The Season So Far
There’s no way to write about Leicester City’s season without beginning with the tragic death of owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. The helicopter crash outside the King Power Stadium at the end of October was bigger than anything that could possibly happen in football (as if that needs to be spelled out) and, given the horrific circumstances of Srivaddhanaprabha’s passing and his talismanic stature at the club and in the entire city of Leicester, it’s a miracle that management and players are managing to fulfil their professional commitments now. Right now, it would be harsh to be anything other than admirable of Leicester for simply getting through.
That view may not be widely held, however. The bookies currently have Claude Puel as the second most likely Premier League manager to leave his job, and pressure on the Frenchman has been high since last season, when he was supposedly nearly sent packing after delivering what looked like a respectable ninth-place finish. While outsiders may wonder what Puel has done to deserve a firing, few close to the club would be surprised if Puel was indeed dismissed.
Reports of a difficult, brusque management style have followed Puel since his sacking by Southampton, and while results are generally fine and Leicester’s Premier League status is more than assured, it’s easy to see why owners would get rid when neither his style of play nor his personality do much to get players’ and fans’ pulses racing. It’s easy to feel as though Leicester are existing rather than living. As the likes of Stoke and West Brom found out last season, however, sometimes it’s better the devil you know.
It bears repeating that this “devil” is actually pretty good, and Leicester’s season hasn’t been all doom and gloom. Jamie Vardy has looked as sharp and as dangerous as ever, James Maddison has made a huge impression since signing from Norwich City, and Harry Maguire’s reputation as an elite defender in the making keeps on growing. Wilfred Ndidi has quietly impressed in the middle, while Ben Chilwell has made his England debut and Kelechi Iheanacho has, at times, looked like the all-round striker he was meant to be at Manchester City. It’s far from all bad.
The Season Ahead
That said, Leicester will have to improve their goal threat and ease their reliance on Vardy and Maddison if they are to avoid serious problems in the second half of their campaign. Their stats are perfectly fine on the whole – more detail to follow – but they simply don’t make enough clear cut chances to turn their undoubted quality into points. Minor details are costing the Foxes and it would be an outright lie to say that a major overhaul is needed. In the short-term, it’s just a case of tightening things up in the attacking third and maximising their considerable talents.
With Puel seemingly on the brink of being sacked, however, and a tremendously difficult Christmas run around the corner, it could be that Leicester lose patience and find themselves beginning 2019 with a new manager in the dugout. Sam Allardyce, Brendan Rodgers and Sean Dyche have all been linked, but none of them have anything in common in terms of style and their methods wouldn’t suit the Foxes’ squad at all, so if we’re being realistic we should say that it will be a left-field appointment.
Puel has long-favoured a very conventional, functional and arguably sound 4-2-3-1 system. His teams are always high on defensive stability and historically they’ve always been good enough at generating attacking output. Things can get predictable and prosaic at times, yes, but Leicester’s low goals number this season is less down to a defensive playing style and more due to the poor quality of their attacking wide players and their overreliance on Maddison in the number ten role.
With a sound defensive setup in place and a well-organised midfield press backing it up, Puel’s biggest issue is his inability to find a correct balance between his side’s attacking threat and midfield control. If the more attacking and productive Kelechi Iheanacho plays up front alongside Vardy, Leicester effectively play with nine men unless they’re in possession and sending the ball forward into the attacking third. If they play without Iheanacho and leave Vardy as the lone striker, they gain an extra body in midfield but burden Vardy and Maddison as their sole goal threat and creative influence respectively.
Against Chelsea and Sarriball, it would be a surprise if Puel played with two out-and-out strikers, so we should expect Leicester to again be well-balanced in the defensive phase but lacking punch when they do manage to get the ball.
First and foremost Leicester are good defensively: they have a hard-working midfield, a settled defence and an organised medium press. Their defensive actions figures put them at the upper end of midtable across the board and they’re especially good at winning aerial duels. All of this leaves them very well protected and leads to a low number of shots against. Only five teams have allowed fewer shots on their goal this season.
In attack, they know how to make their favoured methods of attack work: they’ve made the most scoring chances from corners in the Premier League and the sixth most from crosses in general, while only Everton have had more headed efforts on goal. As ever, Jamie Vardy’s pace and composure make him tremendously dangerous on the counter, while
Maddison’s all-round ability means he’s always a threat. The crossing of Ben Chilwell is also a useful asset.
They may make a very healthy amount of shooting chances, but the reality is that they’re not making good chances. They may have made the most chances from corners, but they’ve only actually scored one goal from a corner all season. They may be second in the league at registering headed shots on goal, but only three teams have actually scored fewer headed goals. They’re prioritising the wrong kinds of chances.
One reason for this is the heavy dependence on Maddison to provide for his teammates. Marc Albrighton, Demarai Gray and Rachid Ghezzal have shown glimpses of their abilities, but they’ve done nothing consistently. Iheanacho would offer far more than any of them, but he doesn’t do enough defensively or in midfield possession phases to justify a regular starting place. Unless Vardy (0.74 xG per 90) is running on to a ball over the top or Maddison (0.21 xG per 90) is in a position to produce something special, Leicester simply don’t look like scoring.
The lack of attacking quality in advanced midfield zones also leads to a high frequency of turnovers, which in turn leaves Leicester vulnerable to counter-counters and sometimes stops them getting upfield for more than brief spells. This is a problem especially against teams boasting the on-ball quality of Chelsea. If Leicester are starved of the ball for long periods and find themselves incapable of holding it on the few occasions that they have the chance to, they will lose.
Ben Chilwell is a doubt with a knee injury but Puel has no other new injury worries. Their League Cup tie against Manchester City went the distance on Tuesday night, but the line-up was rotated and their familiar Premier League XI should be available and selected. [EDIT: since publishing, key midfielder Wilfred Ndidi has been confirmed as an injury doubt. Should he indeed be absent, Leicester are going to be basically screwed.]
As for Chelsea, Ross Barkley should start as Mateo Kovačić must surely be tired. Olivier Giroud completed the Blues’ League Cup win over Bournemouth, so Eden Hazard will presumably play as the striker again.
Having written that Leicester are actually pretty good and that Puel getting sacked would be unfair, it’s only natural that we say Chelsea will win this one at a canter.