The Season So Far
While it currently seems like every mid-table Premier League team is on the verge of implosion and identity crisis or unexpected relegation, Leicester’s season has been a relatively positive affair. The Foxes may have endured a painful managerial change, but they’ve nonetheless been involved in some belting matches and won enough of them to find themselves in a solid league position, comfortably clear of the now sprawling relegation dogfight. Unlike many other teams, their star players have performed: Riyad Mahrez is currently in truly sparkling form reminiscent of his 2015-16 heyday, while Jamie Vardy has nine goals for the season and is still a hard-running menace capable of turning any top-flight defender inside-out.
The Christmas period saw Leicester lose their way a little bit, with a New Year’s Day win over Huddersfield being their first win in five, but before that they had only suffered one defeat in eleven league games. Manager Claude Puel, widely seen as an uninspiring replacement for the out-of-his-depth Craig Shakespeare, deserves the lion’s share of the credit. Puel has proven to be a canny hire, bringing clarity and stability to a squad which was obviously losing direction and failing to play to its potential. One would hope that the many Proper Football Men who frothed at the mouth when he was hired could find it within themselves to apologise.
The Season Ahead
With the top six cut off from the rest of the division by a gulf in quality so large the Premier League now resembles two leagues within one, a seventh-place finish – the best of the rest – is now the most many teams can hope for. Leicester, currently in eighth, should be aiming to finish the season in that spot. They certainly have the talent and the manager to do so.
In the immediate term, Leicester need to resolve the future of Riyad Mahrez, for so long so keen to leave the King Power Stadium for pastures new. With Philippe Coutinho now at Barcelona and Alexis Sánchez on his way to Manchester City, Mahrez knows that two of the teams most likely to be interested in his services have vacancies in roles he could play, and Leicester will be aware that they have a big chance to net a massive transfer fee. What happens with Mahrez – or with the money they receive for Mahrez – will probably shape the second half of Leicester’s season.
For years now Leicester have been more-or-less unchanged tactically and the success or failure of their methods has been largely down to the morale and motivation of their players, and what state their opposition is in relatively on the day. When the Foxes have been on-form and their opponents haven’t been at the top of their game, the cut-and-thrust of their play has been enough to secure victory. When there has been trouble in the dressing room, their problems have spilled over onto the pitch and the same style of play has become blunt, predictable and very easy to negate.
Leicester start in a narrow, compact 4-4-1-1 and largely let their opposition have the ball, allowing them to advance into forward positions and vacate territory behind the defence. Forcing midfield turnovers and playing fast balls into that empty space allows the rapid Vardy to burst in and thus the Foxes create good quality chances very easily, just when their opponents think they have everything under control.
If their opponents sit deep to neutralise Leicester’s counterattacking threat, they have the guile and technique of Mahrez to call on, as well as the accurate crossing of Marc Albrighton and the selfless, committed play of Shinji Okazaki. Their multipronged attack is a key reason why they’ve been able to recover after a difficult start to the season.
Leicester’s clinical finishing is a huge strength and Chelsea should be very wary of allowing them time and space to shoot. They’ve scored 34 goals this season vs 27.52 Expected Goals, and no other Premier League team has overperformed by so much this season, while only Watford can better Leicester’s 43% conversion rate of shots on target.
Besides their finishing they have a good tactical level and no player has any doubt whatsoever regarding his role and his responsibilities in the team. This means their tactics, which could appear too basic or too easy to counter, end up being very effective. The likes of Vardy and Mahrez, one suspects, wouldn’t thrive quite so much in a system that was less well defined.
As we’re seeing this season and as previously stated, the top six play on a different level to the other fourteen teams in the division and even though Leicester are the best of the rest, they’re still some way short of being able to come to Stamford Bridge with hopes of anything other than escaping defeat. Chelsea have a huge advantage in talent and that should show.
On a tactical level, their 4-4-1-1 matches up badly against Antonio Conte’s 3-5-2/3-3-3-1, which means Eden Hazard could find pockets of space to exploit very easily unless Leicester’s central midfielders have the game of their lives. Chelsea should always be wary of the ball over the top to Vardy, but looking at the spaces on paper, everything else plays into the Blues’ hands.
After a difficult Christmas period both sides have had a chance to rest players and we should expect familiar lineups to return to the field here.
Chelsea should win this by at least a couple of goals, but with Vardy on the shoulder of the last man at all times, Antonio Conte’s men can never be too careful. Getting the first goal will be crucial.