Could Arsenal adopt Leicester’s tactics and follow them up the table?

By Sir Hardly Anyone

Leicester are different for two reasons.  One is that their statistics suggest they play a tactical game in a completely different way from other clubs.  The other is that they are rather neatly changing their tactical game from time to time, depending on whether the referees have tumbled what they are doing.

What is interesting however is that other clubs have not copied them.  When we look at the playing statistics there are variations between clubs, but both in the first part of last season, and again this season Leicester are out there on their own.

Why journalists and bloggers choose to write far less on tactics than they do on transfers I am not sure, but I suspect it is either because the writers don’t really get the tactics, or they feel their audience is too stupid to understand.

So journalists and bloggers talk instead about individual players – often in terms of moving players around, buying players, selling players.   But that probably doesn’t give the whole picture.

Last season Leicester developed a new tactic by committing far more fouls than anyone else,  yet at the same time getting far fewer players yellow carded than we would have expected looking at other teams’ figures.

They were for a large part of the season, the surprise package, and only slipped away after we publicised what they were doing in a report complete with the stats – although of course our report and their change coming together may have been a coincidence.   What we do know is that it was not because of injuries – the date of the injuries cited by angry Leicester fans after my last piece, and the date of the start of their decline, don’t match at all.

The Leicester approach appears to focus on not just thinking of how the team can play but also incorporating what referees will allow – at least until a new diktat is announced by PGMO HQ.

In terms of their general stats there is not much of a clue given as to why Leicester are top of the league.

  • They are the 6th highest tackling team,
  • They are the 12th highest team for fouls,
  • They are in the top three for tackles they commit per foul.

But where they outshine everyone else is in these three factors.

  • They have got more yellow cards than anyone else,
  • They commit fewer fouls than anyone else per yellow card they get,
  • They have been awarded more penalties than any other club (eight).

The question is, are these three factors being combined in a coherent way to give Leicester a strategy that has taken them to the top of the league – a strategy that commentators on radio and TV rarely if ever mention?

Leicester, with two players on three or four yellows in the opening eight games has a worse discipline record than other clubs, but only just.  Generally those yellows are spread around the team.    Thus they commit more fouls but because each player is only committing one or two fouls per game they are not getting carded for repeated foul play only for individual fouls.

But they have an absolute – don’t ever tackle in the penalty area – hence they give away no penalties.

However they get penalties – and how!  And they seem to do it by ordering players with the ball to run straight into the box, over and over again simply inviting the opposition to tackle, or indeed simply bump into the on-rushing forward.  It is more like an American football tactic – but clearly it works.  More penalties this season than any other club, averaging one a game!

Now consider this: two of their premier league games have been won 1-0, and in both cases that goal came from a penalty.  If that penalty had not been given they would have had four points fewer leaving  them in seventh place.  Yes just two penalties not awarded would have taken them from top to seventh!

It is interesting also that the game in the Europa League which Leicester won by a single goal (away to AEK Athens) was also won by a penalty.  So three games so far, won by getting a penalty.

Over a quarter of their League and Europa games this season have been turned into wins by getting a single penalty.

Thus when drawing a game, and knowing that a single goal will win it, players are ordered repeatedly to run into the box even if the tactic is unlikely to get a goal, because it could lead to a penalty.  Do it enough and ultimately you get the penalty, and Vardy scores.

Clubs facing Leicester know that Leicester are the third highest scorers in the league, so they are adjusting the defence to take care of that.  But if that is the case Leicester just hold on and wait for their inevitable penalty.  (And inevitable penalty is right – it is played eight, eight penalties).  And if it is heading for a draw towards the end of the game, the opposition will tend to attack more and more to nick the goal, leaving Leicester clear to make his dash into the box and either score or be fouled.

To be clear, Leicester are not extreme in tackling nor in the number of fouls they commit, but they are way out in front for yellow cards – but having got their yellow those players back down and stop tackling so no one is sent off.  Rotational tackling – now there’s a thing!

But this might lead us to believe that they would also be giving away penalties – but no.  Not one.  While five clubs have conceded five penalties, tough tackling Leicester have not conceded one.  19 yellow cards (more than anyone else) but they are one of only three clubs not to concede a single penalty!

That might make a certain amount of sense if we take it that they have set up tactically to tackle like mad just in front of the penalty box, so that no player from the opposition gets a chance to get into the box.  That would explain 19 yellow cards to Leicester while a fair number of the clubs in the league have fewer than half that number.

Looking back, last February we asked “How a club can commit the most fouls, but get the fewest yellow cards” and that article was of course about Leicester.

Now when we did that analysis we found that Leicester tackled far more than any other club, but were right near the bottom of the table for fouls committed.  Most tackles fewest yellows.  Clever.  Did it last season, doing it again this season.

However after we had published those numbers, either Leicester’s tactics started to change, or the referees started to pay more attention, for the number of tackles declined.  Not enough to stop them ending up at the top of the tackles league, but slowly the number of yellows went up.  And gradually Leicester’s league position fell apart.

So last season it was most fouls, fewest yellows, until we published our data and then the number of yellows started going up.

But now, this season after just eight games Leicester City have been awarded more penalties (8) than they got in the whole of last season (7)!

So they are modifying the approach to overcome what went wrong in the last part of last season.  Don’t worry about yellows if they are spread around, run into the area to encourage tackles, go down, wait for penalty.  Foul a lot but do it rotationally.

And why are others not mentioning this?   To a degree it is because statistics are not popular in football.   (Remember the appalling commentary team on BT Sport at an Emirates Cup game, saying that the 3 points for a win, one for a goal approach was far too complex for fans to understand?)


Leicester have decided not to try last season’s tactics again exactly, as referees were clearly made aware of their tactics in the latter part of the season as they tumbled down the league.

But Leicester have worked out a way to get penalties.  Eight penalties in eight games is utterly astonishing.

Last season only three teams got eight or more penalties across all 38 league games (Man U 14, Man C 11, Watford 8). 

At this rate they will get 38 by the end of the season.


5 Replies to “Could Arsenal adopt Leicester’s tactics and follow them up the table?”

  1. Sounds a bit like your asking refs not to give Leicester anymore pens, surely it’s a valid tactic to take on defenders in the box, the defender has the option not to foul as for the rotational fouling, what absolute garbage, ever player on a yellow has to be careful and team mates take extra responsibility so the team doesn’t lose a player.
    Tis article is full of sour grapes and inaccurate reporting, Leicester had 5 first team starters missing for the last 6 games of the season so their demise was far more likely to be for that reason rather than your egotistical reporting that you seem to believe actually has an impact on football officials.
    If you have no respect for other teams they will always have an advantage over you. It seems that Arsenal are so arrogant that the can’t accept that there are a few teams outside of the so called big 6 that are better than them at this moment in time and some of them substantially

  2. I am not sure where you are getting your data on respect and arrogance from Mike… are you mixing up the attitude of supporters with those of the team, or do you have data here? In relation to the five team starters missing for the last six games of the season, that would be relevant if the sudden change in Leicester’s fortunes occurred then. But you will know that Leicester won only four of their last 17 Premier League games last season which is much more relevant to their decline. At the start of 2020 Leicester were second in the Premier League, and thereafter the decline began.
    I am sure that as a supporter you know that, so I am not at all sure why you are trying just to talk about the last six games of the season especially as Leicester won two of them.
    It is curious though – each time we take our analysis of tactics further we get these same mixed up responses – we are not trying to defend Arsenal at all nor are we trying to blame Leicester. We’ve seen that Leicester have got tactics which have taken them right to the top of the league, and we’re suggesting that Arsenal ought to have a look at that.
    Supporters of most other clubs seem to get this when we do it vis a vis their tactics. Why do Leicester supporters always see this as some sort of attack on them?

  3. In your article you imply that you brought Leicester’s tactics to the attention of referees and that impacted on Leicester’s fortunes which I highly doubt, I referred to the last six games because you inferred that injuries was not a factor which isn’t true however Leicester’s form had dropped off prior to the lockdown and didn’t recover after so it is hard to attain whether less injuries would have changed anything.
    Players and supporters can be as one ie expectancy can equal pressure so arrogance does rub off. I thought that the article was a bit tongue in cheek particularly the heading almost saying shall Arsenal start bending the rules like Leicester to achieve a higher position.
    I’ve always thought it a good tactic to run past players on yellows and running into the box so if a foul is drawn then it’s a pen in fact I remember the great Dennis Bergkamp being interviewed after a game and is reply to when asked about a foul that brought arsenal a winning goal was “I waited for the touch and it came. It’s not cheating or bad conduct it’s just playing to he preasent rules

  4. I don’t think I did imply that I brought it to the attention of refs, but to be clear (and I think this is fairly clear across the several articles I have written about Leiceseter’s tactics) the point I wanted to make was:
    a) The figures from Leicester in the first part of last season were unlike any I had ever seen before, and probably had a lot to do with their position near the top of the league.
    b) Around the time that the article appeared Leicester’s tactics started to change and their results declined
    c) I don’t know if that was coincidence or whether PGMO noted the article and instructed its refs to take a closer look at Leicester’s tactics. Although that is unlikely, because this site covers PGMO far more than any other site I’ve ever seen, and collects data on games (the series “160 games” has become quite widely known, as has the publicity we have given to the research into games without crowds) we have had a few instances over the 12 or so years we have been doing this, suggesting that there is some awareness of this site within PGMO. But certainly as Leicester’s decline set in last season, so did the tactics change
    I am not meaning to imply that anyone is cheating, rather I am trying to suggest that Arsenal could do with looking at these tactics and seeing if they could be utilised in some form by Arsenal.
    I am also trying to make the point that Leicester’s figures are unusual, and it is interesting that the football journalists in the press and broadcast media are not talking about them at all.

  5. i watched quite a bit of leicester when they won the league they played defensively ,so probably conceded more fouls as a result, but relied on two talented quick and tricky players upfront and developed the knack of isolating defenders probably the reason they had a lot of penalties. have not watched much of leicester recently. they have different manager and is a few years forward but maybe some similarities.

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