Prior to the start of the 2019/20 Premier League season, there was a lot of chatter about the 4 teams that made the top half of the table last season that weren’t the perennial big 6, and why there was a window of opportunity for them to break into the top-6 this season.
The 4 clubs were Wolverhampton Wanderers, Everton, Leicester City and West Ham United, with the promoted side finishing 9 points below 6th place Manchester United, who endured a season that was labelled as one of their worst in recent memory.
One would believe that with some additions in the transfer window for the likes Manchester United, Arsenal and Spurs, they would surely not carry their dismal run towards the end of last season into this season but they have and with 12 gameweeks out of the way, it is the last side to have broken the big 6’s dominance who are sitting in 2nd place. The club is Leicester City and the last time they went on a run like this, they went on to win the Premier League title.
There hasn’t been a more remarkable tale of beating the odds in any sport of the kind that took place in the 2015/16 season. As celebrated as that achievement was, it was a time to reflect for English football, as they were no longer making inroads in European competitions.
There were multiple factors that led to that miraculous league title. Leicester went on a fantastic run in the previous season to beat relegation. There was what we call a ‘a new manager bounce’ and some inspired signings in the manner Riyad Mahrez; who despite being signed in the previous season from Le Havre, didn’t make much of an impact till the end of that season, and the likes of Shinji Okazaki and N’golo Kante.
Kante and Mahrez have since gone on to win Premier League titles with Chelsea and Manchester City respectively and have also been successful with their international sides with the former being World Cup winner and the latter inspiring his nation to African cup of nations glory in the summer. The quality of that Leicester side isn’t in doubt today but the narrative was different at the time and rightfully so.
With a relegation battle in the following season, the much-maligned departure of Claudio Ranieri, star players wanting to leave, the displeasure of the Foxes faithful with regards to the style of football under Claude Puel and the tragic circumstances of the death of their beloved owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the Foxes have had to endure some difficult times in between these fantastic periods.
The one constant, however, was the success in the recruitment department over these 3 seasons and the Leicester faithful believed that the players they had on board were capable of playing a more expansive brand of football than what was on display under Claude Puel, Some sections of the football community might have thought the sense of entitlement around the King Power had blown through the roof since their title win. The board obliged to their wishes and Puel was sacked on 24th February 2019, following a 4-1 defeat at home to Crystal Palace.
The man to take his place was Northern Irish manager, Brendan Rodgers, who had redeemed his reputation during his time in Scotland with Celtic after making a name for himself in English football with Swansea and Liverpool.
Rodgers’ time at Liverpool was a mixed-bag. He very nearly won them that elusive Premier League title in the 2013/14 season but with the departure of Luis Suarez, a declining Steven Gerrard and some questionable recruitment in the following seasons, he was sacked early in the 2015/16 season.
Known for favouring his football sides to control games with a lot of possession, Rodgers has used the same philosophy at the King Power to great effect. There is a case to be made that the side is over performing in the attacking third as expected goals has them only scoring 15.66 goals (understat). They’ve scored 29, which means that they’ve scored 13 goals more than they were expected to and a lot of credit must be given to their talisman Jamie Vardy, who has reputation for his amazing conversion rate.
While this Leicester side has changed in personnel since that title win, the two pillars at each end that hold this side together are still there in Jamie Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel. The Dane has had a considerable change in his distribution, making an average of 26.1 passes per game (whoscored)
Vardy is known for making those runs in behind and there was a genuine concern that this system might not suit someone who likes to receive the ball as quickly as possible. As suggested earlier, it’ll be interesting to note if this is sustainable but the Foxes won’t care as momentum is a very important factor in football.
Another hallmark of this side has been the full-backs. Carrying on from last season, Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell have been outstanding once again. Chilwell is the dribbler and Pereira has been outstanding defensively with 4.5 tackles and 1.7 interceptions per game while also contributing to the attack.
Speaking of tackles and interceptions, Wilfried Ndidi has been an absolute monster in the middle of the park with 5.4 tackles and 3.3 interceptions per game. Besides the full-backs, Rodgers has other creative options in James Maddison and Youri Tielemans.
Maddison was initially seen as a number 10, who’d often play with his back to goal and set up opportunities for the forward but he’s taken up a deeper role under Rodgers along with Tielemans, who play as advanced 8s to get the ball rolling, spread play and create opportunities while also getting into goalscoring positions.
Ndidi isn’t known for his passing and this could be one of the reasons for this change as Ndidi would find it difficult to play the vertical passes that Maddison would like to receive in an ideal scenario.
The Foxes also have a young Harvey Barnes, who has all the attributes to become a top player on that left inside channel. He’s two-footed, has an eye for goal, can pick a pass, pacey and the energy to press the opposition.
What’s been observed in recent weeks is the use of Ayoze Perez as a spare man on the right side. This is a tactic we’ve often seen used by Arsenal side in the early 2000s, where most of their attacks were initiated from the left-hand side, which would drag the opposition backline to one side and leave it open for a quick switch of play.
We’ve seen this pattern emerge under Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli as well, where Jose Maria Callejon would often be at the end of attacking patterns.
The Foxes also have a very reliable old head in Jonny Evans, who was a 3-time Premier League champion with Manchester United and one of the surprise packages of the season in Turkish centre-back Çağlar Söyüncü.
The Turk has received rave reviews as much was made about Harry Maguire’s departure in the summer. The Turkish centre-back isn’t as dominant aerially and doesn’t have the long-ball distribution of Maguire but is a very capable dribbler in tight spaces like Maguire. He’s also different to Maguire in the sense that he likes to put his foot in, which has been a cause of concern at times but hasn’t led to any dire consequences so far.
Leicester’s lack of European competitions will be a big factor in how they continue to progress as an injury to Ndidi or Vardy would be a massive blow as they’re the two players that have allowed them to be so efficient this season.
The Foxes seem to have hit the perfect balance. They have multiple creative outlets, some outstanding ball-winners, full-backs who can help in transition, a midfield and defence that can retain possession, multiple outlets for scoring goals, some former Premier League winners and a mix of youth and experience in their starting 11 and a manager who has realized that potential to its maximum so far.
Written by Suwaid Fazal
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