. It may be a signal to the amount of preparation and learning that Leicester require of their players that neither featured much during 2015-16, yet started the first major friendly of the summer amongst several other starting team players.
Given that Simpson was identified by many, towards the end of last season, as a weak link in the Leicester side, Amartey may be the new starting right-back; but Gray is likely filling in for Vardy, who will be recovering from the European Championships. Also at the Euros was Christian Fuchs at left-back, so Chilwell (a youngster like Gray) is likely a fill-in as well.
However, with Kanté off to Chelsea and the rest of 2015-16’s starting midfield in the line-up, it seems that Mendy may, more or less, be the Frenchman’s replacement. Sam Jackson identified Kasper Schmeichel’s passing as a possible weak link last season, so Zieler may be fighting him for a starting place (Schmeichel came on as a half-time substitute). I personally regarded Huth as an area for improvement too, and with the rest of the line-up (apart from Fuchs and Vardy fill-ins) looking so much like a planned starting 11, it may well be that Hernández at centre-back is a new starter too.
Leicester’s play in the first half – before the usual mass of changes we see in pre-season friendlies – gave some further credence to this ‘Hernández as starter’ theory. Ranieri’s team seemed to be keeping a slightly higher line than during the 2015-16 season, partly as Celtic (as will future opponents) were not wanting to give them space in behind to use and partly to keep the defence and midfield lines vertically compact. Hernández possesses more pace, and four fewer years of age, than Robert Huth.
Celtic indeed had several counter-attacks during the game, as Leicester had men pressed higher up the pitch. This is the peril of a successful team. Oppositions will move deeper, give you less space behind them, scared of the threat that you hold – and then they’ll break. Leicester need to evolve, and maybe (though it’s always possible that they’ll go back to Huth) with Hernández they will.
Largely, in the first half, Leicester played as they had to win the Premier League title. In defence, they became narrow; wingers tucking in to close spaces in the middle, or full-backs tucking in and wingers tracking back to close spaces in the box in case of a cross. In attack, they were direct – not going over the top of Celtic’s defence as might have been expected with Jamie Vardy in the attack, but along the ground.
However, Gray’s presence as one of the nominal central strikers allowed some variety, with him able to be a part of direct attacks or to move wide to the right when Mahrez drifted centrally. Amartey and Chilwell at full-back also offered width, getting forward and overlapping their wingers quite often.
Now, as this is just a single pre-season friendly it’s hard to tell which of a variety of possibilities this is:
- a consistent feature of Leicester’s game this coming season as they look to push more men forward to break down defences
- a symptom of the personnel, Ranieri able to exploit the pair’s athleticism and (possibly) more attacking tendencies than Simpson and Fuchs
- a response to Celtic’s 3-5-2 system, wing-backs going forward able to either exploit space or to drag men out of position to give their wingers room to operate.
With so many changes happening throughout the second half it would take far too many words to go through all of the possibilities that these tweaks would provide Leicester, so just a few more observations.
Leicester definitely seemed to be rotating the players who were joining in on the counter-attacks. One might expect that the more attacking players would counter, while the more defensive players stayed back. However, there were times when Drinkwater would be sprinting forward to join the front-line and Albrighton, for example, would stay back. This is sensible, providing that everyone is capable of doing each other’s jobs, to allow some players to have a breather and to keep opponents guessing at what will be coming at them, and it’ll be interesting to see to what extent this continues.
At half-time Amartey moved into central midfield as Mendy came off, Simpson coming on and going to right-back. Amartey is capable of playing in both positions – it may have been fatigue on his and Drinkwater’s behalf but the central midfield looked more solid when Mendy was in there.
New signing Ahmed Musa also came on for Demarai Gray, drifting wide less than the latter player and offering blistering pace as well – possibly more akin to what Vardy offered than Gray did in the first half. It’ll be interesting to see how all of these attacking options fit together once Vardy re-enters first team action.