Leicester City and their trip to the Kamikaze Zone
Imagine your standard online game on FIFA. It starts out with the two players feeling each other out but at some point, it just degenerates into an end to end contest more reminiscent a basketball game than anything else. It can end up the footballing equivalent of taking an acid trip and more than anything, after the game ends you almost want to forget about it as much as you want to bask in how wild it was.
Leicester City resemble that FIFA match. In many ways, Leicester City also resemble the stereotypical ethos of the English Premier League: a quick athletic club that will concede just as much as they will convert. At their current pace, Leicester City could end up with a season that features 79 goals for and 63 conceded. That is unheard of. The closest comparables I could find for teams finishing a season with at least 60 goals scored and 50 goals conceded in the PL since 1999-2000 are:
- 1999-2000 Newcastle (finished 11th)
- 2001-02 Newcastle (finished 4th)
- 2007-08 Tottenham(finished 11th)
- 2013-14 Liverpool (Finished 2nd)
I scoured through 16 completed seasons of English football and I could only find four teams that completed this feat. Where the four teams finished probably doesn't matter too much considering the rarity of the event though I do enjoy the fact that the swashbuckling Liverpool side that probably choked away a title were one of the four teams that fit the criteria.
The rarity of the teams that fit the 60/50 criteria is pretty fitting because Leicester are a rare team even by PL ethos standards. It's not rare for a team to play primarily on the counter- Crystal Palace for example- and counter attacking football in general has seen a rise in recent seasons. But to the degree of which Leicester play with pace is astonishing. For reference I checked Michael Caley's Premier League's advance stats page and going into last weekend's games, Leicester ranked 2nd in shots coming from counter attacking moves and tied for 5th last in conceding shots of the same nature. In a similar nature according to Mark Thompson, Leicester rank 1st in the amount of "attacks" per game this year on both ends. In comparison to the likes of Manchester United and West Brom whose games have often resembled paint drying, watching Leicester have a unique and thrilling quality.
Last season Leicester played directly, but not to this degree. Thanks to info provided by DeepXG, Leicester going into the most recent week of games were playing at the highest pace in the PL and in Europe, they ranked 4th in pace. The three teams in front of them? Villareal in 3rd, SV Darmstadt in 2nd and...
It's Caen! Yes, the same Caen that if you follow me on Twitter will know that I espouse the virtues of many of times. It's probably one of the more niche comparisons you'll ever see with a PL team but in many ways, the trajectory of both Caen and Leicester mirror each other to a scary degree. Both teams looked like relegation candidates midway last season and both got out of the relegation zone (albeit Leicester had the more remarkable escapes between the two). Last season both teams played fast with Caen ranking 7th in pace in Europe and Leicester ranking 15th but it wasn't of the 99th percentile. This time around, both teams have cranked it up and are arguably the most direct teams in Europe. They're appointment viewing TV and they revel in how against the grain they play.
Even looking at the construction of both teams makes the comparison very apt. Both have a speedy striker that wrecks terror on defensive lines. Both have classy playmakers. Hell, N'Golo Kante played in the high tempo system from Caen last season so coming into this Leicester team was a seamless transition. Both have defenses that have a bend but don't break vibe, though Leicester's has been worse than Caen's. And to top it off, both teams are better than last year's version of themselves by a decent margin (albeit I would argue Caen relative to Ligue 1 have been more sustainably impressive than Leicester in the PL but we'll get to that).
The thing that makes Leicester so interesting is that they're an improved version of themselves this season. Whether using Caley's expected goal data or other versions (like the one's on Statsbomb provided by Paul Riley), Leicester grade as an slightly above average team. Caley's data has Leicester City as a 2.6 xGD club while Riley's data has Leicester in the 0.5 range, a bit closer to average. That's a big improvement seeing as Leicester had an overall -10 xGD last season. Leicester's current PDO of 105.6 symbolizes that there has been an element of luck to their season so far and if West Ham has taught us anything, it's that what goes up will probably come back down to normalcy.
Leicester aren't as good as their position and conversations about them finishing in the top 4 or even the top 6 need to be taken with a McDonald's Big Mac worth of salt. We've seen four teams in the last 16 seasons of English break the 60/50 club and it's a crap shoot where they finish if they make it to the esteemed club. Having said all that, I quite like the construction of Leicester. Riyad Mahrez is the latest French player to take the PL by storm (and with added variety, he came from Ligue 2), Kante has been a hand in glove fit for being able to transition from a defensive action to a counter attack. Jamie Vardy is following the succession plan of Grant Holt to Rickie Lambert to Charlie Austin in terms of English players from lower leagues who have killer seasons in the PL for small clubs with reasonably sustainable shooting numbers. When he's played, Shinji Okazaki has functioned very well as a support striker for Vardy and even Marc Albrighton is having a solid season. Also I will always root for Claudio Ranieiri because rooting against him is like rooting against your grandpa who makes you pizza when you do well.
This season Leicester have been one of the best attractions in football and very much like Caen, Leicester have found a way to make their gimmick of turning football matches into basketball games more sustainable. Their underlying numbers are decent, which is a huge step up from the calamity numbers they posted last year. 3rd place is not a true indicator of their talent level and in post match interviews, you still hear Ranieri talking about the magical 40 point target for safety. Even when Leicester likely regress, the cushion they've built with their start leaves them a world away from relegation. There's a genuine question about just how long can a team play total counter attacking football over an entire season to the degree in which Leicester are playing but who knows, if they keep posting slightly above average xG and SoT ratios, a top 8 finish might just be in the cards.