Why Cooper's tactics are exactly what Leicester need

By Alex Keble 20 Jun 2024
Steve Cooper

Alex Keble analyses how Welshman's pragmatic approach will help the Foxes this season

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As Leicester City announce Steve Cooper as their new manager, Alex Keble analyses what the former Nottingham Forest boss will bring to the Foxes.

Losing Enzo Maresca to Chelsea was a bitter blow for Leicester; a moment of brutal realism after the high of their Championship-winning campaign. The widely-reported decision to switch from Graham Potter to Cooper as the replacement is, in many ways, another such moment.

Maresca to Potter was tactically aligned. Maresca to Cooper is a complete rewrite.

Potter was the idealistic choice, the progressive option broadly aligned with the Pep Guardiola-inspired positional football put in place by Maresca.

Cooper, while historically adventurous, leant into a more pragmatic approach to Premier League management at Nott'm Forest, utilising a low block and quick counter-attacks.

It probably isn’t what supporters had in mind - but it might be just what the club needs.

Every promoted club must adapt to becoming the underdog, and Potter and Maresca may have been too tied to their principles to do so. Cooper will ensure Leicester have no such pretentions.

Cooper is virtually the opposite of Maresca – and Potter

Maresca, a Guardiola disciple who has compared football tactics to chess, believes in ruthlessly choreographed patterns of possession football, complete with a high defensive line, high pressing and endless recycling of the ball.

It had some Leicester fans growing weary of his tiki-taka-adjacent football in the Championship last season, although there were no complaints about the 97 points, won with 61.6 per cent possession.

This Opta graphic illustrates the extent of Leicester’s slow, patient football under Maresca last season, with the Foxes placed firmly in the bottom-right corner.

Looking from left to right, you can see that Leicester averaged the second-most passes in each passing sequence, behind only Southampton. Meanwhile, looking from top to bottom, you can see that they were among the five slowest teams for "direct speed" when moving the ball upfield, measured in metres per second. 

Leicester team sequence style 2023/24

In 2022/23, Cooper’s only full season in charge of Forest, his team were at the other end of the spectrum. They are very much in the top-left corner of the graphic, having played the fewest passes per sequence and been one of the three fastest teams in moving the ball upfield.

Nott'm Forest style 2022/23

Cooper is the exact opposite to Maresca, then, investing in quick counter-attacks and fast breaks after the ball is turned over.

In 2022/23, Forest ranked 20th for average possession, pressures in the attacking third, percentage of their total pressures in the attacking third, and number of 10+ open-play passing sequences, but they were second for direct speed.

Forest's style of play 2022/23
Statistic Total PL rank
Ave. possession 37.6% 20th
Attacking-third pressures 1,072 20th
% of pressures in attacking third 17.2% 20th
10+ open-play passing sequences 181 20th
Direct speed (m/s) 1.64 2nd

Cooper's Forest had been more progressive in the Championship, but even then they were a direct counter-attacking team who simply engaged their opponent higher up the pitch. They topped the charts for direct attacks, with 97, and fast breaks, with 33, but their 55 high turnovers were fourth from bottom.

That could hardly be further from Maresca’s Leicester.

Cooper’s pragmatism could be an advantage

Maresca is highly unlikely to change tactics in the Premier League with Chelsea, while we have evidence from Potter’s first season at Brighton & Hove Albion that he also would have refused to adapt his principles – unlike Cooper.

Maresca, Potter and Cooper's ave. possession
Manager Season Ave. possession
Maresca's Leicester 2023/24 61.6%
Potter's Brighton 2019/20 52.2%
Cooper's Forest 2022/23 37.6%

Counterintuitively, Leicester fans should be heartened by that.

Adaptation is a necessary part of returning to the Premier League and Cooper has experience of that painful process.

In the first seven Premier League matches of 2022/23, Cooper tried to be bold and it backfired. Forest, averaging 43.8 per cent possession, collected just four points, prompting a dramatic shift to a more outright defensive system.

The 3-4-1-2 that had served Cooper so well in the Championship was abandoned and Forest, now in a 4-3-3, dropped deeper, leading to a temporary upturn in results before they faded again.

Cooper’s response was to retreat even further.

With nine matches to go he moved to a 5-4-1 formation and turned Forest into a purely defensive outfit. They shrank into a shell and waited for chances to launch simple counter-attacks through Brennan Johnson and Morgan Gibbs-White.

Comparing their first 30 matches to their next seven (Forest sealed safety prior to the final match of the season) reveals the stark shift in strategy.

Forest's changes in style 2022/23
Avera MW1-29 MW30-37
Ave. possession 39.9% 27.2%
Ave. pass completion rate 73.9% 63.7%
10+ open-play passing sequences/90 6.2 2.8
Build-up attacks/90 1.0 0.1

Leicester fans will hope Cooper doesn’t have to be quite so extreme in 2024/25, but they should be pleased to have a manager willing to compromise to that extent.

Last season, Leicester’s press-baiting when passing out from the back caused 24 errors leading to shots, more than any other team in the Championship. Attempting to do that in the Premier League would likely have proved disastrous.

Potter, too, might have presented a similar risk. It’s easy to forget he won only 41 points and finished 15th in his first season with Brighton, and that was with a squad containing Lewis Dunk, Dan Burn, Leandro Trossard, Pascal Gross and Yves Bissouma.

It was a good achievement given that Potter had overhauled Chris Hughton’s defensive football in the process, but it is nevertheless evidence that Potter could have struggled in year one with Leicester.

How will Cooper use players he inherits?

The squad is currently better suited to Maresca’s football than to a direct and counter-attacking philosophy, but there aren’t too many changes required for Cooper's approach to work.

Most importantly, Leicester need more quick, ball-carrying wingers of the sort that Forest stockpiled during the Cooper era.

Stephy Mavididi will fit in well under Cooper, having completed more progressive carries, with 204, and attempted more take-ons, with 203, than all but two Championship players last season. 

He could be complemented on the other side by the tricky Abdul Fatawu, who ranked fourth in the division in 2023/24 for successful take-ons, with 91, should he sign permanently from Sporting.

They could do with more options here, however, as well as a centre-forward; Jamie Vardy, at 37, isn’t a long-term option for fast transition football.

Elsewhere, Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall can largely fulfil the role Gibbs-White occupied under Cooper, although the latter’s long crossfield passes were a feature that Dewsbury-Hall may struggle to replicate.

In better news James Justin and Ricardo Pereira are talented full-backs who could excel under Cooper either as wing-backs in a 3-4-1-2 or full-backs in a 4-3-3.

In summary, he only needs a couple of quick and agile wingers to move the squad away from Maresca’s tactics and implement a malleable battle plan that shows humility in the face of a potential relegation battle.

Cooper provides realism: a buttoned-down, conservative, utilitarian view on how to stay in the Premier League.

That grounded real talk isn't necessarily what supporters wanted to hear so soon after promotion, but that’s the world they are re-entering. Idealism this August would not have ended well.

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