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Leicester City’s Disappearing Act of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy: An Example of Regression to the Mean

Last season, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy were two of the most exciting and prised properties in the Premiership. It was considered a tossup over which one was the most coveted. Vardy was named the Premier League Player of the Season and the FWA Player of the Year while Mahrez won the PFA Player of the Year Award as well as Leicester City’s Player of the Season.

No surprise that during the summer transfer window Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy were also two of the most sought after players in the EPL. Arsenal alone made embarrassing, failing bids for both players: one for over £20 Million to trigger Vardy’s contractual release clause with the Foxes and another estimated, less publicised £35 Million bid for Mahrez.

Mahrez simply rejected Arsenal because the Algerian did not anticipate he would receive the playing time he knew he would have if he stayed with Leicester City. Arsenal’s bid for Vardy came about the same time the forward was leaving to join the England squad on international duty so the EPL’s leading goal scorer took his time mulling over his options. Vardy finally decided that his more direct, run-on scoring skills would not be a good fit for the Gunners clearly more intricate and demanding one-two touch approach—very possibly one of his more adroit life choices.

Segue to today. How are things going now for last year’s EPL champs? If you focus solely on the Foxes performance in their UEFA competitions this season, things look bright. But regular league play is a disappointment. A big disappointment. Currently, Leicester City is mired in 14th place. Their hopes of successfully defending their Premiership crown, rapidly fading. And maybe it’s to be expected after the meteoric, astonishing performance of last year. In fact, the statistical term “regression to the mean” suggests that any extreme performance will be followed by a more average performance. Possibly that can be at least be a partial explanation, can’t it?

Of course there are other, more specific explanations for the Leicester’s drop-off in success this season. One is tied to the sale of their talisman midfielder N’Golo Kante to Chelsea for £32 million during the transfer window. Losing a player of Kante’s contributions who lead the team in tackles and passing numbers—both in quantity and accuracy—must have an impact on the organisation. And while it may not be the sole reason for the overall decline, it is certainly a contributing consideration for this drop-off in performance.

Central to the teams bottom half table position is that the team’s star players are suffering serious downturns in their individual performances. Both Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy have been experiencing very poor seasons. Let’s not mince words here. It’s been a disastrous year for both star performers. Here’s what I mean.

Defenses are painfully aware now that Vardy’s primary skill is limited to the direct, over the top, run on behind the defender success he had last season. But now, defenders are not pushing up as much and lying deeper anticipating Vardy’s runs. No more long balls getting over the top. He only has scored two goals in 11 matches. Jamie’s primary food source has been largely cut off. He has not even started in all matches.

Riyad’s magic on the ball is well appreciated now. He is rarely marked with a single defender. It is common to see him pinched by two midfielders or one midfielder and a wing back pressing him in an attempted attack or cutting off his passing lanes. Last year’s gaudy numbers of 17 goals and 11 assists have shriveled to a single goal (from the spot) and one assist! In league play he is essentially missing in action.

Here, in greater detail, is a comparison made over the first 11 matches of the current season with the previous Leicester City 2015-2016 EPL Championship season using metrics that attempt to use apples-to-apples types of comparisons, e.g., instead of comparing total shots that would result in a large disparity in contrasting a full season of measures with a fraction of a season, normalised metrics such as minutes between shot attempts will be used.

Shots per Goal

During the championship season of 2015-2016, Jamie Vardy required 4.8 shots per goal. That number has increased to 7.o shots per goal during the current 2016-2017 season. Riyad Mahrez’ numbers, however have experienced a more severe drop-off. The 5.1 shots per goals needed in the previous season has skyrocket to 22.0 shots during the current season.


Minutes Between Shot Attempts

There has also been a decline in the frequency of both players attempting shots on goal. Mahrez’ numbers have increased only slightly from the previous season when he averaged 35.3 minutes between attempts to about 10 percent longer this season at 38.8 minutes. However, Jamie Vardy has almost doubled the amount of time he now takes before taking a shot on goal, jumping from 27.2 minutes in 2015-2016 to 57.2 minutes in 2016-2017—over a 100% increase. Of course this can be attributed to a number of reasons including a decline in service, tighter marking, a decrease in work rate, or combinations of these parameters.


Shot Accuracy (% Shots on Goal)

Again, both key players are experiencing declining performance. Jamie Vardy shot accuracy has dropped from 57% to 44% and Mahrez and dropped from 64% to 43% over the past to campaigns. Although Vardy’s 13% decline is not, by itself, particularly dramatic, it becomes so in combination with the 21% drop in Mahrez’ performance.


Minutes per Chance Created

Another key metric for attacking players is their skills at creating scoring opportunities for teammates. Jamie Vardy’s 68.1 minutes between each chance he created during the 2015-2016 season ballooned to 100.1 minutes. Riyad Mahrez’ impressive 45.3 minutes between chances created has increased by about 33% to 61.0 minutes.


Minutes Between Fouls Suffered

Fouls suffered by a player is often an indicator of the amount of attention a player is receiving from defenders typically based on upon the scoring threat he imposes. A decline in that metric might be a sign that this risk is viewed as declining or not as imperative. In examining this parameter, Mahrez experiences about 27% fewer fouls per match during the current season than last—not a dramatic change, however, Vardy change is dramatic: he has been fouled one time in over 800 minutes of play! Further, the percent of fouls won has changed fallen as well. Mahrez has always been rather adroit at winning the ball has gone down in 2016-2017 to 64% over the first 11 games from about 81% in 2015-2016. Vardy, on the other hand has customarily fouled far often and lost possession rather than suffered fouls. However, this year he is winning only 14% of the fouls compared to last year’s 41%. In comparing the minutes suffered between fouls, which is one important indicator of gaining or retaining possession of the ball.


Minutes Between Tackles Won
Although neither are defenders, a broader array of performance is expected from attack positions in modern football—even strikers are expected to “get back.” In looking at the change between the two seasons in measuring the number of tackles won by these players, there is, again, a noticeable tailoff, especially in Mahrez’ workrate. Vardy takes 20% more time between winning a tackle while Mahrez, who was one of the most active attacking midfielders in this metric last season, now requires 120% more time between winning tackles as the previous campaign.


% Successful Take Ons

A key for successful offensive players is the ability to taken and occupy defenders and help create opportunities for teammates to run to open space and receive passes. Mahrez, especially, was among the leading dribblers in the entire league. However, again, both have experienced significant drop-offs in this metric. Mahrez has gone from his stellar 56.5% of the past season to 41.9% currently; Vardy has dropped from last season’s 42.9% to 36.4%.



Seven key parameters for two of the most exciting players in the Premiership—both on the list of 23 candidates nominated for the FIFA player of the year award—show a very troubling, consistent, fall in performance from last year’s stellar contributions. There is no mystery why the Foxes are performing so poorly in the Premiership this year. Possibly, the UEFA Champions League competitions have also taken a higher priority to the EPL season matches to add to the downturn, but whatever the reasons, the 2016-2017 Premier League season has not been a good one.

Still, seventy percent of the season remain. And, possibly, it is a bit premature to write off Leicester as serious title contenders and to assume that things cannot be turned around. However, it is the parallel consistency of underperformance of their two stars—Vardy and Mahrez—that suggests that the likelihood of a happy ending for Leicester City fans is not the wisest of bets.


Joel Oberstone
Joel Oberstonehttp://www.twitter.com/JoelOberstone
Joel Is an avid football and modern jazz fanatic. He sees the connection between the improvisational elements of each ... the connection between Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi as well as Miles Davis and Bill Evans. He wrote a weekly column for the Wall Street Journal Sports Europe between 2010 and 2011 using a demystified style of sports analytics to explain the details of football performance. Joel is a professor of Business Analytics at the University of San Francisco, School of Management. He is also an ardent fan of writers Mick Dennis, Barney Ronay, and Jonathan Wilson and the never-ending word wizardry of former Newcastle United midfielder Ray Hudson in his La Liga match calls and commentary.
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