Back in December 2015, Leicester City welcomed Manchester City to the King Power Stadium knowing a win would carry them back to the top of the table after a remarkable start to their Premier League campaign. With supporters daring to dream that the unlikeliest challenges for the title could yet be on the cards, Claudio Ranieri effectively shuffled his deck to ensure the Foxes remained very much in the hunt at the turn of the year.
Aware of the attacking talents available to then City boss Manuel Pellegrini, Ranieri switched from his favourite 4-4-2 system to stack the midfield with an extra body and leave Jamie Vardy to plough a lone furrow up front.
Twelve months on, Ranieri finds himself facing up to the fact that a defeat against City on Saturday could see his side drop into the relegation zone following a poor run of results and performances. Since picking up an admirable point away at Tottenham they have lost to West Brom, Watford and Sunderland and required a stoppage-time penalty to draw at home to Middlesbrough.
It was thought that concentrating in the Champions League was leaving the Premier League winners short domestically, but since booking their place in the last 16 against Club Brugge on matchday five their displays have, if anything, got worse. Defensively they remain all over the place, they continue to be overrun in midfield without the departed N’Golo Kante while their attacking lynchpins are struggling for form and motivation. The time has come for Ranieri to rediscover his ‘Tinkerman’ roots.
Towards the end of last season, you could practically name Leicester’s starting XI for every match they played. Other than those that were enforced by injury and suspension, Ranieri did not change his side or system at all in the final third of the campaign. This time around, though, given the extra European fixtures the Italian boss has had to look to almost the entirety of his squad to find a consistent winning formula with little success. The one constant – his tried and tested 4-4-2.
But with a relegation battle on the horizon and positive results far from forthcoming, the time has come for the veteran coach to turn his back – at least for now – on a system that worked so well just a matter of months ago. Kante’s presence last season allowed for Ranieri to play two central strikers rather than one while the constant threat of Riyad Mahrez gave the team an X-factor in the final third.
This time around Daniel Amartey and Andy King have struggled to fill the gap left by Kante’s move to Chelsea and Mahrez has lost his mojo dramatically after opting to sign a new deal in the east Midlands rather than move onto a traditionally bigger club. So how does Ranieri go about solving these issues?
The most obvious thing is to move one of his two strikers back into more of a midfield role, which in turn would allow him to drop his central duo back to more defensive duties in front of what has quickly become a porous back four. Though 4-2-3-1 is beginning to become a slightly outdated system, the same was said when Ranieri made the decision to go with 4-4-2 originally. Football management is all about getting the most out of your best players, and such a formation would allow Mahrez to thrive in his preferred postion.
Given the Algeria international’s performances on the right-hand side last term, it is difficult to imagine why he would want to play anywhere else. However, Mahrez has – on more than one occasion – spoken of his desire to play as a No.10, and a switch in style would certainly allow him to do so.
Instead of being doubled up on in wide areas, Mahrez would be able work his magic at the heart of the final third and look to combine with the striker in front of him with far more regularity. You need only look at how Mahrez’s relationship with Vardy has broken down this season to see how Ranieri needs to increase his star turn’s impact on matches.
In 2015-16, Mahrez created a chance for Vardy every 128 minutes they spent on the pitch, with five of those resulting in goals. In comparison, this season has seen the former Le Havre man create just a single opportunity for his partner in crime despite the pair spending 939 minutes on the field together. Allowing Mahrez a more central role could be the answer to getting him more involved as well as allowing the supremely talented Demarai Gray to finally showcase what he can offer from kick-off rather than coming off the bench.
Pep Guardiola’s City could even provide the perfect opposition for Mahrez to thrive in a central position, with regular defensive shield Fernandinho suspended alongside Sergio Aguero and Nicholas Otamendi. Fernando will likely to step into his compatriot’s shoes, and though the Brazilian is enjoying his most consistent season since arriving at the Etihad Stadium, the uncertainty of quite how Guardiola wants to play could lead to Mahrez running riot should he receive the service.
Up front, Shinji Okazaki’s work-rate would certainly lend itself to a more defensive style, and though both Vardy and Islam Slimani are more natural goalscorers, the pair could still be utilised off the bench for the time being while Ranieri looks to regain some stability.
And it is that stability which has been so missing when it comes to the other end of the pitch for Leicester this time around. The return of Papy Mendy from injury is certainly encouraging despite him struggling during Wednesday’s chastening defeat in Porto while Genk’s Wilfred Ndidi looks set to complete a £15 million move in January. Both have been tipped as being the men to replace Kante, and if either can strike up a partnership with Danny Drinkwater without having to constantly worry about switching between attack and defence then the Foxes may all of a sudden become far more difficult to beat.
Behind them in defence is where the most work in terms of personnel is required, with all four of the men who shielded Kasper Schmeichel so well last season having struggled this time around. Summer signing Luis Hernandez is yet to convince either, and Ranieri’s interest in Burnley centre-back Michael Keane is likely to be revived in January despite clubs in far better positions in the league table having been linked since the summer.
Schmeichel’s return from a hand injury after Christmas to replace the somewhat shaky Ron-Robert Zieler may help, but new head of recruitment Eduardo Macia is likely to have to earn his money next month in the fight to find players to shore up the various leaks in this Leicester defence.
For now, though, it is down to Ranieri to find a solution to Leicester’s various problems. Moving away from his counterattacking instincts will likely be difficult given how well his side performed during his first 12 months in charge, but he is a manager who has proven before he is far from adverse to change. Now, with the bottom three beckoning, the Tinkerman must prove his credentials yet again.