Leicester have had a weird existence as a Premier League side over the past 4 seasons. They were facing certain relegation for large parts of 2014–15 until they pulled off the great escape, parlayed that into the most shocking title victory in modern English football history, and then finished 12th and 9th in consecutive seasons, with murmurs going on last season in particular about the style of play not being to the fans liking. In a vacuum, had you told Leicester fans in August 2014 that in 2018 they would be looked upon as a mid-table club, they would’ve gladly taken that. Of course, we aren't in a vacuum and, for better or worse, the 2016 title changed things for the club. Without the glories that came from that season, 2017–18 would’ve been much more palatable season than it turned out to be.
On the surface, Leicester seem to be heading for another mid-table finish. They lost their best attacking player in Riyad Mahrez after multiple transfer requests and even a mini-strike after the January window, but their summer signings offer promise and could cushion the blow of Mahrez’s departure. There's still some talent left on the squad from previous years, but it's a squad that's continuing to undergo a transition from the highs of 2016.
Last season was a odd one for Leicester. Claude Puel clearly tried to steer the club into more of a possession based system compared to how they had played during previous seasons. No longer would they solely be dependent on creating scoring chances from blistering counter attacks, but rather they would have the capacity to create longer sequences of possession that ended in shots. It seemed like there were two dependable ways that Leicester could build something interesting from the back. Harry Maguire provided worth because of his adventurous ball carrying as a center back. He would dribble into midfield areas, draw players to him, and then pass it onto an open teammate. If that didn’t work, Leicester would use Mahrez as almost another central midfielder, to compensate for some of the passing deficiencies and creativity elsewhere in the squad. He was shifty on the ball and had the passing acumen to get the ball to teammates in dangerous positions. Having Mahrez in this position gave Leicester a greater opportunity to create quick hitting plays that scrambled the opposition defense.
Overall there were some growing pains, as Leicester were in the bottom 10 in shots created from open play, and the bottom five in cross completion percentag which is a problem since they were also top five in percentage of penalty box entries coming from crosses. In general, Leicester’s crossing came from quite static situations where they were pumping it into the box without much movement before hand. Wide players were consistently isolated against a defender and swinging crosses into the box for the likes of Jamie Vardy to get on the end of. Being a heavy usage crossing side who can’t actually connect on crosses is a recipe for disaster in open play.
The one saving grace for Leicester in attack was that they got a lot of mileage out of their corner kick routines. Most of them were just small alterations to a single central plan of having one man within the six yard box to cause some commotion for the opposing goalkeeper. No team created more expected goals from set pieces than Leicester, so it’ll be interesting to see whether they rank even in the top 5 once again this season. Maybe they could even incorporate some of the pet plays that England drew up for the likes of Harry Maguire during the World Cup to maintain their strong set piece play.
Without further reinforcements, it’s hard to see how Leicester’s overall attack improves on what they did last season, and it could frankly become worst as they no longer have the luxury of having Mahrez. The best case scenario is that another season under Puel helps with continuity, added reinforcements soften the blow of losing Mahrez and players like Demarai Gray and Kelechi Ihenacho develop to help round out the attacking corps. It’s a bet that could come good, and one that Leicester desperately need to.
It’s hard to find something that Leicester were good at last season on the defensive side. At just over 13 shots a game, they conceded more shots than the league average. That would be fine if this were a Burnley situation, where the team was willingly giving up territory in order to force opponents to take bad shots. It wasn't. Leicester were around average in quality per shot conceded. In addition, they were also average in deep completions allowed per game. The technical term for this statistical profile is, a whole lot of meh. And sure, that's better than being a raging tire fire, but it's still nothing to write home about.
Leicester defended in a passive 4–4–2 shape. They didn’t put too much pressure on the ball from the back line, but do try and press further up the field. Vardy would hound opposing center backs, supported by pressure from the midfielders to not allow the opposition to turn and play forward. When it worked, Leicester would deny middle penetration with their man-marking scheme and allow the opposition to circulate the ball across the backline, eventually forcing the ball back to the keeper to go long.
When it didn’t work, and more times than not it didn’t, there wasn’t much resistance once the opposition got into advantageous areas. Just by stringing together a few passes teams could my Leicester’s shape look disorganized.
One of the other problems that Leicester had was that once a turnover happened, they didn’t have the structure in place to put out any potential fires. Leicester were 6th worst in shots conceded within 20 seconds of an incomplete pass or dribble. Leicester didn’t tend to counterpress much after losing the ball in the opposition half, which would be fine if they remained in something resembling a compact shape, but they were all over the place once a turnover occurred and teams were able to take advantage of it to create shooting opportunities.
If you wanted to take a glass half full approach, the place to look is Puel's 2016-17 Southampton side, which were one of the best defensive sides from open play. That team was able to function well defensively while still pressuring opponents at a higher intensity than what we saw from Leicester this past season. While Leicester don’t have someone on the level of Virgil Van Dijk at the back, perhaps with another season of Puel at the helm they improve on the margins defensively and go from an uninspiring defensive side to a decent one.
Here are two true things about Leicester’s recruitment since coming to the Premier League in 2014:
- They pulled off one of the better transfers you’ll find this decade in N’Golo Kante
- Before this summer, their recruitment outside signing Kante was all over the place.
For proof of how disorganized Leicester’s transfers have been, just look at the glut of forwards that they still have on the roster: Ahmed Musa, Jamie Vardy, Kelechi Ihenacho, Shinji Okazaki, Islam Slimani, and Leonardo Ulloa. The glut of forwards that Leicester have accumulated has blocked Ihenacho from having a bigger role on the squad, which hurts his development and on a selfish level, it denies people like myself who have wondered how Ihenacho would fare if he played 2000+ minutes in a season. He’s been an analytics darling going back to his days at Manchester City, and his transfer to Leicester was intriguing from the standpoint of just how much could his bonkers numbers translate under a heavier minutes burden.
With all that belly aching out of the way, Leicester’s summer business has looked quite sound. Johnny Evans isn’t the world’s greatest CB, but at £3.5 million for three years, it’s hard to quibble too hard with the price. Though he is 30 years old, he plays in perhaps the position most forgiving to the aging process and should help bolster Leicester’s CB rotation. Danny Ward at £12.5 million is a bet at the goalkeeper position that I’m not sure will work out, but maybe it does and at a reasonable cost there are worse mistakes to make. The bigger fanfare comes from the acquisition of James Maddison and Ricardo Pereira, two players with the potential to contribute big things very soon.
Maddison was one of the best players in the Championship in 2017–18. He offers Leicester a type of player that they haven’t had over the past few years, a shifty playmaking central midfielder who is comfortable breaking the lines of opposition with his passing along with the potential to contribute over 15 goals if he plays a 2500 minute season. Ricardo Pereira has been one of the better fullbacks in European football, someone who frankly could’ve easily been signed at one of the big six clubs and started for them right away. He was arguably the best fullback in France during his time at Nice and he continued his solid play in Portugal. Both Maddison and Pereira are genuine coups for a Leicester recruitment department that's had a pretty spotty record over the past few years. Some of the excitement over Leicester’s transfer recruitment this summer gets shoved aside because of the departure of Riyad Mahrez, but that was a long time coming and the club should’ve been prepared to ease the blow by now, especially considering that they got a lot of money from Manchester City.
Leicester may very well end up being the best club outside of England's top six despite losing Mahrez. Their summer acquisitions shows a level of foresight that had been missing by them for a while, and there’s still some intriguing pieces left in the current squad. If Maddison and Pereira hit the ground running and become two of the better players in the PL at their respective positions, that could allow them to restructure their attack in open play in a positive manner. On the other hand, it’s also conceivable that Leicester go from having an average attack to one that is below average through a decline in set piece play along while not fixing their open play problems. If the defense continues to be a whole pile of meh, now you’re going from a team that was just above even in expected goals difference to one that would be below it, and that decline if it also ran into bad variance through conversion rates could lead to trouble.
All things being equal, Leicester will be probably be fine and it'd be hard to envision them being dragged into any potential relegation scrap. That’s not necessarily the most exciting prognosis. It would be nice to see Leicester use the fact that they're unlikely to be relegated to take more calculated risks like acquiring more young talents to try and reduce the gap between themselves and the top six, but having another season as one of the seven to 10 best teams in the league and further consolidating your status as a mid-tier PL side is something of note.
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