It’s not a discredit to the work of Claudio Ranieri or his players to say that last season’s league triumph did not require a tactical masterclass. No, what Ranieri did was utilise his Leicester City squad effectively by setting them up to counter-attack teams with devastating pace and precision.
The Foxes did that throughout last season, slicing through teams, led by the dazzling Riyad Mahrez and an inspired Jamie Vardy. Of course, the glue that held it all together was N’Golo Kante, masterfully patrolling the midfield as the most secure, consistent presence a team could wish for.
This season, Leicester have obviously missed Kante, but Ranieri didn’t help matters with his bizarre tactical switches which caused confusion and disillusionment amongst his players. Before long, it became clear that things were no longer clear under Ranieri.
Although reports of a player committee requesting Ranieri’s removal may have been exaggerated, it’s now clear that the spirit and harmony that characterised their historic charge to glory had vanished.
So, when the Italian was sacked and the little-known Craig Shakespeare was the man tasked with hauling Leicester out of their alarming slump, fans may not have been reassured. However, what Shakespeare has done has ensured that Leicester have returned to carrying out the basics effectively.
Like Ranieri’s title win, there hasn’t been an innovative tactical masterplan under their new manager – instead, the coach has stripped away the chaotic, contradictory instructions that plagued the doomed latter period of his predecessor and returned to the basics.
With five wins from five since succeeding the Italian, Shakespeare’s methods are certainly having the desired impact.
Calm and measured approach has gone a long way
One of Shakespeare’s main tactical ploys has actually come off the pitch – fostering a more amicable atmosphere behind-the-scenes.
Shakespeare’s appointment on an interim basis was driven by the fact that he’s already a hugely popular figure among the players, thus eliminating the prospect of the players contending with a new coach and new set of ideas halfway through a tortured season. As a result, Shakespeare has conducted himself with equanimity and poise, making himself relatable and approachable to the players.
Craig Shakespeare as Leicester City manager:
— Football Tweet (@Football__Tweet) April 1, 2017
“The players want to see you can talk to them,” Shakespeare said after beating Hull 3-1 at the start of March.
“I’ve tried to be measured because I think it’s important for players to see that.”
Shakespeare knows the players well and he’s not afraid to offer his rationale for team selection, which has helped maintain a favourable working environment.
The players have duly responded with performances that have shown a renewed appetite, enthusiasm and belief and got the fans singing ‘we’ve got our Leicester back.’
Simple but effective tactical switches
As previously mentioned, the loss of Kante to Chelsea was a devastating blow, yet Ranieri’s naivety in expecting one of Nampalys Mendy, Daniel Amartey or Wilfred Ndidi to emulate the superhuman Frenchman left Leicester’s back-four exposed. Shakespeare has altered the set-up by deploying both Ndidi and Danny Drinkwater as a holding midfielders, giving Wes Morgan and Robert Huth extra protection.
Shakespeare had the conviction to implement such a change immediately. In his first match in charge – against Liverpool – Leicester managed only 31% possession and had 506 touches to their opponent’s 872.
However, the Foxes had rediscovered their ruthless streak and, led by a resurgent Vardy, steamrolled past Jürgen Klopp’s Reds in a performance that was utterly unrecognisable to the collection of individuals that sleepwalked into a relegation dogfight under Ranieri.
Once Ranieri was dismissed, Shakespeare made a point of reinstating structured, thorough training sessions built on focused preparation for the next game.
The win over Liverpool signalled that the squad had instantly embraced his returning to their roots. Vardy made constant runs in behind the defence, Drinkwater and Ndidi worked tirelessly to shield the defence and Marc Albrighton looked like a man possessed, an indefatigable presence down the left flank who set up the opening goal with a perfectly judged through ball to Vardy.
When he was replaced in the 90th minute, he received a warm embrace from Shakespeare: a telling snapshot of the new rejuvenated atmosphere that had allowed them to comfortably outclass Liverpool.
Outthinking Sampaoli thrusts Shakespeare into spotlight
With Leicester’s European dreams in the balance after a 2-1 defeat in Seville, Shakespeare got his tactics spot in the return leg at the King Power to book a spot in the quarter-finals.
The fact that he outthought Jorge Sampaoli, a coach revered enough to be linked with the Barcelona job, served to further enhance Shakespeare’s burgeoning reputation.
Against the La Liga side, Leicester set up to press and disrupt Sevilla’s possession-based model. By pressing intensely on the wings and isolating Sevilla’s central midfielders, Leicester’s successfully disrupted the Spanish side’s neat passing game and upset the odds to win 2-0 on the night, 3-2 on aggregate.
Shakespeare’s game-plan required the utmost application and concentration from his players, and that’s exactly what they delivered, with Vardy leading their impressive pressing from the front to disrupt Sevilla’s build-up phase and force mistakes from their ball-playing centre-halves.
Their strategy was executed expertly, launching them into the last eight of the Champions League with a two-leg showdown against Atletico Madrid their reward.
Enjoy the high while it lasts
It would be wildly idealistic to expect Shakespeare to continue in the same manner. It’s only a matter of time until his perfect start is halted, and it will be the response to such adversity that will measure his suitability as Ranieri’s permanent successor. Shakespeare will learn a lot about the unique, suffocating pressures of top-level management should the wheels begin to come off.
Craig Shakespeare says he is "very proud" after making Premier League history.
— BBC Leicester Sport (@BBCRLSport) April 2, 2017
But he will cross that bridge when he comes to it. For now, Shakespeare should be commended for breathing new life into Leicester by returning to old methods. Although they’re not mathematically safe from relegation yet, it looks as though he’s guided them to safety and that would have been the least of his expectations.
He never would have expected being named in the same breath as Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola. But he’s earned that for winning his first four Premier League games and we can all enjoy how he’s ripped up the script and got Leicester back to winning ways.