MARTIN KEOWN: How Ndidi-Maddison-Vardy gives Leicester a stellar spine
MARTIN KEOWN TALKS TACTICS: Wilfried Ndidi, James Maddison and Jamie Vardy give Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City a stellar spine in top-four quest… they can be difference-makers against Manchester United
- Leicester City are second in the Premier League going into Christmas Day
- Brendan Rodgers’ side are looking to get Champions League football next term
- The Foxes have Wilfried N’Didi, James Maddison and Jamie Vardy in their spine
Leicester City spent 325 days in the Premier League’s top four last season — including the three-month break because of the coronavirus pandemic — before finishing fifth.
Brendan Rodgers was desperately disappointed with that collapse. To finish fifth in this division is by no means a disaster, but this is a top-level coach who wants to be competing at the highest level.
He got a taste of the Champions League with Liverpool and Celtic, and is now dragging Leicester into a top-four fight.
Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City are second in the Premier League heading into Christmas Day
After missing out on the top-four last season, Rodgers is hoping to achieve their goals this time
For the Foxes to sit second at Christmas is outstanding, and two players who were immensely important in their last win over Tottenham were Wilfred Ndidi and James Maddison.
They allowed Rodgers to revert to a back four, which he has rarely used this season. One knows how to dominate the midfield and break-up opposition attacks. The other is the creative jewel in Leicester’s crown and operates anywhere along the line behind 33-year-old livewire Jamie Vardy.
That spine of Ndidi, Maddison and Vardy is as good as any.
James Maddison (left) and Jamie Vardy (right) are forming a partnership in attack for Leicester
Rodgers is not averse to tweaking his tactics regularly and injuries have played a part in that, with Maddison having had surgery on his hip and Ndidi surgery on his groin.
When Ndidi was out, Rodgers turned to a back three, like in Leicester’s 2-1 home defeat by Fulham. Given what he wants to achieve, that loss hurt Rodgers and raised questions about using the back three.
But with Ndidi fit, Rodgers feels he can play a back four as they are able to dominate the midfield using the 24-year-old deep alongside Youri Tielemans.
Rodgers has found a way to get results in games Leicester were losing last season. They struggled against the big clubs, with Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool each beating them twice in the league in 2019-20.
Wilfried Ndidi helps to stop opposition attacks to balance Rodgers’ forward-thinking side
But this season, Leicester have beaten City, Leeds, Arsenal, Wolves and Tottenham using both a back three and four. Rodgers now has two ways of playing, and they face Manchester United on Saturday.
Rodgers is a possession-based coach but it is interesting how he has won five of the six games in which Leicester have had less than 50 per cent this season.
They know how to be solid in defence and dangerous in attack, as Tottenham discovered against Leicester and their back four last week.
In 20-year-old Wesley Fofana and Jonny Evans, 30, they have the winning combination of a central defender who looks like a Premier League star in the making and another whose wisdom is helping his young partner develop.
Jonny Evans (left) and Wesley Fofana (right) are a winning combination as a centre back pair
Fofana, a £30million signing in the summer, has shown signs of tremendous potential.
The whole back four is aggressive and tough to play against, with right back James Justin particularly good in one-against-one situations.
Another emerging talent in this Leicester team is Harvey Barnes, who is a fearsome runner with the ball. His movement off the ball is improving every match.
When Barnes comes in from the left wing and moves centrally alongside Vardy, the fear of their pace makes the opposition defence drop off. That is when Maddison comes to life in that pocket of space created by Barnes and Vardy.
On the right, Marc Albrighton is the workaholic all-rounder who defends as well as he attacks and rains balls into the box for Vardy.
Vardy (right) and Maddison (left) are not just good at scoring but creating space for others
In the end, Mourinho’s Spurs — one of the best at scoring from breakaways this season — failed to score. Rodgers now has to decide how he tackles a United side who have won all six of their away trips this season.
He would have seen how devastating United were on the counter against Leeds at Old Trafford, and how they made it 2-0 at Everton in midweek with a quality counter-attack.
Both of Leicester’s full-backs were successful at getting forward and back against Spurs — nobody completed more sprints that day than Justin — but Rodgers has to get that balance absolutely right at the King Power Stadium on Saturday.
Ndidi will be there as protection but the midfielder cannot be left with too much to cover.
Ndidi (bottom) acts as positive protection in midfield at the heart of the Leicester squad
If Leicester’s full-backs sit next to their central defenders and resist the urge to fly forward, that would see them retain their solidity at the back, especially with Ndidi sitting in front. They could then still have five players available to join in attacks — more than enough to score and win.
If Leicester move the ball quickly, like they did in that 5-2 win over City in September, then they can hurt United using their pace at the top of the pitch.
Saturday is a very significant clash between second and third in the Premier League. It was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United who stole Leicester’s spot inside the top four last season by beating them 2-0 at the King Power on the final day.
A win on Saturday could have a huge impact on the race for the top four — and possibly even the title in this most unpredictable of seasons.
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