The advantage of playing first is not helping Leicester

In an incredibly close promotion battle, it is supposedly an advantage to play first and put pressure on your rivals.

But only if you win.

Enzo Maresca says he is concerned about the physical welfare of his players, but the psychological strength of players can be just as important, and Leicester appear to be struggling in both departments after their 1-0 defeat at Plymouth Argyle.

Afterwards Maresca locked his players in the dressing room for a debrief that lasted an hour. Clearly he felt an intervention was required to save all the hard work that has previously been done.

Leicester players looked mentally and physically exhausted (Harry Trump/Getty Images)

It is now three consecutive away games in which Leicester have dominated possession but been on the wrong end of 1-0 defeats, to sides who have been in the bottom half of the table, two of which have been battling relegation.

It is now six defeats in their last ten league games, with three victories in that time. Previously, it was four defeats in 32 league games, with 25 wins. That is how stark their decline has been. The level of performance hasn’t overly changed, but the effectiveness in both final thirds has.

From a position of dominance in the division, Leicester are now staring down the barrel of the lottery that is the play-offs.

Or are they? Because their rivals have also been stuttering too.

Leicester have gone first in three of the last four weekends. They have won once and it has handed the initiative to their rivals. Thankfully for Leicester they haven’t taken advantage – yet. 

How players hold up to the demands, both physically and mentally, can be the deciding factors in the outcome and any psychological edge, however small, could prove to be the difference.

Take Eric Dier’s recent admission he felt that Leicester had an advantage over Tottenham Hotspur during the 2016 Premier League title race because they always seemed to be scheduled to play first over the course of the weekend, and invariably applied the pressure with victories.

“I actually felt like it was really unfair at the time,” he told Gary Neville in an interview for The Overlap. “They seemed to play before us every week and every weekend it was a sucker blow because they won. If it is a late winner, or two goals in the 90th minute, it can have an effect.”

“You always wanted to play first,” Neville agreed. “You wanted to get your game won and that would transfer pressure.”


Maraca kept the players behind for an hour after the game (Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images)

The promotion race is growing in intensity and Maresca voiced his concerns about the physical health of his players before they headed to Plymouth for their third game in seven days. Judging by recent results for their rivals too, all three of the front runners seem to drawing on the last few litres of fuel in their tanks. Or, in other words, a typical Championship season. 

But the psychological aspect is also important, believes Marc Sagal, who was at Leicester as a sports psychologist under Sven-Goran Eriksson. 

“I do think there is a psychological advantage to going first,” he says “In my experience, and I think the research bears this out, better performances are more likely to result when a challenge is viewed more as an opportunity to accomplish something than a chance to mess up. 

“When a team has what’s often called the first mover advantage, they have the opportunity, usually through winning, by placing additional pressure on their competition. This increases the likelihood that their competition mindset will be overly focused on keeping pace or not screwing up, and this intern can negatively impact performance. 

“Of course there is also the chance that the team playing first will lose, and therefore create more of an opportunistic mindset for the team playing after. Research and current wisdom around penalty kick order reinforces this point. Generally speaking, teams prefer to take the first kick in order to apply additional pressure on the opposing team and while the exact statistical influence may be marginal, the psychological preference to go first is very common.”

Leicester have also had the added pressure of the ramifications of failure to go back up. The announcement just three hours before the Plymouth game that the club had been successful in a second legal challenge to the Football League, this time over an attempt to fast track a Premier League charge to impose a points deduction on Leicester in the EFL this season, which has legally been proven to be wrong, shows the EFL want to make an example of Leicester. Failure to get back up could see a hefty punishment from an EFL board that want to send a message to other clubs coming out of the Premier League. 

“I tend to look at pressure as a useful thing for athletes up to the point where it becomes too much,” adds Sagal. “Where this tipping point begins varies dramatically from player to player. 

“The challenge that coaches, players and even owners have is not just to understand what the optimal amount of pressure is, but to manage and manipulate psychology and context accordingly.”

The pressure is mounting at Leicester and they have to manage it better over the final four games because there is so much at stake. Nights like at Plymouth only intensify the pressure. How they deal with that over the final four games will dictate their fate.

(Top photo: Getty Images)

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