How Shinji Okazaki proved he is vital for Leicester City in their weekend victory
Leicester City’s title defence was never going to be easy. As 5,000-1 outsiders last season, they performed a sporting miracle to win the league, and it was not likely to be repeated at the first time of trying.
The loss of N’Golo Kante to Chelsea was an unavoidable consequence of their success, and the money from that sale and their qualification for the Champions League gave them the ability to bring in a number of new players to give their title defence the best possible chance of succeeding.
The money was used mainly in attack, with Claudio Ranieri investing in Islam Slimani and Ahmed Musa to provide competition up front for Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki, and it has been the Japanese who has invariably missed out on a place in the starting 11 in order to accommodate for new faces.
This, however, may have been the wrong choice for Ranieri to make, and Okazaki’s performance in Leicester’s 3-1 victory over Crystal Palace showed the world just exactly why.
There was a joke last season by one of Leicester’s coaching staff that the club played three in midfield: Drinkwater in the middle and Kante either side. This was hardly subtle humour, obviously pointing at the Frenchman’s ridiculous energy levels, but the joke was much more clever than it was given credit for. Leicester did play three in midfield last season: Drinkwater, Kante and Okazaki.
When Okazaki plays for the Foxes, he gets up in support of Jamie Vardy (or whoever the lead striker is) in attack, but as soon as Leicester are without the ball, he takes up a position in front of the midfield four, hustling and harrying opposition players in such a way that the defensive players can keep their shape and stay more secure.
Without the Japanese forward, Leicester simply haven’t had this energy. Islam Slimani is both quick and powerful, but he doesn’t have the stamina to press like Okazaki does. Ahmed Musa is more like Vardy than Okazaki, and would also struggle to fill this role.
Not only can Okazaki add goals, as he did yesterday with a fine strike, his role in so much more important to the team than just being a hybrid between a midfielder and striker. With him in the team, Leicester can defend from the front with energy, allowing their actual defence more protection and the chance to remain in shape.
In fact, the difference is so marked that Leicester have had significantly different results depending on whether Okazaki has been in the team. In games in which the Japanese has started, Leicester have won twice and drawn once in four games, losing only to a rampant Liverpool at Anfield. When out of the team, the Foxes have recorded just one win and a draw in five games, leaking nine goals and dropping points.
It’s very simple. Okazaki may not be the most glamourous name on Leicester’s teamsheet, but he makes the whole team better. With him, Ranieri’s men look like the team they were last season. Okazaki must play.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by Alex Hannam
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