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Chelsea vs. Leicester City, Premier League: Opposition Analysis

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The last two winners of the Premier League face off in Saturday's early game. It says a lot that neither is seen as a realistic candidate to triumph this time around. Chelsea should expect to take three points at a canter.

The Season Just Gone

Just in case you’d forgotten, Leicester City’s 2015-16 season was probably the single most unbelievable campaign in the history of team sport. Claudio Ranieri’s rag-tag bunch of has-beens and never-will-bes, ranked 5000-1 to win the title before the season and heavily tipped for relegation by almost all neutral observers, did not just win the Premier League, they romped home with plenty of time to spare and enjoy their achievement.

Their squad cost £54.4m to assemble, roughly the same as Manchester City spent on Kevin De Bruyne – and £9m of Leicester’s money went on Andrej Kramarić, who made a huge two Premier League appearances before being loaned to Hoffenheim. Their wage bill was £48.2m, the fourth lowest in the division.

They relied on a 29 year-old journeyman striker playing his second top-level season, a lightweight winger who cost £750,000 from a Ligue 2 side and a diminutive French clogger in central midfield, all but unknown in his homeland. Lest we forget, the appointment of their manager was widely mocked and seen as a colossal blunder after his most recent spell of employment, as manager of Greece, had ended following defeat to the Faroe Islands.

Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté are now world famous and pretty much immortal in Leicester, and Claudio Ranieri remains possibly the world’s most popular man. Even if it turns out that all of them only burned at their brightest for the 2015-16 season, they achieved something that no-one could ever have expected and that few can still believe, and they captured the world’s attention in the process. Even now, saying "Leicester City, Premier League champions" sounds completely ridiculous, and yet it is a fact. Look: here’s Wes Morgan lifting the trophy.

wesmorgan

The Season Ahead

No-one expects anything other than total mediocrity in the league and a return to the lower half of the table, and so far this belief seems to be well-founded. If their first seven games are anything to go by, the 2016-17 end-of-season DVD will sell roughly 5% as well as its predecessor and at the end of the season, Vardy and Mahrez will join N’Golo Kanté in moving on to bigger clubs and bigger pay-packets.

Of course, the caveat here is that Leicester’s season is all about their Champions League adventure, and they’re certainly playing up to last season’s levels in Europe. Having thrashed Club Brugge away in Belgium and nicked a home victory against Porto, the Foxes have joined Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Napoli as the only teams to have won both their group games so far. Long may their fairytale continue; as soon as it ends, things are going to get pretty sad for them.

Tactics

One of the reasons Leicester’s procession to glory was so refreshing was that they won by playing such unpretentious football. While Louis Van Gaal tied his Manchester United team in knots and self-styled Football Genius/Philosopher/Philanthropist Brendan Rodgers talked himself out of a job at Liverpool, Claudio Ranieri kept things as simple as simple can be and basically told his players to run as much as their bodies allowed them and, whenever possible, play towards the opposition goal as quickly as they could.

It was a welcome throwback to a simpler time and it seemingly proved that a direct, boxy, committed 4-4-2, long since seen as outmoded and ineffective at the top level, could succeed after all. However, it’s worth noting that a large part of Leicester’s success was down to N’Golo Kanté’s ability to be in at least two places at once, and now that Chelsea have prised him away, the Foxes’ midfield is considerably less effective. And by ‘considerably less effective’ I mean ‘basically useless’.

Strengths

The building blocks of last season’s success were a mean defence, unbelievable midfield tenacity and the raw pace and unerring finishing of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. The defence still wins an awful lot in the air - 18.4 aerial duels won per game is among the Premier League’s highest figures – and the midfield still works hard – 9.7 passes blocked per game is very high – and they still have Vardy and Mahrez, even though the two are yet to hit top form this season.

However…

Weaknesses

…the perfect storm that propelled them to glory has long since died down.

Their midfield, while still blocking lots of passes, doesn’t do much else. 16.1 tackles per game is the league’s 3rd lowest number; 14.6 interceptions is just plain mediocre; Leicester players are dribbled past 11.3 times per game, the 8th highest figure in the division. Unsurprisingly, selling Kanté and replacing him with the raw and simply not-as-good Daniel Amartey hasn’t gone well.

At the other end, the defence is suffering for having much less protection: 21 clearances per game is the fifth lowest figure in the league; 2.4 shots blocked per game is the 3rd lowest figure; 2.4 crosses blocked is the 7th lowest figure. As a consequence of all of this, only five sides’ goalkeepers have been worked more often than Kasper Schmeichel this season.

Only spectacular efficiency in attack or genius in controlling midfield can make up for this. Unfortunately, Leicester aren’t good enough in either department. Their average of 3.6 shots on target per game is a mere 13th in the table, and their 32% shots-on-target conversion rate is just below the league average. Their total of 7 dribbles per game is the league’s third lowest – and this with Riyad Mahrez in the team. Worst of all, they turn over the ball constantly: 43.6 inaccurate long balls per game is the league’s second highest number, while 65 inaccurate short passes per game is the league’s highest.

Frankly, they’re rubbish.

Likely XIs

Antonio Conte has yet to settle on an eleven for his new 3-4-2-1 system and so Chelsea’s line-up is hard to predict. The back three is expected to survive, given the back four’s inability to protect Thibaut Courtois. This presumably spells the end for Cesc Fàbregas and presumably Oscar is having worried conversations with his agent as well Victor Moses is Chelsea's only fitness doubt. Should he recover before the game, he will presumably play at right-wing-back again.  (Ed. note: Willian is on bereavement leave and thus will not be available.)

As for Leicester, The Artist Formerly Known As The Tinkerman will presumably keep on doing his new thing of playing the same eleven every single week.

CHELEI

Prediction

Chelsea to win 2-0 without breaking a sweat. Diego Costa to get booked for fighting Robert Huth.