It has been an unpredictable start to the Premier League season, even if the very top of the table looks similar to this time last year. Liverpool top the pile once more – in spite of conceding the second most goals in the division – while their former manager, Brendan Rodgers, is in charge of the club in hot pursuit.
Leicester City spent most of the autumn in second place last season and looked likely to finish in the top four before ultimately missing out on a Champions League place after a disappointing end to the campaign. Injuries affected them badly but, when they finished fifth and had to settle for the Europa League, there was also the suspicion that Leicester may have regressed towards the mean having overachieved earlier in the season.
If Leicester were punching above their weight last year, what they have achieved so far this season is even more impressive. They are second in the table despite a raft of injuries. The club’s top five performers from last season – based on our statistical ratings – have missed some or all of this season through injury. Meanwhile, their sixth best performer last season, Ben Chilwell, is now playing for Chelsea after his £50m move.
Leicester have played seven matches in the league so far and Rodgers has only been able to pick those six standout players from last season – Ricardo Pereira, Caglar Soyuncu, Wilfred Ndidi, James Maddison and Jamie Vardy and Chilwell – 12 times in total.
Despite their various injuries, Leicester have won all four of their away games. Having already beaten West Brom 3-0 and Manchester City 5-2, they continued the trend of winning away by three clear goals on Monday night, when they beat Leeds 4-1 at Elland Road. Both Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta criticised Leicester for sitting behind the ball and waiting for chances to counter. Guardiola accused Leicester of “not wanting to play” after his team’s 5-2 defeat to them on their own pitch. If you took the six best players out of the Arsenal or Manchester City teams, their coaches would be forced to adapt too, and that is what Brendan Rodgers has done superbly.
Rodgers took note of his side’s struggles to implement their usual attacking gameplan at the tail end of last season in the absence of Pereira and Ndidi, and realised he would have to develop a more pragmatic approach. Across their last three impressive away wins over City, Arsenal and Leeds, Leicester have averaged just 34.7% possession yet scored 10 goals from just 23 attempts.
Those numbers may be unsustainable, but they are also very deliberate. Leicester are ceding possession and then springing into attack on the break once they win the ball back – in a similar way to how they played when they won the title. They had just 28% of possession against City, 32% against Leeds and 44% against Arsenal, yet still had more shots on target (17) than their opponents in those three games (13). The system suits Vardy perfectly. He has racked up seven goals already this season, scoring with more than half of his shots and finding the net on average every 67 minutes he has been on the pitch.
Leicester are frustrating teams with a compact defence and then forging high-quality chances on the counter, often without their star performers. While you would expect Vardy and Barnes to be dangerous in this system, a number of unsung heroes have also stood out. The midfield trio of Youri Tielemans, Dennis Praet and Nampalys Mendy have been superb both in shutting teams out and in transition. Mendy only re-signed for the club due to Ndidi’s injury after the club had previously allowed his contract to run. Keeping him has proven to be a masterstroke, with the 28-year-old starting all seven matches having started just four games last season.
The addition of Timothy Castagne, who also missed the Leeds game through injury, has proven extremely shrewd. James Justin has adapted to a number of different roles with impressive ease, and Cengiz Under is starting to have an influence as he builds his fitness. Perhaps the pick of the bunch, however, has been Wesley Fofana, who has made light work of the step up to the Premier League, having arrived from St Étienne this summer.
Hardly the most intimidating presence in terms of his physique, Fofana has out-muscled, out-jumped, out-paced and out-thought most of the players he has come up against this season. His reading of the game has been outstanding, making 13 interceptions in five outings, while winning 16 of 21 aerial duels. He has been remarkably consistent, especially for a 19-year-old.
Leicester’s recruitment has been excellent of late and the coaching from Rodgers has been fantastic. He is often mocked for the way he presents himself in the media, but it is difficult to find fault with his results. Not only are Leicester second in the Premier League but they are also top of their Europa League group. He has handed the various pressures on his team remarkably well. On Monday night he put out a team without Castagne, Pereira, Soyuncu, Evans, Ndidi and Maddison yet they still put Leeds – who have been lauded for their impressive return to the top flight – to the sword.
Rodgers may not receive any great praise for his sensational record at Celtic, where he won the treble in both of his full seasons at the club, but he has shown he is among the very best coaches since joining Leicester last February. Having got a real tune out of his strongest line-up for the majority of last season, Rodgers is now achieving the same results while half of those players are available. Leicester are top-four contenders once more.