Whisper it but Leicester City aren’t a good attacking side…

Date published: Thursday 17th October 2019 10:20

The general consensus on Leicester City is that Brendan Rodgers has put together a squad that’s 1) young 2) exciting 3) a genuine candidate for the top four. It’s one of the reasons this season is so f***ing brilliant. All of this may be true, but the stats might surprise you, particularly if you watched their 5-0 demolition of Newcastle.

Let’s get numerical and see exactly what Leicester are doing right (and wrong).

 

Attack
As we know, total shots tend to indicate the strength of a team’s attack. The top three in the league right now are Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool. Where are Leicester City? At 13th, between Brighton and Norwich.

Okay, but the Foxes are tied for fourth in total goals, which probably means they’re getting pretty good shots. So naturally we go to xG, and we find that Leicester are…19th. That’s right: both Statsbomb and Understat have them next to last in the league in xG, ahead only of Newcastle. If we tweak it a bit, and drop penalties from the equation, they jump all the way to 18th, ahead of Crystal Palace as well.

Fourth in goals and 18th in xG is a gigantic discrepancy, which among other things suggests that Leicester get a high percentage of their shots on target. Going to that number, we find they’ve made the keeper work with 30.1% of their shots. The league average is 33.9%. They’re actually below average in hitting the target.

So how are they scoring? The answer is shooting percentage, or the percentage of their shots on target that actually go in. If we discount the one own goal, Leicester have scored 13 times from 28 shots on target. That’s 46.4%. That’s also impossible to sustain. Mo Salah, in his miracle year, was at 47.8%, and no one has a team of 2017/18 Mo Salahs. Last year the Man City attack had a shooting percentage of 35%. Liverpool did a bit better, at 37.6%. Arsenal topped the lot with a super-high 40.6%. This is a stat that tends to regress very strongly to the mean (at the moment 31.7%), so we can be sure Leicester’s numbers will drop.

When we look at the team’s individual scorers, we can see the problem more clearly. One man dominates the stats, Jamie Vardy with five goals, well ahead of James Maddison, Wilfred Ndidi and Ricardo Pereira with two each. But Vardy’s five goals have come from only seven shots on target, an absurd shooting percentage of 71.4%. Once again, Mo Salah’s big year was 47.8%. Going to conversion rate, Vardy’s five goals have come from only 12 unblocked shots, a similarly ridiculous 41.7%. The magnificent Mo only hit 28.9%.

As for the others, Maddison shoots as soon as he wakes up in the morning, but his two goals have come from only four shots on target. Ndidi and Pereira? They each have two goals from…two shots on target. By my calculation, that’s exactly 100%. We’re bordering on madness here.

So something has to change if Leicester are going to continue scoring at a reasonable rate. Most obviously, they’re going to have to start creating more and better shot opportunities, something to take them above 18th in xG. The stats show they’re tied for seventh in deep completions, which are passes completed within 20 yards of goal, excluding crosses. They’re getting the ball into attacking areas reasonably well, but not creating much with it.

Which brings us to James Maddison, one of the best number 10s around. Except you wouldn’t know it from the stats. Maddison has an open-play xA of 0.10 per 90 minutes. That’s behind such creative luminaries as Isaac Hayden (0.19), Scott McTominay (0.13), Fabinho (0.11), and – brace yourself – Fred (0.11).

To coin a phrase, WTF? Well, the F is that for the most part Maddison isn’t playing as a number 10 at all. He’s been asked to play on the wing and move centrally where possible in order to create. This sort of thing can work: David Silva did it for Man City under Manuel Pellegrini and Xherdan Shaqiri managed occasionally at Stoke for Mark Hughes. But at the moment it just isn’t happening. If you have the time, go to Whoscored and take a look at Maddison’s heatmaps. The only one that looks like a playmaker’s is against Sheffield United, and it’s no coincidence that match saw him create easily his best chance of the season, on a counter-attack for Vardy.

A logical way to get Maddison more involved would be to play him in his natural position. A 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 could put him directly behind the striker, with Youri Tielemans pairing with Ndidi in central midfield. You’d have to play two wingers, but the squad has Harvey Barnes, Ayoze Perez, Marc Albrighton and Demarai Gray (if he’s still alive) to choose from. None of those are likely to tear up the league, but with Maddison doing the providing, they can all produce.

In any case, Leicester are right now the furthest thing from an attacking juggernaut. Newcastle might disagree, but that brings Steve Bruce into the equation, and we don’t want to go there. (P.S. Maddison didn’t play in that match.)

 

Defence
This is where we really want to go. Because while Leicester’s attacking numbers are poor, their defensive numbers are very good. They’ve allowed a meagre seven goals in eight games; only Liverpool have conceded fewer. In total shots allowed they rank sixth, in xGA anywhere from third to fifth. In opponent’s deep completions allowed, they’re sixth. They’re just a good defensive side.

How are they doing it? First, they harass the opposition. Their PPDA (passes per defensive action) is an outstanding 7.03, the best in the league, ahead of such notable pressing sides as Manchester City, Liverpool and Southampton. But unlike those three, Leicester are not a high-pressing team: they rank only 12th in possessions won in the final third. They tend to wait until the opposition gets in or near their half, and then make life difficult.

The strong defence is also reflected in some basic raw numbers. The Foxes lead the league in tackles, and it’s not close. In blocked passes they’re on top as well. In interceptions they’re a healthy fourth. These are particularly impressive stats, given that Leicester are a relatively high-possession side, keeping the ball 53.9 percent of the time.

The main man is the criminally underpublicised Wilfred Ndidi. How underpublicised? A website not a million miles from here left him off the list of the ten best central midfielders last season. Idrissa Gana took second place, and although his entry noted that only Ndidi had more combined tackles and interceptions, there was no room for the Nigerian.

This year there will be. As that same website noted recently, Ndidi leads the league in both tackles (joint top with teammate Pereira) and interceptions. And stats aside, just watch him play. He covers an amazing amount of ground, and his reading of the game is excellent, notably improved over previous seasons. Can we give Rodgers credit for that? Let’s do it anyway. Back to stats: Ndidi’s tackles/90, interceptions/90 and blocked passes/90 are at all-time personal highs. If N’Golo Kanté weren’t around, he’d be the absolute no-questions-asked gold standard.

If we go to the back four, one man has definitely received his share of headlines, and that’s Çağlar Söyüncü, otherwise known as The Replacement for Harry Maguire. I confess I’m not part of the cheering section yet. He has more pace than just about any centre-half in the league, but he’s only average in the air (65.1% on aerial duels) and his marking and judgment are erratic. Salah made him look ordinary several times in the match at Anfield last week. Hopefully he’ll develop over the course of the season, the way Ndidi has from last year.

Söyüncü’s partner is Jonny Evans, who doesn’t need to develop. He’s been providing quality work without much fuss for several years now. The (obligatory mention) former Manchester United man is a proverbial cool head, whose biggest problem is staying fit. So far he’s played every minute of every game, so fingers crossed for more. If he’s in the line-up, the back line will always be well organised.

As for the full-backs, Pereira is the star: his tackles/90 are easily his highest ever, second in the league among full-backs to the one and only Aaron Wan-Bisskaka. Last year his defending was fairly erratic, but here too Rodgers has done his work. On the other side, Ben Chilwell’s tackle numbers are much less impressive, and frankly he’s not in Pereira’s class as a defender. But his tackle percentage is at an all-time personal high, and if Ndidi and Pereira are improving, there’s every chance England’s number 3 will too.

We shouldn’t forget Kasper Schmeichel, who’s had both good years and bad years in recent memory. This year looks like one of the good ones. Right now he’s third in the league in save percentage, behind only Hugo Lloris and Dean Henderson of Sheffield United. Taking all the xG stuff into account, he’s still third among shot-stoppers. Couple that with the team’s overall strong defensive play, and the Foxes just don’t concede that often.

So that’s Leicester City. Young? No argument there. Exciting? You decide: most people don’t find defence as exciting as attack. Top four? Well, let’s be sceptical for the moment. The Foxes just aren’t a very good attacking side, and Rodgers will have to change his approach in order to make them so. But in a year where half the Big Six look seriously deficient, a strong defence, plus a little bit more oomph up front, make a realistic recipe for the Champions League.

Peter Goldstein

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