Leicester City’s remarkable rise from relegation battle survivors to Premier League champions in the space of 12 months has gone down as one of sport’s greatest ever achievements.
But things are a bit different this time around; Leicester’s campaign has been a tale of two tournaments. Many would argue that the Foxes have reverted to type in the Premier League. Claudio Ranieri’s side have won just three of their 13 games and sit in 14th place. In fact, Leicester have won more Champions League games this term. They became the first British team to win their first three games and the first team to keep a clean sheet in their first four games.
But Saturday is a Premier League fixture. So what’s so different about Leicester in the league this season?
Ranieri still favours the 4-4-2 setup. It’s relatively simple in theory and proved to be highly effective last season, outsmarting some of the more ‘philosophical’ managers in the league.
The basic premise of the team is built around high energy, starting from the striker position. Typically favouring the smaller pairing of Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki, the strikers press the opposition defenders high in defence and use their pace and movement to exploit space in attack. While the setup is defined as a 4-4-2, right winger Riyad Mahrez pushes up high to support the strike force in attack, leaving a midfield three and forming more of a 4-3-3. The two central midfielders tend to sit deep but are encouraged to press the ball, while left winger Marc Albrighton stays wide and looks to pass from deep. Both full-backs are encouraged to attack, with cover provided by the central midfielders. It’s very much a throwback style of play.
The main aim of Leicester’s play is to get the ball from A to C (A being defence, C being attack) as quickly as possible, through a combination of high energy pressing and long passes. Leicester simply haven’t shown this high energy this season, though.
Leicester’s success was built on a mean and solid defence, and while they’re conceding goals at an alarming rate, they still remain combative in the air, winning 18.6 aerial duels per game.
And while Danny Drinkwater is missing the presence of N’Golo Kante alongside him, he at least remains determined in the middle of the park, winning 4.1 tackles per game, the second highest amount in the league.
Positives have been very few and far between for Leicester in the league this season, but October’s 3-1 win against Crystal Palace showed that they can at least reach the level of last season’s performances on a good day.
Much of the magic from 2015-16 has long disappeared though...
N’Golo Kante is gone. It’s becoming more and more clear how important Kante was to Leicester as the weeks go by. The Frenchman led the league in tackles and interceptions last season, and his non-stop, relentless energetic performances made it seem like Leicester had 12 men on the pitch. As a team, Leicester led the league in tackles and interceptions in 2015-16, with 22.9 and 21.6 respectively.
Their numbers this time around are nowhere near, making just 16.5 tackles and 14.5 interceptions per game. For a team whose success was based around winning the ball and turning defence into attack, these numbers are nowhere near good enough. Neither the injury prone Nampalys Mendy, Daniel Amartey or Andy King have been able to fill the Kante void.
Passing has never been an area in which Leicester excel. Their shockingly low pass accuracy of 72% is actually higher than last season’s, but their long pass accuracy, where they enjoyed great success last season, is lower this time around. As a result, Leicester are shooting 25% less this season. They’re simply not getting the ball forward enough, or at least as effectively. Last season, they spent the third least amount of time in the middle of the pitch. This time around, they’re spending the third most time in the middle - very un-Leicester like.
Conceding goals has also been one of their biggest issues - they have conceded 22 after 13 games this season, compared to just 36 for the whole of 2015/16. But they aren’t letting the opposition shoot more this season - the numbers are virtually identical. They are, however, blocking a lot less shots than they were last season.
Key Player - Riyad Mahrez
The 2015-16 PFA Players’ and Fans’ Player of the Year contributed to 43% of Leicester’s goals last season, sealing his own personal rise from obscurity. Like nearly all of Leicester’s side, the Algerian has struggled to reach those dizzying heights, but he has still registered seven goals and two assists in 19 games, finding particular success in the Champions League.
Despite his (relative) struggles, Mahrez leads Leicester in shots per game (2.1), key passes (1.3), dribbles (2.5) and times fouled (1.6). He may view his match-up on Saturday - against Patrick van Aanholt - as a great opportunity to boost his numbers and show why he was so successful last season.
Teams have had success stopping Mahrez by surrounding him and reducing the space in which he can play. Sunderland would be wise to follow suit this weekend.