As the opening day of the season drew closer, things kept looking better and better for Leicester City. Shock champions of the Premier League last season, they were ready to start their campaign against a Hull City side embroiled in political issues and ravaged by a pre-season injury crisis. All the advantages lay with the Foxes going into the big day, with the champions possessing a better side and a working bench. Yet they still lost. It was a shocking defeat, and it left many asking where it came from. Yet the truth is that while Hull were undoubtedly the better side on the day, Leicester were tactically inadequate, and it cost them dearly. Manager Claudio Ranieri could not adapt to the clever approach adopted by Mike Phelan, and ultimately Hull City won as a result. This article will look at the three big problems Leicester faced on the opening day, highlighting the issues that need to be rectified if they are to find success this season.
1. Long ball doesn’t work well as a tactic, and Hull showed why.
Leicester won the Premier League last season with what was essentially a glorified version of kick-and-chase, their tactics centring around defence and the ability of Jamie Vardy to slip in behind when long balls were slung forward from the back half. They looked to do the same against Hull, but Phelan was ready for them. Leicester’s system failed them on two fronts, both allowing Hull to gain a foothold in the game and being woefully inefficient in attack. Leicester had the better, more skilled set of players, and had they pressed Hull harder in the opening stanza it is likely they would have cracked the newly-promoted Tigers. They didn’t. Hull could pass around the back for as long as they wanted to, not having to worry about Vardy and Ahmed Musa, who didn’t really try to press them. This was Ranieri’s biggest mistake. The Tigers fielded a side full of inadequacies, with Jake Livermore, a midfielder, playing as a makeshift centre half. Yet the Italian was content to cede possession to his opponents, which allowed Hull to settle comfortably into the rhythm of the game.
Furthermore, Ranieri’s long ball approach was effectively countered by the Tigers. Graham Taylor, who found incredible success at Watford thirty years ago using a combination of long balls and pressing, diagnosed the flaws in his strategy against better quality teams, and later admitted to being surprised that these issues were not exposed earlier. The issue with his system, he said, was that if a team could keep possession under pressure they could do whatever they liked. This game highlighted these inadequacies perfectly. Vardy was taken out of the game as Phelan dropped his centre halves deeper to reduce the space in behind the defence, and both Livermore and Davies were good enough to shut down the English international. They were also good enough to keep the ball as Leicester pressed desperately in an attempt to find an equaliser, and they were able to push Leicester back into their own half time and time again.
2. Ranieri stuck to his guns and showed no creativity when inspiration was needed.
Leicester came into the match with a clear plan, but when it began to unravel Ranieri did not change his approach. Shinji Okazaki aside, the substitutes he brought on were uninspiring, and the use of Daniel Amartey only weakened a midfield which was already struggling to cope with the loss of N’Golo Kante. Amartey later moved into defence as cover for the substituted Danny Simpson, and Danny Drinkwater, who had already toiled without support from Andy King, was left to contend with David Meyler, Tom Huddlestone and Sam Clucas on his own. Ranieri made no attempt to change his delivery for Vardy, and the mindless long balls kept flying into Leicester’s front third and flying back out again as Hull intercepted them. Leicester needed a new approach which better involved players like Riyad Mahrez, but they only followed their initial plan more rigorously as the game progressed. Mahrez had a devastating impact in the first half, but as Leicester went behind he saw less and less of the ball as the champions became desperate. Ranieri and Leicester panicked, and they could not cope with playing from behind.
3. There were communication problems in defence, and these need to be addressed.
From the start, warning signs were there for Ranieri, but nothing was done and the defence continued to look shaky when the ball was played into the box. Robert Snodgrass provided excellent delivery from set pieces, but he was aided by the lack of communication between centre backs Luis Hernandez and Wes Morgan. Hernandez should move out of the side when Robert Huth returns from injury, but the lack of communication in the German’s absence raises some big questions about the quality of Leicester’s pre-season. There were multiple instances of the two defenders letting aerial balls past them, each leaving it for the other to clean up, and while Kasper Schmeichel was able to plug most of the gaps the Danish keeper was only able to do so much. Leicester’s lack of defensive organisation was always going to cost them with the quality of Snodgrass’ delivery, and the issues that exist down back need to be fixed.
In the end, Leicester still have a good side, and after such an early wake-up call they should respond next week as they look to get back to their winning ways. Hull City were disciplined and smart, and the Tigers have posed plenty of difficult questions which the Foxes will need to answer if they are to have any chance of contending for European spots this season. Their confidence will have taken a large hit, but Leicester are not done yet and they could well use this loss as a stepping stone for bigger and better things. They have the personnel, and if these key questions are answered Leicester will be very tough to beat.