The year in tactics: How Portugal and Leicester won in 2016


The end of 2016 is approaching, which means it’s time to examine the most successful tactics of the year. Today, we look at two teams that overcame the odds to win some of the most prestigious trophies of the year.

Counterattacking, often criticized for being the tactic of the small-minded, less gifted, talentless outfits, was alive and well in 2016, enjoying one of its most fruitful seasons. You might even say we haven’t seen this type of success through counterattacking since the days of the Italian catenaccio in the late ’60s.

Leicester and Portugal — two teams with seemingly little in common. One is led by (arguably) the best player in the world. The other has Jamie Vardy of three pre-game Red Bulls fame spearheading the attack. And yet, once we peel back the layers, you’ll find uncanny similarities going beyond the classic 4-4-2 formation in which both these teams line up.

It all starts at the back

Defense wins championships. Both of these teams employed a four-man back line where the center back pairing was a duo of no-nonsense, safety first, great in the air, yet technically apt with the ball at their feet players whose individual skill set served to complement each other in subtle ways.

One of the men is steelier than the other. Wes Morgan for Leicester and Pepe for Portugal served as the hammer of their team’s back line. Robert Huth and Jose Fonte, while also very much made of steel, complemented their partners by being more comfortable with the ball at their feet, more agile, winning balls due to agility, speed and positioning rather than brawn, and generally serving as the link to the next line of progression up the field.

LONDON, ENGLAND - February 14: N'Golo Kante of Leicester City in action with Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Leicester City at Emirates Stadium on February 14, 2016 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND – February 14: N’Golo Kante of Leicester City in action with Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Leicester City at Emirates Stadium on February 14, 2016 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images) /

Less midfield maestros more disciplined workmen

Both of these teams’ style is testament to the fact effort and discipline often trump natural ability. Their respective defensive midfielders, N’golo Kante for Leicester and William Carvalho for Portugal, were veritable two-way players, excelling at making themselves available for the ball as the first link to the attack and just as formidable leading the midfield unit as the first line of defense by stifling incoming opposing midfielders and clogging the passing lanes. Kante led the Premier League with 142 intercepted passes, thus ensuring the defenders were rarely on their heels forced to make decisive tackles. Danny Drinkwater provided both an outlet option and defensive support, usually playing deeper than the other two midfielders.

Portugal lined up in a midfield diamond, with Carvalho at the bottom of the diamond receiving immediate support from either of the two wide midfielders (Joao Mario and Renato Sanches) who dropped back to receive the ball or alternatively, ensured the midfield kept its shape when defending.  Sitting on top of the back four and demanding the ball is a prerequisite for success in both of these teams’ mechanisms.

Fitness wins

The common thread which makes up the fabric of these two teams is their incredible fitness levels. That is the prerequisite to be able to cover so much ground, whether it manifests itself in always dropping deep to support the back line or having that extra acceleration and stamina to be able to burst through on goal in the latter stages of the game.

Quick transition play triumphs over ball possession

Both these teams love to strike fast with the purpose of catching opponents off guard at the back. Possessing the ball to exploit eventual gaps in the opponent’s defensive set up is not part of these two teams’ approach. As soon as possession is gained the forwards move out wide knowing the ball will be delivered into space on the wings. The sets of two forwards on these two teams possess incredible speed.

On the Portugal side, a key part of Ronaldo and Nani’s repertoire is their ability to run from near the sidelines at defenders. Similarly, Riyad Mahrez loves to cut inside from the right side, either taking a defender on or looking for the decisive ball to Jamie Vardy. This is where the two teams are a little different, as Vardy is better suited to serve as a target than anyone in the Portugal starting line-up.

However, that all changed for Portugal in the final of Euro 2016, as Ronaldo’s injury forced him out of the game, depriving Portugal of his brilliance from the wide areas. Eventually, Fernando Santos brought on Eder, a more classic number 9 than Portugal previously lined up with, and a player who provided a similar to target to the one Vardy did for Leicester. Eder scored the final’s lone goal by taking his defender on and unleashing a fierce shot. 1-0. Game, championship, eternal glory.

Next: The year in tactics: Chelsea's 3-4-3 dominates

Similarly, Leicester managed a string of five consecutive and seven total 1-0 wins on their way to the unlikeliest Premier League title ever.

Perhaps not the easiest style on the eye, the counterattacking approach has yielded surprising results in 2016, making champions out of outsiders, both at the Euros and in the Premier League.