The Season So Far
With clubs like Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal in various states of disarray, and with Leicester looking like the sort of exciting, fast, creative side those superclubs should be, in the summer there was good reason to think that Leicester could make a serious assault on the top six this season. Those expectations have been met: not only have the big boys faltered — spectacularly — the Foxes have been excellent. They sit third, and while they’ve been lucky, they’ve earned their luck. Champions League qualification is now in their hands.
There are so many reasons to admire this team. Jamie Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel have entered the twilight of their careers, but they keep getting better and better. Vardy is the Premier League’s top scorer with 17 goals in 22 games and Schmeichel has now well and truly stepped out of his father’s enormous shadow. Brendan Rodgers has harnessed their quality and their experience and built the team around the solid foundations they offer.
While no other starters remain from Leicester’s 2015-16 Premier League-winning squad, the club has undoubtedly upgraded across the board: this is now a fast, attacking young team of technical ball-players, each of whom would fetch several times the fees paid for them. Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell are arguably the best full-backs in the league bar Liverpool’s; James Maddison has had a wonderful season; Wilfred Ndidi is stating a case to be listed among the best defensive midfielders in the world.
The highlight of the campaign so far was the thumping 9-0 win away to Southampton — the biggest away win in Premier League history and equalling Manchester United’s 1994-95 win over Ipswich as the biggest win full stop. That was a night on which everything seemed to click, but in reality much of the season has felt like that.
The Season Ahead
In a way, the quality of their play and their position in the table means the pressure is now on. Having sold Riyad Mahrez two years ago and Harry Maguire last year, Leicester have shown that they are there to be bullied into selling players should one of the big boys want them. The Foxes currently have several — James Maddison, Ricardo Pereira, Wilfred Ndidi, Youri Tielemans, Ben Chilwell — who will surely be in high demand and in no mood to stay should Leicester fall short of Champions League qualification.
And fall short they might: the Foxes come into this game suddenly in rotten form and with the worst still to come. They’ve just lost to Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup, missing out on a final at Wembley; they’ve lost two of their last three Premier League games, to Southampton and Burnley of all teams; they haven’t kept a league clean sheet since the first of January. Their next three games are against Chelsea, Wolves and Manchester City — if their bad form continues, they will fall out of the top four and then they will face an uphill struggle to get back in, and several members of their team will start to prepare to agitate for summer moves, fully aware that the club will eventually cave in.
Brendan Rodgers usually sets up to play a flexible, containing, counter-attacking 4-3-3 against bigger sides which enables his side to frustrate the opposition while also gaming them into opening themselves up for direct thrusts, with Vardy’s pace in behind the key attacking weapon. Vardy’s success in this type of situation is key to his success as a top-level striker: time and again we’ve seen Leicester penned in, only for a clearance to turn into a through-ball and for Vardy to race onto the ball and fire past the keeper.
The centre will be congested and Leicester will aim to win the ball back quickly via Ndidi, or else send the Blues’ advances out wide and wait for them to cross towards the very capable Jonny Evans and Cagyar Söyüncü. When Leicester come forward, we should expect fast attacks, sending Vardy through one-on-one. If they can’t skewer Chelsea in two or three passes, Pereira or Chilwell will overlap on the flanks and fizz balls across the face of the goal, or Maddison will slalom his way towards goal, playing quick one-twos and leaving players for dead.
As long as the evergreen Vardy is leading the line, Leicester’s most potent weapon will be their counter-attacking. No team has scored more counter-attacking goals this season or had more chances on the break and it’s a simple tactic that few teams can do anything to stop. Chelsea’s centre-backs are admittedly fast, but once Vardy is in, there’s simply no catching him.
It’s worth highlighting the good work Brendan Rodgers has done in setting up a flexible but effective press: only Southampton have made more tackles this season or blocked more passes; only four teams have made more interceptions; only five teams have won more offsides; only four teams have made fewer fouls. Ricardo Pereira and Wilfred Ndidi are ranked first and second for number of tackles in the Premier League this season, while Ndidi is also second for interceptions made. As a result, only four teams have allowed fewer shots on their goal and only two have conceded fewer goals. That can only be a result of seriously good coaching.
The caveat to their success so far this season has been their monstrous overperformance in all aspects of Expected Goals statistics, which suggests they’ve been getting very lucky so far and that a crashing fall to Earth should surely be around the corner — if it’s not already happening.
According to Understat’s Expected Goals, their xG figure is 40.3 but their actual goals total is 52; their xGA is 31.27 but their actual goals against total is 24; their Expected Points total of 39.21 would have them in 5th, but they have 48 points and remain in 3rd. Either they’ve got several of the best and most underrated players in the world performing at Messi-like levels, or they’ve been getting the rub of the green and that simply can’t last.
The next few games and the rest of the season in general will show us just how good Leicester really are.
Jamie Vardy will surely come back from a glute injury. The rest of the team picks itself, unless Rodgers decides to change system or spring a surprise.
Chelsea should be able to name a full-strength XI.
With Leicester capable of the awesome but looking like running out of steam, and Chelsea the very definition of Jekyll and Hyde right now, this is impossible to call. It’s an enormous game for both sides and neither can really afford to lose. 4-4?