What do managers see when they watch football that the average fan — or journalist — does not? The answer is quite a lot.
Monday night’s clash between Leicester City and Ipswich Town was a game of Premier League quality and could well be a fixture in the top flight next season. With the two sides and Southampton locked in a thrilling three-horse race at the top of the Championship, the 1-1 draw could see the battle for the two automatic promotion places go down to the wire.
Enzo Maresca and Kieran McKenna’s sides make fascinating tactical case studies as two teams who play entertaining and effective football — but why? The Athletic sat down with former Swindon Town, Colchester United and Charlton Athletic manager Ben Garner, who has coached in the Premier League with West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace, to find out what managers see that we do not.
What Leicester did well to give them the edge in first half
Ipswich and Leicester are tactically astute teams with little to separate them — both league games between the two sides have resulted in draws this season. While Ipswich performed better in the second half and Jeremy Sarmiento’s goal secured a point, the story of the game was Leicester’s dominance and ability to limit the visitors from building from the back.
“The big thing that stuck with me was how aggressive Leicester were with their pressing,” Garner says. “It was a real full press, man on man and really aggressive. They did it in two different ways, but it was seamless. The first example shows where they dropped striker Tom Cannon in with Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall into midfield, so they were making a conscious effort to match up to Ipswich, who have two deep midfield players in Lewis Travis and Massimo Luongo. They also matched up with Conor Chaplin and Marcus Harness, who were operating as the two No 10s, with Ricardo Pereira and Harry Winks on each part of Ipswich’s midfield box.
“From Ipswich’s goal kicks, Leicester tended to go with the two wide players, Stephy Mavididi and Kasey McAteer (both advanced at the top of the image), pressing the centre-halves. Ipswich found it difficult to play out from the back, probably more than they have at any other time this season. That was credit to Leicester and the intensity of their press, forcing mistakes and regularly regaining possession in good areas.”
From open play, Leicester triggered a second type of press, with Cannon and Dewsbury-Hall advancing to put pressure on Ipswich centre-backs Luke Woolfenden and George Edmundson while McAteer and Pereira kept full-backs Clarke and Davis pinned back (see below). Centre-back Wout Faes’ advanced position in midfield to go man-to-man with Chaplin was crucial to Leicester’s success in a high-risk, high-reward pressing system, as Garner explains.
“Faes was outstanding with his bravery on the ball and releasing to press between the lines without the ball,” says Garner. “He was a key player in either releasing wide to cover Wes Burns if (Hamza) Choudhury had released to the full-back or moving into midfield to press Chaplin if Pereira had released to press Travis.
“Even when they then forced Ipswich to kick longer, which happened in this case below, they recovered the ball with the timing and aggressiveness of their defenders pressing. That they pressed in two different ways was interesting, sometimes with wide players going to press the centre-backs and Cannon tucking in with Dewsbury-Hall, or with those two pressing and the wide players staying deeper with the Ipswich full-backs. The key was always matching those four players in the middle so they weren’t outnumbered in the box (formation of four central midfielders).
“Pressing like this is high risk because one piece of individual movement or one mistake and a team like Ipswich can open you up. There was one case in the first half where Burns came short and then went behind Choudhury and got a cross in. Then there was another in the second half coming from the goalkeeper where Harry Clarke went high, Mavididi didn’t track him and he advanced quickly up the pitch.
“Leicester, particularly in the first half, did have great success with their press. They regained possession regularly and regained it high up the pitch, which gave them really good opportunities on the transition and they possibly could have been more ruthless. The intensity definitely unsettled Ipswich, but they stuck to their principles and adjusted well in the second half.”
How Leicester attack — and what made their goal so good
Leicester are good on the ball, which is to be expected for a team packed with players who have operated at the top level until relegation last season. Since Enzo Maresca was appointed manager in June, Leicester have taken his ideas on board quickly and effectively to surge to a seven-point lead at the top of the table. Maresca’s time spent working with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola can be seen in how they build their attacks.
“In possession, Leicester played as they generally have done when I have watched them,” says Garner. “They have two clear phases in their build-up play where they create a back four with their goalkeeper, Mads Hermansen, joining Faes, Vestergaard and James Justin in the back line while Choudhury creates a double pivot in front of them with Winks. That’s been consistent this season where they then have the remaining five players further up the pitch trying to occupy key spaces and stretch with width. The wide players, Mavididi and McAteer, generally played high and wide, with Pereira one of two advanced midfielders alongside Dewsbury-Hall, then the centre-forward in front was Cannon.
“There’s definitely more of an emphasis on goalkeepers being able to play with their feet and build from the back, mainly at the top level, but it is filtering down. There are more teams lower down trying to play with more possession and build through the thirds. A lot of teams create a back four using the goalkeeper in the initial phase and then move out with a back three and two players in front in the double pivot, as below.
“There’s a lot of similarities if you freeze a team now at the top level in terms of the shape in possession, but they all do it in a slightly different way depending on the personnel. But they generally have a five or a six, if you include the goalkeeper to start building, and then five at the top of the pitch — two wide and high, two advanced inside in the half spaces and a centre-forward. That platform gave Leicester really good control of the first half in and out of possession.”
Patient build-up play has been a key feature of Leicester’s attack this season, with their goal against Ipswich coming after 42 passes and multiple recycled attacks as they waited for the best opening.
Attacking Ipswich substitutes – but does McKenna need a target man?
This game was not all Leicester, with Ipswich much improved after half-time and able to impose themselves on the game by playing on the front foot and with good use of substitutes from McKenna when he introduced Omari Hutchinson and goalscorer Sarmiento. Squad depth at all three of the automatic promotion-chasing clubs will be crucial and with Ipswich linked with Bournemouth’s Kieffer Moore in this transfer window, new recruits at all of the clubs would not be a surprise.
“In the second half, they played with more aggression and Leif Davis got higher, which is key for them,” Garner says. “But maybe they were a little bit surprised with how aggressive Leicester pressed. Both Leicester and Ipswich don’t make many changes in-game. Kieran’s substitutions tend to be later because he believes in what he does and keeps the team settled.
“The intensity and flow of that game was incredible. Neither manager went away from their beliefs. Ipswich have had a more direct option this season with George Hirst and they ended up clipping a lot of balls from the goalkeeper against Leicester, which is not Kayden Jackson’s natural game.
“Hirst is out with a hamstring injury but gives them that different option because he is better at holding the ball up, he links the play really well and he can still turn off the shoulder. It’s the one area of the squad where they have not got like-for-like depth. A Kieffer Moore-type player would be perfect to give them two players for every position and if there are injuries they don’t need to change the way they play.”
Ipswich’s equaliser came from a scenario typical of their attacking play, as Davis stretched play out wide before Sarmiento acted fastest to follow in after Hermansen parried Luongo’s long-range shot.
“On first sight, it looks like the goalkeeper should do better, but seeing it again, it moves a lot in the air and it’s a really good save,” says Garner. “The second one he might be disappointed with because it goes under him, but on that goal, Leicester weren’t compact as a unit and it’s maybe one of a handful of situations in the game where they were stretched like that, so it came down to the compactness of the defensive line in the distances between the unit and the height of the line.”
Maresca, McKenna and Martin are elite managers
There is plenty to think about from a tactical perspective for all three managers locked in the promotion battle, with Leicester still to play Southampton in March and Ipswich against Southampton in April.
History will be made, most likely by one of Southampton or Ipswich, this season with both teams’ points tallies of 58 and 59 points respectively guaranteeing automatic promotion in every previous season where a team has had so many points at this stage — one will end up in the play-offs.
To talk of the promotion battle as a three-horse race with one spot almost tied up with Leicester seven points clear of second is easy, but history tells us these are three of the best sides the league has seen.
“It’s three incredible teams in the Championship this year, a really high level,” says Garner. “Leicester should go up now, but Southampton and Ipswich is a really interesting battle and then you have Leeds, West Brom and others like Coventry not far behind. So that level at the top end of the Championship this season is so high. Last year, League One was a high level, it was the standout league for me in terms of competitiveness. Perhaps this year it isn’t as strong, the Championship stands out and League Two is interesting with the finances that some of the clubs have got at the top end of that division.
“Leicester v Ipswich was a Premier League-level game.”