“First of all, there are many, many, many things to improve, many things to try to get better as soon as we can, for sure.”
Enzo Maresca knows that, despite their opening day victory over a committed and well-organised Coventry City, there is still a long way to go before Leicester City resemble the vision the new manager has in his head – his ‘idea’.
It’s going to take time, not just for his players to get used to the new approach and for it to become second nature, ingrained in their psyche, but also for the fans to see and accept Maresca’s vision, too.
Despite the atmosphere in the first half and the euphoria and utter relief at the end following Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall’s late winner, there were some moments when a few fans grew frustrated, especially after Coventry’s opening goal.
There has been a lot to take in for all involved so far, but on their showing on Sunday, there is a clear plan, even if it does need refining in certain areas, most notably in defence.
Maresca has arrived totally committed to the approach he wants Leicester to adopt. At the moment, he may not have all the players with the right attributes to fully fulfil that vision. There are certainly areas in the side that need strengthening over the final weeks of the transfer window and Maresca is working towards that, although he may feel a little frustrated at the pace of that work.
However, rather than assessing his squad and adopting a style and system to suit their individual attributes, Maresca is moulding his Leicester side to his preferred system instead and that process will take longer.
But what exactly has changed so far?
Mads Hermansen, sweeper-keeper and playmaker
That process began when Maresca brought in new goalkeeper Mads Hermansen from Brondby. Last week, he stated Hermansen had been his number one target, the most important signing of the summer, because of the way he plays.
Leicester were certainly thankful to the 23-year-old for a number of crucial saves to deny Coventry, but it is his ability with the ball at his feet as much as his shot-stopping capabilities that attracted Maresca.
Fans had already seen in pre-season against Liverpool that Hermansen is a keeper who likes to get involved in the build-up play. There are inherent risks attached to that, but Maresca wants his side’s attacks to start with Hermansen and is willing to take those risks.
Hermansen had 63 touches of the ball against Coventry and 49 of them were passes. Of those, 16 were long balls but only five were successful, for a total success percentage of 77.6. Looking at Hermansen’s touch map (below) from Sunday a good proportion of those touches were outside Leicester’s box.
“Mads is the keeper I want, the one I wanted from day one,” says Maresca. “I don’t see any risk. I only see the opportunity to play with the ’keeper.
“Against Liverpool (in Singapore) we played so well for the first half an hour because it all stemmed from the ’keeper. He saved a goal with his head but he didn’t lose the ball. We lost the ball in the middle of the pitch. He was in a position that if we come back to the ’keeper he was ready to play again.
“If we go back to the ’keeper it is because the intention is to attack better. We try to play with the ’keeper to draw the opponent so we have more space in behind to play. We play with the ’keeper to have more space forward.”
The moments of fan frustration came in the second half when Hermansen was on the ball, trying to entice Coventry to press him when they were reluctant to do so, which slowed the game to a momentary standstill.
“Our idea is not to go slow,” Maresca insists. “In the first half, the team was not slow, but when you are 1-0 down and the opponents are all there close, waiting, it’s normal there is no space and you try to slow down to attract them and create space. I can understand the fans, but we need them, and we need them to understand that our idea is this.”
Regardless of some impatience, Hermansen is integral to Maresca’s idea.
A back four that morphs into a back three
It had been evident in pre-season, but Maresca’s defensive ideology was clear on Sunday. Out of possession, it was a conventional back four with Ricardo Pereira at right-back and Callum Doyle operating on the left, flanking the duo of Wout Faes and Jannik Vestergaard.
In front were the three central midfielders, holding midfielder Harry Winks flanked by two number eights, Wilfred Ndidi and Dewsbury-Hall.
However, Leicester had 65 per cent possession and when they had the ball they switched to a back three, with Faes moving towards the right. Doyle’s position hardly changed as Pereira stepped into midfield alongside Winks as Leicester looked to play out from the back, through the initial Coventry press and then attack the space in front of their back four.
The team’s average positions demonstrated how much the system changed (below), with Pereira largely alongside Winks for most of the game. Note how Faes generally tried to tuck in but Doyle remained high and wide.
Often it worked, especially in the first half, when Dewsbury-Hall in particular found acres of space once Winks and Pereira had found targets further forward.
Looking at their attacking areas, Leicester favoured going through the middle, whereas previously, when Harvey Barnes was in the side, they predominantly attacked down the left.
While the switch is a positive one, designed to give Leicester more attacking options, it is not without risk.
As was seen on a number of occasions, especially in the second half, it left the back three, and Vestergaard and Faes in particular, exposed if the opposition turn the ball over.
It effectively means that Leicester play with one central defender and two full-backs rather than a conventional back three, who operate closely with the support of wing-backs. There is huge space between the three, especially between Doyle, whose average position was wide and quite high.
There is no problem if Leicester retain possession, but on a number of occasions Winks, Pereira and Ndidi lost the ball in dangerous positions, exposing the back three, and effectively back two, to the counter-attack. Pereira was dispossessed four times, including in this example when he was challenged by Ellis Simms, with Kasey Palmer and Matt Godden in good counter-attacking positions.
In the second half, they were even vulnerable to the long ball as two Coventry goal kicks led to chances for Matt Godden and Haji Wright as they were able to burst straight down the middle.
In the first example, Simms holds off Faes and lays the ball off to Palmer, who is now running at the last defender, Vestergaard, with Doyle trying to recover. Vestergaard holds him up but Palmer passes to Godden, who should have scored.
In the second example, Wright flicks on the high ball to Godden. Vestergaard is again the last defender. Godden chests the ball into Wright’s path and he is clean through on goal but can’t finish, hitting the underside of the bar.
The direct ball caused Leicester a lot of problems in the second half, as was the case here when Godden is again clean through on goal, with Doyle and Vestergaard trying to get back.
In order to exploit the spaces in front of the opposition rearguard, Dewsbury-Hall and Ndidi would push high in support of Vardy as Leicester looked to play through Winks and Pereira to give the man on the ball forward options, but if the pass is unsuccessful, the two of them were unable to get back to help defend and Winks was left in the first half having to make a last-ditch challenge as Coventry broke, with five Leicester players committed up the pitch.
A simple ball around the corner into space and Palmer was racing at Leicester’s back two.
More pace in the backline may help the situation as Maresca’s system depends on each defender being reliable in one-on-one situations or even when they are overloaded.
Conor Coady was earmarked to be the central figure in the system, but his foot injury may see him sidelined for several weeks, meaning Maresca must come up with a solution elsewhere. The athleticism of James Justin could be a good option.
The reinvention of Wilfred Ndidi
During his short time at Parma in his only previous managerial role, Maresca wasn’t averse to changing a player’s role in the team, shifting them into different positions. And he is already doing the same at Leicester.
Although his form has dipped in the past 18 months, Wilfred Ndidi was previously considered one of the best defensive midfielders in the Premier League. But even at his peak, he was never noted for his attacking prowess.
In his seven seasons and 238 appearances, Ndidi has contributed 11 goals and 12 assists and yet Maresca is attempting to turn him into a box-to-box No 8. In this example, Ndidi races into the inside channel to receive the ball from McAteer and get a cross in. It was not a familiar sight for Leicester fans.
Ndidi only had 32 touches in the game against Coventry but, as his touch map shows, the majority were in the opposition half and five were in the penalty box, although naturally, his average position was a lot deeper than Dewsbury-Hall, the other No 8.
In truth, Ndidi struggled to get into the game. In comparison, Dewsbury-Hall had 79 touches and Winks, the third midfielder playing in Ndidi’s usual position, had 132.
Ndidi only made 19 passes in the game, with a completion rate of 79 per cent, and only Jamie Vardy had a lower completion rate.
In comparison, Dewsbury-Hall (touch map below) made 52 passes, with 82.7 per cent successful, and Winks completed 93.9 per cent of his 115 passes.
Dewsbury-Hall had four touches inside the Coventry box, which led to his two goals, the first a superb header from Dennis Praet’s cross.
When Dennis Praet replaced Ndidi, there appeared to be more balance to the midfield as Praet is a natural attacking midfielder, as his assist for Dewsbury-Hall’s equaliser demonstrated, but his future seems uncertain, as does that of Boubakary Soumare, who did not feature in the final pre-season games and was not in the squad on Sunday.
It could be that Ndidi is holding down a position until new signings arrive soon and his own future could also be resolved, along with several others in Maresca’s squad.
Playing with width
Maresca’s system requires wingers who will stay wide and then come inside to attack the box. As the average positions show, both wingers on Sunday played the highest of any Leicester player.
In new signing Stephy Mavididi, he has brought in a winger who likes to do just that. Mavididi had only trained with his new team-mates for a week and there were moments in his debut when it was clear he wasn’t on the same wavelength as some around him, most notably left-back Callum Doyle, but there was plenty of promise in his performance.
As his touch map shows, he didn’t contribute overly in his own half and while he did stay wide, plenty of his touches came inside the pitch and seven were inside the box.
From his 49 touches, Mavididi made 25 passes with a completion rate of 80 per cent, three of which were considered key passes. He made four successful dribbles, including in the build-up to Dewsbury-Hall’s equaliser when he beat the first man with a body swerve, raced down the sideline, checked back before attacking down the channel a second time to take Leicester further up the pitch before the switch to the right that led to Dennis Praet’s cross for the header.
Mavididi provided the assist for the winner, too, and while he only put in two crosses in the game, he looked to cut inside and shoot more.
In contrast, on the right was Kasey McAteer, who looked to get on the outside and cross more. He didn’t touch the ball as much inside the area. The academy graduate was more of a provider. He only had 39 touches (see touch map below) but completed all of his 19 passes and crossed the ball four times. He also had two shots, one on target which forced a save.
McAteer was preferred ahead of Timothy Castagne, who played in the same role a number of times in pre-season and is expected to leave before the end of the month, and Marc Albrighton, but this is another area of the side that Maresca is looking to strengthen. Crystal Palace’s Jesurun Rak-Sakyi is admired but it is a question of whether Palace will let him go out after his impressive loan at Charlton Athletic last season, especially as there are question marks over Michael Olise’s future.
Vardy coming deeper
Jamie Vardy took on a different role on Sunday. Not only was he confirmed as the club’s new captain, he was playing a different game.
Last season, under Brendan Rodgers, the 36-year-old was asked to play more of a link-up role, only for interim boss Dean Smith to return him to his traditional task of playing on the shoulder of the last defender.
Against Coventry, he was playing a lot deeper, almost in a similar role to Harry Kane at Tottenham Hotspur, coming short to receive the ball to feet as the two wide players stretched the game the other way. Note in this example how Ndidi is now the one looking to run in behind.
Vardy had 21 touches in the game and made but as his map shows, only two of those touches were in the opposition box, two just outside and the rest were near the halfway line.
He only had one shot, which was on target and forced a good save from Ben Wilson.
The role seemed far more suited to Kelechi Iheanacho when he came on, but Maresca believes Vardy has an important role.
“Jamie is enjoying the idea and the way we are trying to play,” he says. “I can see he is happy every day. He has been present in our sessions since day one.”
It was just one game, a simple snapshot of how Marescaball could evolve, and it is clear he needs to add more players with the right attributes and move on those who don’t fit the system. There are already question marks over January arrivals Harry Souttar’s and Victor Kristiansen’s suitability.
There are parts that look exciting, parts that are initially concerning, but one thing is for certain – it is not going to be dull.