‘Absolute pig of a game but WHO CARES. Leicester are 5 points clear. 8 games to go, folks.’
Gary Lineker’s tweet summed up Leicester’s performance in their 1-0 win over Newcastle on Monday night. The Foxes were far from their best at the King Power Stadium, but did just enough to re-establish their five-point lead at the Premier League’s summit on Monday night. Some say it’s the mark of champions, with Leicester rightly installed as title favourites once more.
Indeed, as we approach the final stretch of the season, Leicester provided yet another reminder of exactly how efficient they can be when the onus is on countering the opposition. Claudio Ranieri has set his side up to sit back and hit opponents on the break, which is clearly an effective route to goal. While they may not swagger to their first Premier League crown in a manner befitting Arsenal’s Invincible season or Chelsea’s 2010 triumph – when they netted a record 103 league goals in a single campaign – in English football’s current climate, Leicester’s surprise title pursuit is commendable to say the least.
The current crop under Ranieri simply do what is required of them in order to, for want of a better phrase, toil their way to victory. Only West Brom (42.4%) and Sunderland (43.2%) are averaging less possession than Leicester (44.7%) in the Premier League this season. With the way the team is set out, they are built to soak up opposition pressure and hit teams on the break, reinforcing their statistically calculated WhoScored.com strength of ‘counter attack’’, with the Foxes netting more counter-attacking goals (4) than any other Premier League team this term.
Ranieri certainly has at his disposal the players to play a more expansive, possession-based game, but with the club top of the table, there’s no need to fix a plan that isn’t broken. With the approach to soak up pressure, the players in question need to remain extremely disciplined in their respective positions, with summer arrival N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater providing the ideal foundations to build upon in the middle of the park.
The pair complement one another perfectly, with Kante allowed to press forward and apply pressure higher up the pitch. Should the opposition bypass Kante, Drinkwater is more than capable of easing the pressure on the defence, having won possession in the midfield third more times (146) than any other Premier League player this season. With Drinkwater sitting deeper, he’s given the space to spread the play to the wings or attempt balls over the top for speedy attackers Jamie Vardy or Shinji Okazaki, two strikers whose game is based around hanging on the shoulder of the last defender.
Only West Brom (21.7%) and Watford (21.1%) have played a higher proportion of their passes long than Leicester (20.5%) in England’s top tier this term, with Drinkwater averaging the most accurate long balls per game (4.1) of all Leicester outfielders this season. It’s for this reason why Leicester averaging such low possession, with Drinkwater at greater risk of sacrificing the ball, though that is no major concern given how regimented Ranieri’s side is set up.
As Leicester see so little of the ball, it’s little wonder they average so few passes per game (349.9), the third lowest in the league. Meanwhile an average of 13.3 shots per game ranks lower than title contenders Tottenham (17.1), Arsenal (15.1) and Manchester City (17), reinforcing just how ruthlessly efficient Leicester are. In a season full of inconsistencies with teams struggling to string a run of wins together, the Foxes are clearly bucking the trend. No team has netted more league goals than Leicester (53), so it comes as no real shock they boast the best conversion rate (13%) in the Premier League this season.
It’s a stark contrast to the aforementioned Chelsea side that secured glory in 2010 under Carlo Ancelotti, who averaged over seven shots per game more (21.9) than Ranieri’s Leicester, that figure more than any other team that season. The Chelsea team averaged more possession (56.9%) and had more passes per game (496.1) than the Premier League’s current table toppers – their approach was clearly significantly different to Leicester’s.
This Leicester side is edging closer to the Premier League title in a fashion not often associated with the league’s victors, though one has to applaud their efforts for what is a remarkable season, considering that exactly one year ago, the Foxes footed the table. A primarily counter-attacking approach comes with its risks, but Leicester’s top performers are carrying out Ranieri’s strict instructions and the team are evidently benefitting from remaining compact before breaking forward at lightening speed to catch opponents unawares.
It may be an easy approach to read, but Leicester have become so attuned to this specific style that it’s a gameplan they’ve mastered, with opponents clearly unable to limit the influence of Riyad Mahrez, Vardy, Kante et al. It may not be easy on the eye, but as Leicester have shown, it’s certainly effective.
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings. You can follow all the scores, statistics , live player and team ratings with their new free-to-download app.