Liverpool v Leicester City: a comparison of two first-time Premier League winners

It has been a week since Liverpool secured their first Premier League title, and their first league title since 1990. Now that the dust has settled and everyone has had time to get used to the fact that the Reds are no longer the “almosts” of so many years, I thought I would introduce something different into the sports content world.

In this article, I have drawn up some comparisons of two first-time Premier League winners; Liverpool this year, and Leicester City back in 2015/2016. I will look at their formations, key league results, transfers, and the performance of their main competition throughout the season. Hopefully it will make for an interesting read.

Formations and Style of Play

As far as the formations of Liverpool and Leicester City went, they had very different styles of play.

Leicester tended to favour a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2, depending on whether they had Shinji Okazaki starting or not. If he did, then the Japan striker played alongside talismanic player Jamie Vardy. If not, then it tended to be Andy King who played behind Vardy.

The focus of the play was always Vardy, and that was clear to see in everything Leicester did. The Foxes always set up with full-backs who could deliver crosses into him, midfielders who could deliver passes into him, and defensive tactics which meant that Vardy didn’t have to track back and help out there. The striker’s strengths, and what made him perhaps different to other strikers at the time, was that he didn’t come towards the ball to receive it. He moved away from it, creating space for his team to then pass the ball into. This was quite unique at the time.

This is not to say that he was alone in helping Leicester to the title. Everyone played their part; Riyad Mahrez was his second-in-command when it came to attacking the opposition and scoring goals. Danny Drinkwater continually played the ball into the forward players from midfield. N’Golo Kante was the runner who tackled the ball back and ensured that the opposition never had a moment to breathe when they were on the ball. Wes Morgan and Robert Huth formed an outstanding central defensive partnership, which ensured that the rest of the team could focus on attacking.

Despite having a different formation and tactics, in that they use a 4-3-3 and use “gegenpressing”, where every player presses quickly and high up the pitch constantly, ensuring that the opposition have no space to operate at all, Liverpool had the same ingredients this season.

Fans will have been telling you that they could sense something happening when Liverpool’s fortunes seemed to turn around, and they reached the Capital One Cup final and the Europa League final in the same year as Leicester won the title. However, they were still missing three key ingredients at that point; a goalkeeper, centre back and left-back. They did have these obviously, but they weren’t of the right quality at the time.

Over the coming seasons, they spent £8m signing Scotland captain Andrew Robertson from Hull City, who had just been relegated, £75m on Netherlands centre back Virgil van Dijk from Southampton, and Brazil goalkeeper Alisson Becker from Roma for an unconfirmed fee of around £66.8m. Now, this might seem like Liverpool have bought the title, but they really needed these three. Since bringing these in, Liverpool have become reigning English, European and world champions at the same time (given that the 2020 Champions League final has not happened yet), as well as going an entire calendar year unbeaten.

This has impacted on their formation too. They have a front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, who have been given the freedom to move around each other under the new season. In the midfield, captain Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner have been outstanding this season, but the player that has added the little bit they were missing, the box-to-box quality, has been Fabinho. The Brazilian signed from Monaco back in 2018, for around £39m, which now seems incredibly cheap for the effect he has had on the team.

Their style of play since moving to this formation has been to use their full-backs to control the wings, allowing the strikers to all play more central. Without Trent Alexander-Arnold and Robertson getting up the pitch, Salah and Mane would have to act as wingers, decreasing Liverpool’s central threat. This has been the most noticeable tactic that the Reds have had this season.

As far a a comparison goes, we can say that both sides had in the team exactly what they needed to win games, but neither overspent. It would have been very easy to sign more players, given how many both have been linked with, but they didn’t. That was crucial to their respective successes. Both sides also had everything, from a strong defence to an excellent ball-passer to forwards able to score almost every time they touched the ball.

Results

The results of both teams have been interesting to study. In order to be champions, both had to topple the defending champions. For Leicester, that was Chelsea, and for Liverpool, that was Manchester City. Leicester in their title-winning season managed to defeat Chelsea 2-1 at home (the game which featured the famous long-range volley from Vardy), and at Stamford Bridge they grabbed a 1-1 draw.

Their closest competition throughout the season came from Tottenham Hotspur, and the Foxes beat them away and drew against them at home. There were other games which were significant, but being undefeated home and away against the defending champions and the closest competition in the title race was certainly a good thing to have on their title-chasing CV.

Liverpool, meanwhile, had to ensure they didn’t lose to Manchester City. We saw last season that the loss against them around New Year’s Day to the Sky Blues proved costly, and so that became their target this season. Going a calendar year was incredibly significant in ensuring the tide had firmly turned in their favour, but in their only result against Manchester City this season (they play at the Etihad tonight), they won 3-1, and put in a dominant performance. This was the moment, I felt, that Liverpool had put last year’s disappointment behind them, and were now firmly set on finally sealing a first ever Premier League title win.

Therefore, another comparison we can draw is that both Liverpool and Leicester were unbeaten against the defending champions, unless of course Liverpool lose to Manchester City when they play this week. But this was another very important and significant contribution to both teams’ title wins.

It won’t matter what happens at the Etihad, because the title has already been won, but Liverpool will want to try for the double over their closest rivals in the last few seasons, without a doubt.

Transfers

If we now turn our attentions towards the transfers and money spent by both Leicester and Liverpool in their title-winning seasons.

Starting with Leicester, their main signings in the summer of 2015 were:

  • Christian Fuchs (from Schalke), free transfer
  • Robert Huth (from Stoke City), £3m
  • Shinji Okazaki (from Mainz), £7m
  • N’Golo Kante (from Caen), £5.6m
  • Yohan Benalouane (from Atalanta), undisclosed
  • Gokhan Inler (from Napoli), £3m
  • Nathan Dyer (from Swansea), season-long loan

Then in January, they added:

  • Demarai Gray (from Birmingham City), £3.7m
  • Daniel Amartey (from Copenhagen), £5m

They had a total spend of £27.3m in the summer before their title-winning season, and the majority of that was spent on players who were a major part of that squad. The likes of Fuchs, Huth, Okazaki, Kante and Dyer all played their part. However, they key thing here is the money that they spent. Tottenham, who ran them close that reason, spent more than that on just signing South Korea striker Son Heung-min, and whilst he is a good player and was worth that much, it still shows that Leicester knew how to spend their money on the players what would add what they needed.

As for Liverpool, their major transfers last summer were as follows:

  • Sepp van den Berg (from Zwolle), £1.3m
  • Harvey Elliott (from Fulham), tribunal
  • Adrian (from West Ham), free transfer
  • Andy Lonergan (from Middlesbrough), free transfer

Then in January, they added:

  • Takumi Minamino (from Red Bull Salzburg), £7.25m

That gave them a total spend during this season of £8.55m. Now, this obviously doesn’t take into account the signings of Salah, Mane, Firmino, Fabinho, van Dijk or Alisson, all of whom were big money signings in previous windows. However, this shows us that Liverpool are a club that have learnt their lessons of old windows.

The signing of Minamino in particular was one that a lot of Reds fans wanted to club to make, given how well he had played against Liverpool in this year’s Champions League group stages. Normally, however, when fans hear about these rumours, they are usually false, and lead to nothing. In this case, Liverpool sealed Minamino’s signature fairly quickly last January, and he has gone on to show that it was money well spent.

Again, the comparison to make here is that both Liverpool and Leicester knew what they needed. In Leicester’s case, it was ensuring they had ticked the boxes with another good striker to offer backup to Jamie Vardy, as well as bringing in a tough-tackling defensive midfielder, and various other good players.

In Liverpool’s case, they didn’t need to go out and spend £68m+ on a big name signing, because they already had what they needed. Having come so close last year, it was important that they didn’t overdo it and unsettle the squad. van den Berg has come in as a young but very promising centre back, Elliott has shown he can be a future Liverpool starter, and Adrian offered the backup goalkeeper option to Alisson, and has, on the whole, been a good option this season, and we have already talked about Minamino’s good signs already.

Performance of the main competition

The final thing we will look at is the performance of the main competition to Leicester and Liverpool in their title-winning seasons. In Leicester’s case, this was Tottenham Hotspur, and in Liverpool’s case, it was Manchester City.

In 2015/2016, Tottenham were under their second season of Mauricio Pochettino’s management. They didn’t have a bad season, but it was just moments when they lost momentum in their fight for the title. They recovered from an opening day loss to Manchester United to then go on an unbeaten run up until the 13th December, when they lost to Newcastle United at home.

The turning point for them was probably when they lost to Leicester at home in January, and Christmas/New Year is the point at which you have to show your title credentials if you are serious about winning the title. Between the start of December and the end of January, Tottenham’s record was 5 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses, with one of those losses being the two we mentioned above.

Compare that to Leicester’s record in that same time frame, and their record was 5 wins, 3 draws and 1 loss (that loss coming against Liverpool at Anfield on Boxing Day). Therefore, you can see how Leicester were able to take the advantage in over Christmas – only just, but just is enough when in title-contending situations.

Of course, they also gave Leicester the title when they drew at home to West Bromwich Albion, before then drawing at Chelsea. (it’s interesting that it was Chelsea who handed both Leicester and Liverpool their titles). Therefore, whilst Tottenham were strong competition, they did’t quite have the consistency that Leicester had. Leicester’s three losses in that entire season were against Liverpool and twice to Arsenal, so two of the “top 6” in the league. Spurs’ were against Manchester United, Newcastle, Leicester, West Ham, Southampton and Newcastle again. Therefore, when comparing those results, we see where Spurs tripped up.

If we now look at Liverpool’s competition, Manchester City, we see whether they were better than Spurs or not. We have seen over the last few years how Manchester City have dominated English football, and so that’s why this season has come as a surprise to most of us. At time of writing, they have lost to Norwich City, Wolves, Liverpool, Manchester United, Wolves again, Tottenham, Manchester United again, and Chelsea, with that last game handing Liverpool the title. Those are some really bad losses for a team that was supposedly challenging for the title.

Liverpool have only lost one game all season so far, with that coming against struggling Watford on 24th February. Therefore, we don’t need to analyse the competition too much here, because it’s obvious that Manchester City have not been able to keep up with Liverpool in the way that Tottenham did with Leicester until the last few weeks of the season.

Therefore, in comparing the two sides who chased Leicester and Liverpool in their respective title-winning seasons, we see what Liverpool had the easier season, in that the points gap between them and Manchester City was vast, however that came with it’s added pressures, because they had never won the title and yet were expected to as a supposed “top 6” side (along with Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham – Spurs, Arsenal and United have dropped away from the others in recent years though). Leicester meanwhile had no pressure, because, at 1000/1 odds, no-one expected them to do what they did.

Conclusion

In bringing all of this together, we have taken a closer look at Leicester City and Liverpool, as two first-time Premier League winners. We have looked at their formations and style of play; their results; their transfers and money spent that season; and the performance of their main competition in those seasons. We have tried to draw comparisons between the Foxes and the Reds, and have found several similarities between both teams.

This has given us a list of things for any side to have, who may want to mount a title charge in the future. However, at the moment, Liverpool look to good to be toppled, although anything can happen in the Premier League, as we saw with Leicester’s title victory. We will see what the future brings.

 

 

 

 

 

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