The introduction to last year's Leicester season preview reads:
It’s extremely uncharitable to take a look back at 2019-20 and declare it anything other than a success for Leicester. Yes, Champions League qualification looked likely for most of the season, and to miss out was ultimately a disappointment, but the trajectory and outcome were more than fine.
So, I guess it appears as though Leicester are destined to live out the same season over and over again, in some weird Edge of Tomorrow like fashion. Champions League qualification looked likely, they were disappointed to miss out, but the trajectory and 5th place outcome were more than fine, AND they took home an FA Cup for their troubles this time around. It’s the trajectory that counts and Leicester are certainly on the right track.
The Headline Numbers
Whilst on the surface Leicester's 5th place finish matched their 2019/20 placing, when you dig a little deeper there's actually been quite a bit of change. Firstly, the underlying numbers have taken a hit from the lofty heights they set in 2019/20 when they finished 4th for expected goal (xG) difference. Last season only Sheffield United dropped off more in this regard.
All of their overperformance came in attack. They conceded 46 goals from 46 xG, but up front scored 58 goals from 47 expected. Kelechi Iheanacho, James Maddison and Harvey Barnes ran especially hot, with Iheanacho's emergence as a reliable goalscorer in particular really helping to propel the Foxes into European contention, notching 12 goals from seven xG.
Iheanacho’s contribution was especially important given that Jamie Vardy had his first poor finishing season in four campaigns, flipping Iheanacho’s conversion rate by getting seven goals from 12 xG. Looking across the season as a whole, you can see the oh-so-difficult Christmas period that really hurt the underlying numbers, even if actual results around that period weren't so bad. Something that many teams struggled with in a particularly intense fixture schedule in 2020/21.
We get some interesting results when we break these xG numbers down further by looking at Leicester's xG difference during each game state.
Here you can see that Leicester are an exceptional team when they're winning, which is perhaps no surprise given the attacking talents they have to play in transition and Brendan Rodgers’ track record of setting teams up to play efficiently on the break.
The squad lends itself to this approach: Vardy is notoriously great in this phase of the game, Barnes is a fantastic ball carrier at pace, and then you have Maddison and Youri Tielemans who can play the high-value pass whilst having enough mobility to stay with the play. On the other hand, Leicester really struggle when losing. They don't have trouble moving the ball into the final third - they ranked 6th for deep progressions - but keeping the ball in-and-around the box has not been a strength of theirs as they rank 13th for deep completions (successful passes within 20 meters of goal).
A large factor in their struggles when behind is that their xG per shot drops from 0.13 to 0.08, meaning they either resort to lower-quality efforts on goal or they struggle to break down teams defending a lead. Their most common pass clusters tell a similar story of ball progression, but only up to the final third. They're also quite lopsided in the opposition half - a lot of play goes through Tielemans and subsequently Iheanacho, who's much more involved than his striker partner Vardy.
Let's dig deeper into whether those passes are providing value. Our new possession value model, On-Ball Value (OBV), rates the impact of each action on the pitch and estimates the positive or negative impact the action has on a team’s likelihood of scoring. The OBV Leicester generate across the pitch when they’re behind versus when they’re ahead is revealing:
That right-sided bias is showing through again and it becomes more prominent when they're chasing the game, but they still generate plenty of OBV in deeper areas down that right-hand side regardless of game state. In contrast, the left side is a bit of a black hole when Leicester are losing - hopefully Barnes can return to his best and resolve much of this - he clocked the 16th highest OBV per 90 last season after all, for players with >900 minutes played.
Where Leicester found it difficult to create high-value chances against their opponents when behind, their opponents did not find it as difficult to create high-value chances against them. When Leicester were pushing for equalisers, their xG per shot conceded rocketed up to 0.21--their opponent's shots in this game state had a 1-in-5 chance of being converted.
The evidence suggests that Leicester struggled to manage the threat of the counter when they were pushing to get back in the game. The xG trendline also shows their xG conceded has been creeping upwards, so what's going on at the back? One explanation might be Leicester's pressing, which was down quite a bit last season.
This is despite an ongoing uptick in defensive activity since Rodgers' arrival, so it seems unlikely this was a deliberate change in approach. Leicester averaged 168 pressures per 90 in 2019-20 compared to just 135 last season. Now a lot of this will be down to the crowded schedule, and we saw pressures drop on the whole across most leagues, but Leicester appear to have suffered more than most. Here's the defensive activity maps for both seasons:
The Foxes have developed a reputation for being shrewd operators in the transfer market, showing great patience to build the squad up again since the title-winning season. It can be difficult when squad building to balance future potential versus immediate strength, and they've executed particularly well to maintain a challenge for top four while simultaneously getting themselves into a position to continue targeting Europe for the next few years. Key players like Wilfred Ndidi, Iheanacho, Tielemans and Maddison will begin to hit their peak over the next few seasons, while Barnes, Wesley Fofana and James Justin have years ahead of them.
The squad was hit by some big injuries last season just as it was the season before, but it's a sign that they're operating from a solid internal process given they always have players ready to step in, whether from the academy or through recruitment.
That the forward line hasn’t needed major regeneration for a number of years is testament to Jamie Vardy’s longevity but, at 34, the time is finally getting close for him to hand the reigns over. Leicester are confident they’ve found his replacement in RB Salzburg forward Patson Daka, the big question is: is he any good?
Probably! Player evaluation can be tricky when they play for a team as dominant as Salzburg are in the Austrian Bundesliga, but his numbers certainly pop. That they still pop when he plays in the Champions League is an encouraging sign, albeit the sample size gets rough.
One thing to note is that the 22-year-old shows real maturity - his shot locations are excellent and he seems to have a good understanding of his own game. Much like Vardy, he plays on the last man, is great in transition, and understands how to use his pace without the ball at his feet. It might take some time for him to find his feet, but given how Iheanacho just reminded us all that player development is rarely a smooth upward trajectory, Daka should receive plenty of slack.
As for the other signings, it all looks very good - from the sensible in Ryan Bertrand and Jannik Vestergaard (assuming that deal gets over the line) to the downright exciting in Boubakary Soumaré.
You might be inclined to read the headline underlying numbers above and think Leicester could be in for a difficult season if they produce similar numbers to those of last season. It’s a possible outcome, but given the quality of the squad and manager, and the general outlier than last season was as a whole, it seems more likely that Leicester revert to a process that should see them knocking on the door of the Champions League places once again.
They’ve bolstered the squad with what look like top signings, and the return of Barnes should balance the attack better. As noted, we’ll need to watch out for how they perform when behind; if they continue to struggle, that could lead to dropped points that could cost them a place or two in the table. But, this team can play fantastic transition football and, with the current state of the modern game, you can go a loooong way playing great transition ball. All it takes is some better luck with injuries and one of last season's top four to have issues, and Leicester are in business.
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