Leicester City and the 4-1-4-1: The case for and against

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 04: Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers waves to the crowd after the FA Cup Fifth Round match between Leicester City and Birmingham City at The King Power Stadium on March 4, 2020 in Leicester, England. (Photo by Visionhaus)
LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 04: Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers waves to the crowd after the FA Cup Fifth Round match between Leicester City and Birmingham City at The King Power Stadium on March 4, 2020 in Leicester, England. (Photo by Visionhaus) /

The most common formation in the English Premier League is the 4-2-3-1, especially among the elite clubs.

Some old-fashioned clubs and managers do favour the 4-4-2, and then there’s Brendan Rodgers and Leicester City, who have primarily opted for a 4-1-4-1 formation this season.

The formation was a key component of the Foxes’ success early this season but the decline in performances of late can also be attributed to it. The overriding question is: how can a formation be so influential in the success of the club yet contribute to their downfall?

Rodgers’ 4-1-4-1 formation relied heavily on triangles across the pitch, especially out wide. The recurring triangles for them were Youri Tielemans, Ricardo Pereira and Ayoze Perez; James Maddison, Ben Chilwell and Harvey Barnes; and Wilfred Ndidi, Caglar Soyuncu and Jonny Evans forming another.

The progression of the ball was determined by the positioning of these triangles. For example, if Maddison was the central midfielder to drop deeper and collect possession, the progression of the ball would rely on Tielemans pushing into an advanced area in close proximity to Perez. Pereira would naturally push higher and thus form a triangle on the right-hand side of Leicester’s attack.

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If this triangle couldn’t form or Maddison couldn’t rotate the ball across the pitch to find any of those three players, then it would be recycled until either of the two wide triangles formed could be found in an advanced area. The philosophy is numerical advantage, which is simply having more players than your opponent in a certain area.

Which can be devastating if you win the numerical advantage in your opposition’s final third. However, as possession for Leicester has become more mundane and laboured, the forming of triangles has also slowed – even when they are formed, the ball isn’t rotated quickly enough to find them, negating the sole purpose of the formation.

Take the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-4-2. It’s difficult to establish numerical advantage against the 4-2-3-1, especially in the midfield. The compositions of both the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-1-4-1 allows three central midfielders. In the former, there’s two defensive midfielders and, generally, one attacking midfielder.

In the latter, there’s one defensive midfielder and two box-to-box midfielders. When played against each other, the attacking midfielder of the 4-2-3-1 will operate close to the defensive midfielder of the 4-1-4-1, leaving the two box-to-box midfielders versus the two defensive-midfielders. That’s where the issues arise.

Having a compact midfield block goal-side of the Leicester midfield in possession negates any progression of the ball in the centre. If you use the Birmingham City game as a reference, you would know that the lack of confidence has had a knock-on effect with regards to one-on-ones – Leicester had 73% possession and completed 11 dribbles, the same as Birmingham.

This is the reason Leicester can’t puncture their opposition. There’s a lack of self-belief and there’s almost no risk-taking in possession. If Rodgers’ side aren’t able to manufacture numerical advantages in any advanced areas of the pitch, then subsidise this by individually beating the press.

By individually winning the one-on-one battle, a player is being removed defensively, thus forming a numerical advantage again.

When facing the 4-4-2, Leicester have an extra man in the midfield – the defensive midfielder – but their control is limited as one of the two strikers will normally sit on the defensive midfielder, forming a 4-4-1-1.

The five times (AFC Bournemouth, Burnley[twice], Watford and Southampton) Leicester have faced the 4-4-2, they’ve all played a “false 9” alongside the number 10 who is able to operate on Ndidi or Hamza Choudhury and neutralise central progression. The “false 9” can also connect the play between the midfield and defence – crucial when you only have two box-to-box central midfielders.

In short, the 4-1-4-1 formation is only superior to the 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 when being played with confidence and assurance. Otherwise, the 4-1-4-1 showcases inferiority to the most common formations in the league – something Rodgers needs to rectify.

Using the Birmingham fixture again, Maddison spent the majority of the first-half in a deeper position than Ndidi. He was able to collect possession frequently – 43 times in the first-half – but was unable to impact the game in the final third, which is becoming a theme for Leicester of late.

Rodgers should have sacrificed some control in the middle of the park by forcing Maddison to play more advanced, reverting to a 4-2-3-1, with Dennis Praet and Ndidi as the defensive midfielders and Maddison further up.

Having 77% possession isn’t worthwhile if you’re only going to produce two shots on target. Birmingham managed to create a shot on target with only 23% possession, which shows how the creativity is being nullified by a lifeless and stagnant possession game.

Against Aston Villa, Leicester will need to be prepared for either a 3-4-3 or 4-1-4-1. Do expect Rodgers to retain the 4-1-4-1 against them, which should work against Dean Smith’s side as, one-to-one, Leicester should have the edge.

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After this, Rodgers needs to re-evaluate the system as it’s struggling to get the best out of the team currently.