Leicester City – the club that has made a habit of confounding the pundits. When they were relegation candidates towards the end of 2014-15, they launched a fierce rearguard that ensured that they stayed up. When they were the least likely club in the Premier League to win the title, they went ahead and won it. And when earlier this season, experts were predicting at least a mid-table finish for the Champions, they landed themselves in a soup by game week 25 – one point above the drop zone, having lost five consecutive league games and not having scored a single league goal in six matches.
As a result, the owners sacked the title winning manager Claudio Ranieri. When the Italian was sacked in February, two reactions were common across the media – outrage over how the venerable coach had been treated and gloom over the increasingly likely possibility that Leicester would become the first champions since 1938 to be relegated in the immediately next season.
With the pundits predicting doom for the team, and with good reason, many other clubs would indeed have folded into submission. But Leicester just loves to confound the pundits. Under the interim manager Craig Shakespeare, the club has launched into another rearguard. Not only have the champions won their last three league games, they have won each of them by scoring three goals. In between these league wins, they also defeated Sevilla, the Europa League champions in the Champions League and ensured that they are the only English team alive in the top European competition.
Suddenly the champions have started playing as the experts have expected them to since the start of the season. Riyad Mahrez is again threading those intelligent passes through and Jamie Vardy is again knocking the goals in reminding the fans of last year’s fairytale. In this post, I take a look at some of the team stats for the champions and see what has gone right for them over the last three games, as compared to the 25 matches prior to these.
All stats are per 90 minutes and for the 2016-17 (current) season. Across all the charts below, light blue is the stat for the first 25 matches of the season and dark blue is the number for the last three league matches.
Most analyses of Leicester’s last year title run talk about Kante’s importance to the side last year. He was instrumental in Leicester disrupting opponents’ play and getting the ball back faster, allowing them to mount swift attack after attack. That feature of Leicester’s game has been distinctly absent in this season with Kante’s move to Chelsea.
However, we can see that over the last three games, Leicester are trying to get the ball back faster, as compared to the 25 matches under Ranieri. They have been more successful in duels in these three games. They have also put in more tackles and won more of them over these three games, than earlier in the season. As a result, their ball recovery numbers are also higher. In fact, over the last three matches, Leicester have recovered the ball from opponents 9 times more per 90 minutes, as compared to the number of times they recovered it earlier in the season.
So, Leicester have again begun to attack the ball and recover it as much as they used to last season. However, are they creating meaningful chances out of these ball recoveries?
Indeed, in the last three games, Leicester have created 1.5 more shot assists and 1.8 more big chances. Although they have put in 3 crosses fewer, they have threaded 1 through ball more per 90 minutes. This perhaps indicates a change in the attack direction from the wings to the middle but it also seems to be more effective.
It may be more effective in getting the ball to the attacking players for a shot but is there any change in the strikers’ fortune in the last three matches?
As noted above, the goals scored per 90 minutes has jumped to 3 under Shakespeare from 1 under Ranieri. But all that improved service also means that Leicester get to shoot more. They have taken three more shots per 90 minutes and they have also hit 2.6 more shots on target. More importantly, almost all the improvement in shots has come from inside the box, increasing the expected goals for the side. The improved service is indeed getting the ball to the attackers in more favorable positions from where they are able to take more accurate shots.
In addition to the goals they have scored, they have also managed to restrict rampant sides like Liverpool and Sevilla in scoring. How have they achieved that?
Most of the defensive stats are very similar between the Ranieri era and the three matches under Shakespeare. However, it is in goalkeeping that we see a difference. In fact, Leicester’s progress in Champions League was secured by a penalty save from Schmeichel. In the league as well, the goal keeping has improved.
Over the last three games, Leicester has conceded 1.3 goals per 90 minutes, which is better compared to 1.7 under Ranieri. Schmeichel has been able to save one shot more per 90 minutes and the shot saves from inside the box have increased by 1.5. Perhaps more importantly, he has been able to latch on to 1.7 more crosses per 90 minutes.
So, have Leicester only improved everywhere? No. In the midfield their stats have receded. Their passing accuracy has declined and their number of turnovers have increased. But perhaps it is just a reflection of the style that Shakespeare is getting his side to play – more pressing, increasingly direct, and through the middle. More like the Leicester from last year.
While this tale of the Foxes is by no means over and still can end in tragedy but the initial few chapters that Shakespeare’s side has put together are as interesting as any tale spun by the Bard who shares the interim manager’s