Geppetto, The Illuminati, Youri Tielemans – three figures known for pulling the strings.
On a tense April afternoon in the Belgian Pro League, a 16-year-old Belgian laced up his boots and sported the iconic purple strip of Anderlecht in preparation for their heated title-race match-up against fellow silverware contenders Club Brugge. Twenty-two minutes passed and the teenager scored his first-ever professional goal before parading to the sea of purple in the stands; ‘Tielemans 31’ emblazoned on his back. The adolescent then follows this up only twenty minutes later with a 75-yard slicing pass that melts the Brugge defence and puts Cyriac through on goal; an extraordinary feat completed with the composure of a veteran footballer twice his age. Youri Tielemans had arrived.
Fast forward five years and the 22-year-old Belgian international is now a Premier League heavy-hitter with a £40 million price tag hanging around his neck – a figure that seems a bargain in hindsight. But regardless of his inhuman passing ability, how is Youri Tielemans the central cog that makes Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester machine tick?
For a player that was frequently and tactically squandered by manager Claude Puel in the latter stages of last season, the introduction of Brendan Rodgers has given the midfielder a new lease of life as a prominent playmaker in a Leicester City team that now sits third in the Premier League seven games in – only two points behind defending champions Manchester City.
Rodger’s malleable 4-1-4-1 set-up allows Tielemans to flow in the centre of the park and often act as the middle-man for teammates; with the Belgian dropping back from the attacking midfielding four to fill a quasi-sitting midfielder role, giving the brilliant Wilfred Ndidi some defensive support, or sitting on the fringes to supply the likes of James Maddison and Harvey Barnes.
When Rodgers decides to crank up the pressure however, as he did when struggling Newcastle went down to 10-men in their 5-0 slaughtering, the 4-1-4-1 morphs into a 5-3-2 as Ndidi acts as an extra layer in defence and Ayoze Pérez moves up top – with Tielemans sat dead centre of the attacking fleet in his puppeteer role. A favourite of Roberto Martinez for the Belgium team, this pivotal role of Tielemans in midfield means that all advances up the pitch revolve around him as he pulls the strings from an often indistinct position – as the 22-capped international averages more passes per game than Kevin De Bruyne but to little fanfare.
With the former Monaco man acting as the prime creator, this shift to a defensive three and striking duo creates more danger down the wing through wing-backs Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell. As Ndidi’s relentless pressing as a de-facto centreback in this formation essentially keeps the team together, most defensive duties for the central midfielders, as well as the fullbacks, are somewhat relieved – allowing Tielemans’ playing style to thrive as Pereira and Chilwell’s wide positioning pace allows the Belgian to slide them in down the flanks with weighted passes to supply the overloaded opposition box; a strategy that Newcastle fans will be having sleepless nights over.
The Foxes’ number 8 will often accompany these fast attacks by lurking on the edge of the box to wait for a cut-back or to ghost into the penalty area; as he did to scuff home his first Leicester City goal against Bournemouth.
Tielemans often exploits this space at the edge of the box both centrally and towards the wings to pick out smart passes or early crosses that catch out stern defensive lines – artfully shown both in the Bournemouth game where he picked out Vardy with a splintering and perfectly-weighted first touch pass and in the Foxes’ cup fixture against Luton Town with Tielemans beautifully lofting the ball over helpless Hatters defenders for James Justin to volley home. It’s Youri Tielemans’ world and we are all just pawns in his game.
With Tielemans as the engine, however, can Leicester City really race to a top-four finish ahead of the league’s giants that are currently stumbling their way through the season? Form permitting, Brendan Rodgers certainly looks like the man who can take them there. The Northern Irishman’s robust style of play in a flexible set-up is getting the most out of the electrifying, young ensemble of Maddison, Tielemans, Ndidi, Barnes, Chilwell and Çağlar Söyüncü whilst Pereira’s stalwart surges and overlapping one-two runs down the flanks and Vardy’s ever-present goalscoring form provide Rodgers with a dangerous arsenal.
The midfield four that sits behind Vardy does have a huge reliance on Tielemans at the heart and the firepower surrounding him; meaning that consistent form for the Belgian is a must for Leicester but it also leaves Foxes fans salivating at the mouth at thoughts of what could have been if Riyad Mahrez had stayed and was partnered alongside Tielemans, Maddison and Barnes.
Leicester’s vehicle has been running smooth for the first two months of the campaign whilst the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal have all hit bumps in the road as parts aren’t performing like they are expected to.
The Foxes Champions League-hungry counterparts seem to have major faults to repair to look like active competitors whilst Leicester have been firing on all cylinders. Both Arsenal and Manchester United have fallen dramatically from grace since their early-2000s heyday rivalry; evident by Unai Emery’s tentativeness to exploit a rickety United side as of late by playing three holding midfielders – with Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira looking worlds apart from their Leicester counterpart in Youri Tielemans, whilst the sleeping giants of Chelsea don’t look like competing this season as their defensive structure looks shallow.
Additionally, Tielemans has a creative edge over his fellow projected maestro Pablo Fornals at West Ham – who are similarly sitting in fourth – although the Belgian and the Spaniard might be two young midfielders who could rise to Premier League prominence at very similar times.
At her current rate, the strong ship of Leicester are sailing into the coveted Champions League spots whereas the staunch and famous usual suspects certainly have holes to plug before they sink out of the top four. With Brendan Rodgers at the helm roaring orders at his crew, Youri Tielemans is almost certainly in the engine room trying to crank up the pressure on the big teams. Full speed ahead.