Premier League Club Recap 2019/20: Leicester City

As the Premier League gears up for a return to normalcy, we equip you with an in-depth view of everything about Leicester City and their season so far.

Leicester City boast of the most famous fairytale story in modern football if not all time. Of course, we are talking about the 2015/16 season, where the club, led by Claudio Ranieri, toppled the biggest clubs in England to win the Premier League by a massive 10 points.

The ‘Big Six’ was in transition, and Leicester were one of the only clubs who seemed to really pull up their socks during that time. So much so, they managed to go all the way against all odds.

When we say all odds, we mean something incredibly close to the impossible. They were faced with odds of 5000/1 prior to the start of the season, and yet, it does not somehow encapsulate the magnitude of their achievement. You can achieve whatever you set your heart to and whatnot, you know?

Probably one of those time when football fans around the globe celebrated one club’s achievement. Except Tottenham Hotspur, of course. Although to be fair, they were never in contention, realistically speaking.

Imagine the payouts for people who tried their luck out on Leicester City winning the Premier League? (Picture Courtesy - AFP/Getty Images)
Imagine the payouts for people who tried their luck out on Leicester City winning the Premier League. (Picture Courtesy – AFP/Getty Images)

The Foxes are what you would call a modern-day great, even though they are still afar from being a club that challenges for the title regularly. They might not either, unless they transition from being a selling team to a club that can retain its best players and close the gap between themselves and the best in the country.

Something that has worked in favour for Leicester’s gradual rise is their spectacular recruitment model, which they adopted from league rivals Southampton; credit to their board and the late Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha.

The idea is to try to bring in young players in positions that they need immediate reinforcements in, or need a replacement in case they have to sell a starting player in said position. Case in point: buying Caglar Soyuncu in 2018 knowing that they’ll have to get rid of Harry Maguire within a year, and training him to take over the reins.

This season, under the watch of Brendan Rodgers, Leicester have taken the Premier League by storm yet again and are on course for another overarching finish. The Hard Tackle now takes an in-depth look at the club.

The Story So Far…

The East Midlands-based outfit sacked Claude Puel after a run of bad performances in the league in his second season in-charge and was replaced by ex-Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, who immediately made an impact and helped the club to a 9th place finish for a second season running. Rodgers was also able to reintegrate Jamie Vardy, who was left out by Puel because he did not fit in his system.

This season, the Irishman has taken the team several notches over what fans and pundits expected of them. Despite having an impressive starting lineup, they were predicted to be in the fight for a place outside the top six along with the likes of West Ham United, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Everton. However, they have been in a constant fight for a place in the top three, currently sitting in third, four points behind Manchester City, who have a game in hand.

Screenshot 2020-06-08 at 10.56.40 AM
Leicester City’s season so far. (Picture Courtesy – Transfermarkt)

Following their controversial 2-1 defeat at Anfield, Leicester went on an 11-game unbeaten run in all competitions, which included a 9-0 win(!) against Southampton, the joint-highest margin of victory in Premier League history. This brilliant run ended with an away trip to the Etihad in a 3-1 loss, which was followed by a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Liverpool.

Initially touted to be the only challengers to Jurgen Klopp’s inevitable Premier League victory, The Foxes stumbled in February, when they did not win a game the entire month. Despite that, they were able to grind out a 2-2 draw against Chelsea, thanks to a baller of a performance by Youri Tielemans, but by this point, the little hope they had of even challenging for the title was over.

At the moment, Leicester are in for a very real shout for a podium finish this season even though they have Chelsea hot on their trails. Meanwhile, a Bruno Fernandes-inspired Manchester United are just eight points adrift. With the title race essentially over, it will be interesting to see how the top four waterway unfolds in the coming weeks.

We all remember making fun of Deluded Brendan Rodgers because of how he overestimated(/s) his players. Well, that man-management has worked wonders for him through the last four seasons or so, making him one of the finest coaches in the Premier League right now and earning him respect from audiences over the globe because of his exhilarating style of football.

About the manager: Brendan Rodgers

Merson wants Arsenal to replace Unai Emery with Brendan Rodgers (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
The butt of all jokes sometime back, Rodgers is now a wanted man in England. (Picture Courtesy – Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Brendan Rodgers arrived at the King Power Stadium from Celtic FC midway through the 2018/19 campaign, a move which was heavily criticised by Celtic faithfuls, and quite fairly, too. Despite whatever fans think of him now, Rodgers’s time in the Scottish Premiership was defined more by the record-breaking, trophy-filled seasons and the swaggering, eye-catching performances.

The Irishman first rose to prominence with Swansea City, taking the team from a mid-table finish in the Championship to a mid-table finish in the Premier League in 2011/12, exceeding expectations by a fair lot.

This, however, was not his chef-d’œuvre. Rodgers left Swansea in the subsequent season for Liverpool and took his side, led by Luis Suarez, to a second-place finish, falling short off the title by the most painful of margins.

A less-than-convincing display in the subsequent season meant farewell for the 47-year-old, who had struggled after losing his best player to Barcelona in the summer. During the first eight matchdays, Liverpool sat 10th with five draws.

Not all bad for Rodgers, however, as he had signed an improved contract with Liverpool before the season kicked off. His exciting style of football meant it was not hard for him to find suitors, one of which came calling in the form of Celtic half-a-year after the sack.

Tactics & Style of Play

Rodgers’s sides are known to be gutsy, fluid and show a lot of character (Ahem!), but none of them have oozed the kind of swagger as we have seen from Leicester City. The Foxes like to play an attacking brand of football with the right mix of possession and counter-attacks.

Leicester have almost exclusively lined up in a 4-1-4-1 throughout the season or its variants like the 4-3-3, with Wilfred Ndidi playing as the anchor in midfield while Youri Tielemans and James Maddison act as the hybrid 8/10. This system works much better on the pitch as it sounds because both Maddison and Tielemans do a stellar defensive job while constantly trying to pave way for the forwards.

A modern-day Premier League great. (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
A modern-day Premier League great. (Picture Courtesy – Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)

Their setup often resembles something like a 4-1-3-1-1 when they lose the ball with the wingers Ayoze Perez and Harvey Barnes tucking close to Tielemans, as Leicester’s no. 10 stays upfront. This helps them heap on the pressure and crawfish the ball from the opposition before they can attack. Perez, who used to be deployed as a second-striker at Newcastle United, comes inside to aid Maddison and Vardy while Barnes stays relatively wide.

The attack is built from scratch and rests on the idea of patience while luring opponents out of position before releasing their move. Kasper Schmeichel, Johnny Evans and Caglar Soyuncu form the base of the defence and are all more than capable passers of the ball. The three can pass around the ball with the full-backs or Ndidi before chucking it to one of the advanced midfielders, who can then find Jamie Vardy.

Rodgers’s offence relies heavily on Vardy’s pace and impeccable off-the-ball movement. The Englishman bursts into the half-spaces with speed, which allows Leicester to progress the ball vertically or diagonally.

Leicester are also able to exploit Vardy’s skill and swiftness with the help of long balls sprayed forward by one of Ben Chilwell, Soyuncu, Tielemans and Maddison, but most principally, Schmeichel (6.3 long balls per game). The 33-year-old is adept enough to hold the ball to create space for other forwards before laying it off.

However, the reason for their success this term has been the stellar defensive tactics deployed by Rodgers and fulfilled by the team. They have conceded the third-lowest number of goals in the league after Liverpool and Sheffield United, and also have the third-highest goal difference. The grounds of this stem from hard-working individuals following the rules of ‘the man-oriented press’.

According to Understat, Leicester have had an xGA (expected goals against) of 37.62 through this season, but they have only conceded 28 goals, giving them a positive xGA of 9.62, a number bettered only by Newcastle United and Crystal Palace. Some of it boils down to the individual brilliance of Kasper Schmeichel, but it has mostly been a masterclass in defending.

A summary of Leicester's season with the help of xG and xGA. (Understat)
A summary of Leicester’s season with the help of xG and xGA. (Picture Courtesy – Understat)

This press starts with the forwards, who pin down the opposition back-line and shifts the player in possession. Leicester are quite aggressive with their pressing and like to tackle often to retrieve the ball. They lead the league in terms of tackles per game, with 19.6. However, only 10.8 of those result in a foul every game. Ricardo Pereira and Ndidi help Leicester lead in that statistic with 4.3 and 4 tackles per game, respectively.

The back four maintains its shape in possession, with Chilwell and Pereira providing a wider passing option. But, at the end of the day, both of them are offensive full-backs and have directly contributed to five goals each from open play. They also contribute over a key pass each every game, only topped by Tielemans and Maddison.

Their brilliant season so far is the outcome of a superb stir of persistent pressing, astute attacks and intelligent individuals, who are willing to stick to the tactics. Let us introduce you to the aforementioned blokes.

An introduction to the squad

Leicester City have just the right blend of youth and experience, which is evident from their average squad age of 25.2 among the players they have used this season. This makes them the eighth-youngest team in the Premier League. However, they might just be the most versatile team on paper.

Kaptain Kasper. (Photo courtesy - Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Kaptain Kasper. (Photo Courtesy – Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Jamie Vardy still leads the lines for the Foxes and has scored over 100 goals for them, but is one short of the century mark in terms of Premier League goals. However, he is the top scorer in the top-flight this season with 19 strikes to his name, two clear off Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in second.

He is no longer aided by Riyad Mahrez, now at Manchester City. But, the likes of academy product Harvey Barnes and new signing Ayoze Perez make up for Mahrez’s absence on the wings. Demarai Gray and Marc Albrighton act as deputies on the flanks. All four of these men are extremely different players and pose a different kind of threat to the opposition defence when in possession. Former Manchester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho completes Leicester’s primary attacking unit.

James Maddison, Youri Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi are the most-used midfield trio for Leicester. The Foxes bought Tielemans from AS  Monaco on a permanent transfer this summer for a club-record £40 million fee, and he has most certainly lived up to the price tag over the course of a season. Maddison is Leicester’s most creative player. The 23-year old has created 75 chances for his teammates, second only to the brilliant Kevin De Bruyne in the Premier League.

Dennis Praet is often in contention for a midfield spot as well, having signed from Sampdoria last summer. The Belgian, like his compatriot De Bruyne, is extremely versatile and can fit in anywhere for the English side.

Hamza Choudhury serves as the backup to Ndidi and is extremely similar to him in many ways. He took over the reins at the base of the midfield when the Nigerian was out injured. He might not have done a stellar job then, but he treated us to this beauty against Newcastle United, which remains his only goal for the club.

Rodgers’s first choice back four features Ricardo Pereira, Jonny Evans, Caglar Soyuncu and Ben Chilwell. Leicester were expected to struggle after the departure of Harry Maguire, but Soyuncu has taken over brilliantly with the help and mentorship of Evans. The Turk is arguably the best centre-back in the Premier League this season alongside Virgil van Dijk.

A 36-year-old Wes Morgan and a 34-year-old Christian Fuchs remain options from the bench, but have only played bit-part roles. James Justin and Daniel Amartey are also part of the defensive reinforcements.

Kasper Schmeichel is the only constant in defence from the 2015/16 title-winning campaign. The Dane has kept 10 clean-sheets this season, second to only Burnley’s Nick Pope (11). Schmeichel is also most often seen with the captain’s armband in the absence of Morgan and makes for one of the most vocal captains in the league.

Marquee Player: Wilfred Ndidi

Jamie Vardy, James Maddison, Caglar Soyuncu and maybe even Youri Tielemans are some of the most popular names that remind you of Leicester City. Vardy leads the goal-scoring charge, Maddison is the prime creator and Soyuncu is earning reputation from around the continent for his impressive display in defence. And maybe rightly so.

However, one player that has stayed constant for the former time Premier League champions is Wilfred Ndidi, who is the Foxes’ primary defensive midfielder. He has been silently cleaning up all the mess for Leicester and often remains uncredited. He is a sweeper who moves as high up as his team’s final third to regain possession to prevent Leicester from being caught on the counter.

Wilfred Ndidi, as of January 31st, in the 2019/20 PL season. (Picture Courtesy – Statsbomb)

The Nigerian has a 99 percentile when it comes to Pressure Regains, Tackles, and Interceptions in the league, which means he is bettered by no more than one player in each department. He is also responsible for 0.70 turnovers per game, one of the highest in the leagues.

Ndidi has improved himself since last season, adapting to Rodgers’s possession-based system. He has taken his passing rate from 80% to 84% while also enhancing his already superb defensive work. He now averages 4 tackles per game, compared to 3.8 last season, while upgrading his interceptions per game from 2.2 to 2.7.

Leicester failed to win four games on the bounce in February in the Premier League, and Ndidi was not present as a starter in any of them. That is testament to his importance for the club.

These are all just numbers, but it is truly a delight to watch the 23-year-old in action game after game, especially since he maintains such a high level of fitness. The more you watch him, the more you realise that Ndidi has more depth to his game than you might have realised, and because of his brilliant performances since the start of the season, Ndidi deserves to be awarded the Premier League’s Young Player of the Year award.

Wilfred Ndidi was one of Leicester's star performers last season, making 138-tackles. (Photo courtesy: AFP/Getty)
The best in the league in his position. (Photo Courtesy – AFP/Getty Images)

One for the future: James Justin

22-year-old James Justin is a product of Leicester City’s remarkable recruitment system, signing from Luton Town in the summer before the campaign started. He was also part of the goalscorers as the Foxes travelled to Luton in the EFL Cup, recording a 4-0 victory.

Justin is primarily right-footed, but has played on either wing as a full-back since his youth career. However, these are not all the positions he can play. Justin is extremely versatile and can also function as a winger, wide midfielder and, if needed, as a central midfielder because of his tremendous composure on the ball.

He provided the assist to James Maddison for Leicester’s second goal in their 2-0 win over Watford in December while playing on the left wing, after coming on for Harvey Barnes.

The Englishman has remarkable speed and stamina, which makes him an able deputy for Ricardo Pereira, who boasts of a similar skill-set. However, unlike the Portuguese, Justin is a rather average defender, and needs to improve his work-rate, positioning and tackling among other things.

That said, he is a two-time winner of Luton Town’s Player of the Season award, and there is no way that he cannot prove his capabilities in the English top-tier. A player the top clubs in the country should look out for and someone who is one for the future for Leicester.

Writer’s Column

Leicester City are reaching similar heights as the incredible 2015/16 campaign, which has brought them a whole new set of fans who would love for them to be in Europe’s biggest competition next season. As of now, though, Leicester are stuck in the chaotic race for a top four finish with the other teams as inconsistent as themselves if not more.

The good news, however, is that Leicester have only three matches left to play against ‘Big Six’ opposition and could go all the way to earn a podium finish when the season ends.

Leicester are my favourite team to watch in the Premier League, and are like a mix of Liverpool and Manchester City. My advice would be – keep an eye out on the Foxes, on Jamie Vardy, on Wilfred Ndidi and on James Maddison. They will entertain you like no other team in the country.

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