Since Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016, they have endured stale years. Battling relegation initially and then shifting to mid-table obscurity under Claude Puel, the Foxes weren’t much of a threat to the upper echelons.
That all changed in February when Brendan Rodgers was appointed as manager, and this season they are currently Liverpool’s closest challengers in the Premier League.
Playing in Rodgers’ trademark style: speed, intensity and solidity, Leicester have become one of the most entertaining outfits in Europe and qualification for the Champions League next season is a real possibility.
There are several reasons behind their incredible form. Leicester have lost just five times in 22 league matches since Rodgers took over at the end of February. After a full pre-season, this campaign, Leicester are the second-highest goalscorers in the league despite a net spend of just under £17 million.
Leicester average the fourth-highest average possession percentage statistics in the league – just behind Liverpool and Chelsea – with 57.7 percent and that comfort has often been shown with their ease in playing out from the back.
Wilfred Ndidi has been on an inspired run. The 22-year-old signed for the club in 2017 as a replacement for N’Golo Kante, but it is this season he has shone brightest.
In Rodgers’ 4-1-4-1, the Nigerian screens the defence, boasting the best statistics for most tackles in the league with 60 – 17 clear of Wolves’ Joao Moutinho, the next best midfielder – while also leading the way for most interceptions with 36.
Ndidi has proven to be the best tackler in the league, with his 5.5 tackles per 90 putting him well clear. Although Leicester’s dynamite duo of Jamie Vardy and James Maddison have deservedly taken much of the plaudits, without Ndidi, Leicester wouldn’t be sat in second.
With Ndidi’s skillset, the likes of Ricardo Pereira, Ben Chilwell and Maddison would not have been able to bring out their attacking exploits with ease were it not for his protection in midfield.
His partners behind him deserve praise, too. After the sale of Harry Maguire to Manchester United, Turkey’s Caglar Soyuncu has risen to the challenge and has grown into a fine defender. The 23-year-old has been a rock, with his 2.3 tackles-per-game and 1.5 interceptions-per-game making him one of the most productive centre-halves in England’s top flight.
Add to that his 29 headed clearances and Rodgers can count himself fortunate a ready-made Maguire replacement was already at the club when he joined.
Supporting Soyuncu are impressive full-backs Chilwell and Pereira, two complementary players on either side of the pitch.
Pereira, like Soyuncu, has been a massive contributor defensively, ranking behind Ndidi as the player with the most tackles in the league (54) and joint with Manchester United’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Chilwell, meanwhile, is one behind Trent Alexander-Arnold (four) as the full-back with the most assists.
He has been brilliant going forward and is vital to Leicester’s attacking strategy – more on that later.
It’s not just in the numbers where Leicester’s impressive defensive displays can be identified. The team are quick to press, eager to win the ball back immediately after losing it and their overall structure when facing an attack makes them difficult to break down.
From the moment the ball enters an offensive play, they aggressively challenge the player and make it difficult for the opposition to create attacking chances.
When out of possession, Leicester often fall into a compact 4-5-1 formation with two tightly-held defensive lines.
Spaces are covered well, and it is here that Ndidi is at his most effective, engaging in defensive actions to do what he is best at. It’s no surprise Leicester have conceded just eight times all season, the fewest in the league.
Up in attack, wide players like Harvey Barnes and Ayoze Perez are well supported by their full-backs. Barnes and Perez do well to stretch the opposition and the full-backs exploit the area available.
This has also aided creative players like Maddison and Youri Tielemans, who are at their best when they have time and space to weave their magic.
When attacking the trio of the full-back, midfielder and winger on either flank create (Pereira, Maddison and Perez on the right; Chilwell, Tielemans and Barnes on the left) pressurising triangles and that was seen best in the 9-0 demolition of Southampton, where Leicester were given a greater advantage after the Saints went down to 10 men.
It’s also worth noting how involved Maddison is in the general play. His season’s heatmap shows warm spots around the centre-circle and in his own half, showing his willingness to drop deeper and initiate attacks from his own area. Tielemans, his midfield partner, is just about exactly the opposite.
Despite the new names coming and starring in the Premier League, it’s still one from the 2016 title-winning squad that is making the headlines. Vardy’s 11 goals this season makes him the league’s top-scorer, with the 32-year-old averaging a goal every 98 minutes.
Amazingly, Vardy has had just 251 touches of the ball throughout the season, a record lower than that of his goalkeeper and fellow title-winner, Kasper Schmeichel, showing the Englishman’s consistency and lethal-nature in front of goal.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him win the Golden Boot at the end of the season. He has been an ever-present figure in the side and despite his age has kept his place and impressed many.
Vardy was an ignored figure under Puel, but under Rodgers’ rapid style of play, emphasis on width and stretching the opposition back-line, the forward’s directness is thriving.
No player in the Premier League has had a bigger contribution to their team’s goals than Vardy (38 percent). Even in Europe, only Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski (55 percent) and Lazio’s Ciro Immobile (50 percent) can outdo the Leicester man’s record.
Perhaps one of the few concerns for this team is the fact that five members – Vardy, Soyuncu, Schmeichel, Pereira and Jonny Evans – have played every minute of the season so far and with the League Cup semi-finals as well as the FA Cup to come, this could be a problem. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of positives for this team to focus on.
The Northern Irishman has had some fine successes over the years. He nearly led Liverpool to their first league title in 24 years back in 2014, only to be denied right at the death, while at Celtic, he won two domestic trebles and would undoubtedly have added a third had he not left midway through the previous season.
This came after leading Swansea City to the Premier League for the first time earlier in the decade, and he could well start the next decade with another fine achievement by taking Leicester back to the Champions League and adding another feather to his cap.
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