The Foxes are flying
Shortly after Leicester City FC had drawn with West Ham United on October 27, 2018, a helicopter carrying the club’s owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, and four other people crashed in a ball of flames on the parking lot next to the King Power stadium. No one survived.
It would have been understandable if the tragic events of that day left the club in ruins. They had just lost not only their boss. but their friend and by all account, an all-around good person. Nobody should have to experience something like that, but the community, the team and the fanbase responded in an impressive way. They rallied around the memory of Vichai and have become even closer than before the crash.
Leicester City has been the ultimate underdog forever but their dominant win Sunday against Arsenal proved that this team is not to be underestimated anymore.
Outside of Liverpool and Manchester City, there has been no one as impressive as Leicester since Brendan Rodgers took over back in March of this year. Since Rodgers took over Leicester have a record of 12-4-4 taking 40 points from a possible 60. This puts them third in the league since Rodgers’s first game. They have only lost once to a team outside the top 6 since March 9th and they have wins against Arsenal X2, Spurs and they also tied Chelsea twice. Just last month Leicester broke the record for biggest ever away win in English football history with their 9-0 thrashing against Southampton. All of this since Rodgers became the manager. It has been a great start to the season for Brendan’s men and I am going to go through what makes them tick on both sides of the ball, what critics have to say about them and tell you if they can sustain this start or not.
Exciting, Fun, Clinical Footy
Under Claude Puel, Leicester never reached their full attacking capabilities. Puel always sacrificed attack for defence and he got sacked for it. Brendan Rodgers is proving you don’t have to sacrifice attack for a strong defence, you can bake the cake and eat it too. As much as I would like to bore you with every single detail of Leicester’s tactics, I won’t. Instead, I will direct you to a brilliant video on the ol’ YouTube which breaks their tactics down very well.
Like Manchester City and Liverpool, much of Leicester’s attacking play comes through their fullbacks. Ben Chilwell on the left and Ricardo Pereira on the right are two of the most underrated in Europe and both are extremely capable of carrying the ball from their box to the oppositions. This is allowed to happen because of Leicester’s midfield rock, Wilfred Ndidi, who is very good at filling in for either wingback whenever they push on. Leicester does not cross as much as the City or Liverpool, their wingbacks are better at making driving runs with or without the ball in behind the defence and then cutting it back for an open teammate.
Leicester is, of course, big on keeping possession and has made the fourth most passes in the league so far this year. The main formation they’ve used primarily under Rodgers is a 4-1-4-1 and the midfield is a perfect balance of creativity, aggressiveness and intelligence. The wide players, Harvey Barnes and Ayoze Perez lack a bit of pace so they tend to come into the middle to allow their respective wingbacks to bomb up the flanks. Ndidi’s job going forward is to progress the ball into either James Maddison or Youri Tielemans, two absolute wizards on the ball. The Foxes also have two very capable centre backs who are both very good ball movers, both Caglar Soyuncu and Jonny Evans are at around 87% pass success and both have made 0.2 key passes per 90. Then of course, up top, they have Mr. Jamie Vardy, one of the most prolific strikers in the country. Vardy, who turns 33 in January, just seems to get better and better somehow.
He leads the league with 11 goals so far and he is outperforming his XG by more than 5 goals and Leicester as a whole are outperforming their XG by more than 13 goals (all XG stats courtesy of the awesome UnderStat). They have scored the second-most in the league mostly due to just incredible finishing and lovely team moves. They also, of course, scored 9 in one game against Southampton, the biggest ever win by an away side in English football history.
Leicester’s lack of chances created has made people believe that their form is not sustainable, but as I will address later on, I do not agree. They have played some truly scintillating football so far this season, just check out this goal that sealed the win for them two weeks ago against Crystal Palace, I literally screamed “holy shit” at my laptop when Vardy applied the final touch.
Leicester has only missed 13 big chances so far this year which puts them at the fourth least in the league, again this is worrying to some people, but to me, it shows that they can get even better going forward. This team is young, they are exciting, they always want to go at you and it is fun to watch, Rodgers has only been with them for 6 months and they already look capable of scoring whenever they touch the ball.
The most impressive part of Leicester’s start has been their defence. Many would think that losing your best centre-back for 80 million pounds and not buying a replacement would only hurt your stability at the back, but somehow Leicester has improved. The loss of Harry Maguire actually sort of created an opening for the aforementioned Soyncu and Evans. They have formed the best centre back pairing in the league so far this year and Leicester has allowed just 8 goals all year, the least amount in the league so far. Rodgers has done a very good job of isolating players like Wes Morgan and Christian Fuchs from the defence and sticking with a consistent back four and it has paid off in spades.
Both Evans and Soyuncu are excellent readers of the game and are strong in the air as proven by them both having over a 60 percent aerial duel win rate and also by the fact that Leicester hasn’t conceded from a corner or free-kick so far this year. Neither has had an error lead to a goal this season and Leicester is only allowing 0.1 XG from shots on average so far this year.
I know talking about defending is boring, but I would be remiss not to at least mention how important Wilfred Ndidi is to this Leicester team.
This lovely radar brought to you by StatsBomb shows how dynamic Ndidi is defensively. I mean the guy is no Pirlo on the ball, in fact watching him try to keep possession is a bit like watching a baby deer trying to run after it has been shot in the leg, it isn’t pretty. BUT, his ability to pressure, chase down and win the ball high up the pitch allows Leicester to counter quickly with their potent attack, here is a perfect example from the Arsenal game on Sunday.
Look at Ndidi here, he recognizes that Leister are about to turn the ball over, but senses an opportunity to counter-press. He anticipates and gets there ahead of the Arsenal players, shows a little rare skill and then dishes it off to Pereira who gets it to Vardy who lays it back for a brilliant strike from Maddison to wrap the game up. The Nigerian’s aggressiveness, intensity and defensive awareness are second to none and he is just as important to this Leicester team as anyone else.
Why People are Skeptical
Teams like Leicester will always have their critics and to be fair it is understandable as to why this rendition does too. Their low XG is worrying because it shows that they are getting incredible finishing, but not creating that many chances which in the long run is not sustainable. (See Man United under Solskjaer pre-PSG 2nd Leg. Leicester’s lack of depth has also come into question due to them just not having the same amount of resources as the big clubs. Another reason why people do not want to buy into the hype is that teams like Spurs, Arsenal and Man U are all going through a mini-crisis at the moment and their form is expected to pick up.
Why the doubters are wrong
I believe Leicester’s form to start the year is sustainable, at least for this season. Players such as Maddison and Perez have not had great starts to the year and together with Harvey Barnes can improve their play. If Vardy’s finishing were to fall off, the Foxes shouldn’t be worried because I think it will force their more creative players to be better and start creating more chances. Leicester’s defence also isn’t just going to drop off suddenly and if you concede as few goals as they do well then you don’t need to score that many.
I do understand the concern over Leicester’s depth, but I also feel that it has been overblown. Attacking-wise, they have Premier League winner Marc Albrighton and young, bright Demari Gray who are both very capable of providing a spark off the bench late in a game or replacing Barnes or Perez in the starting line-up for the odd game. In midfield, they made a very intelligent buy in the summer picking up 25-year-old Belgian midfielder Denis Praet who has looked very solid in the early going. Past him, they have hardnosed Hamza Choudry who can replace Ndidi, albeit not as well, but he is a player of similar profile. Looking at their backline they have one of the most talented young players in all of England on their bench in James Justin, who at 19 years old, was selected to the 2019 League 1 Team of the Year. Premier League winner and seasoned vet Wes Morgan can fill-in if either Evans or Soyuncu needs a rest.
Leicester also has the advantage of having a certified winner and all-around impressive skipper in Brendan Rodgers who is miles ahead of either Manchester United’s or Arsenal’s manager. Rodgers has been in high-pressure situations before and has been in multiple title races in England and Scotland. If United and Arsenal keep on their current managers and Spurs don’t sort out their mess, there is every reason to think Leicester will grab a top 4 spot in the Premiership. They have built a sizeable lead on all 3 of those teams and have a favourable schedule over the next month with 5 straight games against teams in the bottom half of the table followed by Man City and Liverpool back to back, but we will choose to ignore those for now.
Can Leicester really do it again?!?!?
Well no, they can’t. Leicester isn’t winning the title this year. They are good but they aren’t that good. Arguably they aren’t as good as the ‘15/’16 team which DID win the title due to crazy circumstances which we will never see again. But can Leicester make the top 4? YES! They can and they probably will. In my eyes, they have at worst the fifth-best squad in the league and the fourth-best manager. The only team I could see overtaking them is Spurs, but they are about as inspiring as a Tim Tebow motivational speech, which is to say they aren’t inspiring at all! Assuming there are no significant injuries and their form doesn’t fall off a complete cliff, Leicester is on pace to qualify for the Champions League.
Looking to the future Leicester can be the club that breaks apart the top 6 and competes regularly with the big dogs of England. To achieve that will depend on several factors (1) their ability to find an adequate replacement for Vardy when the time comes; (2) keeping Rodgers; and (3) holding onto Maddison, Soyuncu, Ndidi, Chilwell and all their young players. Leicester has shown it is very good at picking out bright, young prospects from the lower leagues. They must continue to find players and develop them as well. Leicester has the players, the manager, the resources and the backbone to create a dynasty and reach not only England but Europe’s elite. I for one will have a blast watching them do it.