Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City confirmed a favourable UEFA Europa League knockout draw, with a comfortable 2-0 victory versus AEK Athens in the final group stage match, securing top place for the Foxes.
It was an important win for Leicester City, as it has ensured the club is seeded ahead (and therefore have an easier fixture, theoretically) of the Round of 32 draw, and Brendan Rodgers did so by fielding a starting XI with a back four. The Northern Irishman also opted for a back four in the Foxes last European game – the fairly poor 1-0 loss to Zorya Luhansk in Ukraine, but has predominantly fielded a back three in the Premier League this season. So, when he needed a result, why did he revert back to a defensive four?
The travelling side, AEK Athens, were always going to see less of the ball. Initially, that’s because most away sides – especially inferior ones – tend to sit deeper and play for counterattacks, but also, Massimo Carrera (AEK Athens’ manager) has deployed defensive systems in all of the Greek sides away fixtures in Europe this season. The game versus Leicester City was no different.
AEK Athens’ 3-5-2 formation played a lot more like a 5-3-2 and eventually shifted to an asymmetrical 5-4-1 – to limit the chance creation of both Luke Thomas and Harvey Barnes down the Leicester City left-side. The pleasing element for Rodgers and the Foxes, was the 4-3-2-1/4-2-3-1 formation he chose to deploy created a lot of good opportunities versus the deep-block – and that’s been an infrequent occurrence so far this season.
Even more pleasing, particularly for me, was how well executed the intricacies of the formation were. It shows that Rodgers has been implementing the structure in training, with the idea of reverting to a back four once the right personnel return from injury – Wilfred Ndidi’s return seems to have allowed this transition to begin.
In the initial phases of Leicester City’s possession, AEK Athens would initiate a fairly low intensity press, which allowed Jonny Evans and Wesley Fofana ample time to recycle possession and wait for progressive passing lanes to form. To force this matter, Rodgers occasionally asked the full-backs to invert – a Pep Guardiola principle designed to switch your full-backs and defensive-midfielder’s positionally, creating a shift in the defensive structure of the Greek side and thus forming pockets of space.