Leicester Better With Okazaki In The Side
The greatest myth about Leicester City’s extraordinary title-winning 2015/16 season is the idea Claudio Ranieri deployed a 4-4-2 system throughout the campaign.
That fits well with the image some are determined to portray – that Leicester were a simple, old-school, back-to-basics side that proved the obsession with possession play and fancy formations amongst more established sides was misplaced.
But it’s also misleading – Leicester were, for long spells, nothing like a 4-4-2 at all. Suggesting Leicester played 4-4-2 implies that Shinji Okazaki played up alongside Jamie Vardy as a second centre-forward, whereas realistically his role in the side was completely different.
In the first few weeks of the campaign, Vardy and Okazaki played roughly the same role, with Ranieri deploying a very compact system. Both were asked to drop back into deep positions and protect the midfielders, which meant Leicester seemed like an Atletico Madrid-style 4-4-2 without possession.
But when Ranieri realised Vardy’s incredible goalscoring potential and his sensational speed on the counter-attack, he allowed Vardy freedom to remain high up the pitch, on the last line of defence, so Leicester could immediately hit long balls towards him, running in behind.
Okazaki, then, was often 25 yards behind Vardy, screening the midfield. And while the Japanese international arrived at Leicester with a reputation as a forward, realistically there was little about his duties that suggested he was really an attack; from 36 appearances he scored just five goals and didn’t manage a single assist. But his defensive work was absolutely outstanding – he charged around the pitch to start the pressure, dropped back quickly to make sure opponents found it difficult to play through Leicester, and then made quick forward sprints on the counter-attack. This was essentially a hard-working midfielder, more about helping the side to regain possession than score goals.
Life After Kante
Although Okazaki’s meagre goal return meant it was inevitable Ranieri would seek an upgrade – and the signing of Islam Slimani has unquestionably provided another dimension to Leicester’s attacking play – Okazaki’s defensive role became particularly important after the departure of N’Golo Kante, the Premier League’s best ball-winning midfielder. Kante’s loss would have been difficult to take regardless, but it meant Okazaki’s energy and discipline was missed even more than he was omitted from the side, with Slimani upfront instead. He and Vardy don’t offer the defensive effort of Okazaki, which has exposed Leicester’s central midfielders much more this season. Indeed, their openness rather stems from the fact they’re now playing much more of a traditional 4-4-2 than they ever did last season.
Leicester are flying in European competition, perhaps as opponents are less prepared for the threat of Ranieri’s men – and Slimani has proved particularly crucial. In the Premier League, however, where games are played at a faster tempo and Okazaki’s energy is more crucial, Leicester still seem better with him in the side. It was notable that he was absent for the thrashings at Manchester United and Chelsea, 4-1 and 3-0 respectively, but when he returned, Leicester looked much more organised, winning 3-0 over Crystal Palace – when Okazaki managed a rare goal – and then getting a creditable point away at Tottenham.
“He is important for team because he presses a lot – he is our dilly ding, dilly dong. He wakes up our players – he has the bell,” said Ranieri after that Spurs game. “Against Crystal Palace we went back to our old philosophy, everybody closed, everybody with the same discipline and I recognised them again.”
Okazaki clearly isn’t the most glamourous player, and individually Slimani and Ahmed Musa offer far more in an attacking sense. But until Ranieri works out how to format his central midfield, with Andy King unable to provide Kante’s mobility or ball-winning, it’s vital that Okazaki remains a regular. Leicester are simply too open without him – and if they’d played like that last season, they wouldn’t have won the league.
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November 3rd, 2016 by Simon A
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