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Analysis: How are Leicester still top of the Premier League?

We look at the reasons behind the Foxes’ unlikely rise this season.

Jamie Vardy has been a revelation for Leicester this season.
Jamie Vardy has been a revelation for Leicester this season.

WITH 14 GAMES to play, Leicester are three points clear at the top of the Premier League.

The Foxes, who were many people’s tip for relegation at the start of the season, have managed to defy the odds with a series of stunning performances and results.

Tuesday’s game against Liverpool provided the perfect example of what the Foxes do well. Consequently, we’ve taken a close look at this match to highlight the type of qualities that the unfancied title contenders have been demonstrating all season.

Embracing their underdog status

Leicester know they don’t have the technical prowess or resources of many teams in the league. Their starting XI the other night cost £22 million (€28 million) – Liverpool’s starting XI, by contrast, cost eight times that amount. Yet the hosts still emerged with a deserved 2-0 victory.

The Foxes know that they are unlikely to beat too many teams playing possession football. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the club are invariably near the bottom of the Premier League charts for average possession. Against Liverpool at the King Power Stadium, they had just 36% of the ball over the course of the 90 minutes. However, that’s not to say their victory wasn’t deserved or achieved without a certain level of skill.

Ranieri’s side consequently signalled their intent from kick-off, as a routine kick and chase immediately put Liverpool under pressure and inspired a frantic, energetic opening from the hosts.

Leicester have a far more direct style compared with Liverpool and most other Premier League teams. Their strategy is simple — get the ball into the opposition’s final third as quickly as possible and try to keep it there.

There are plenty of parallels between Leicester and Jack Charlton’s Ireland side — a team also renowned at their best for high pressing, intensity and the occasional touch of class. With the ball, many of Leicester’s players are somewhat limited. However, without the ball, there is no team currently better at pressing and harrying opponents into making mistakes.

So essentially, coupled with intermittent bits of magic from star players Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, their game relies largely on the opposition making mistakes.

Pressing high in the opposition’s final third and forcing errors

The strategy worked well against Liverpool. Throughout the game, Leicester simply played long balls into Liverpool’s half. The visitors, intent on trying to implement their possession-football game, were subsequently often forced into errors and conceded the ball in dangerous areas.

These mistakes allowed Messrs Vardy, Mahrez and Shinji Okazaki to do plenty of damage on the counter-attack. The intelligence and lightning pace of their attack is genuinely reminiscent of Invincibles-era Arsenal, when players such as Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp routinely tore apart Premier League defences with classy, quick-fire counter-attacks.

The clip below is a perfect example – Jordan Henderson is pressured into conceding possession and Leicester break swiftly, with Okazaki subsequently going close.

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Below, Lovren fails to deal with a long ball and Vardy swiftly pounces, ultimately winning his side a free kick in a dangerous area.

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Vardy wasn’t the only Leicester striker playing on the shoulder, as fellow speedster Okazaki caused Liverpool plenty of problems. Again, watch below, as Liverpool concede possession in a dangerous area, allowing the Japan international to exploit space in behind.

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This ‘put-em-under-pressure’ approach, with an emphasis on winning second balls, ultimately paid off, as Sakho failed to fully deal with a routine long ball in the incident leading up to Leicester’s second goal.

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And returning to the topic of their direct, counter-attacking approach, notice below how quickly Kasper Schmeichel gets his kick-out up the field, clearly catching the increasingly nerve-ridden Sakho off guard, and causing the defender to give the ball away sloppily.

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Another individual Liverpool error can be seen below, as James Milner is robbed of possession by N’Golo Kanté — surely the signing of the season after Leicester bought him for a bargain of £5.6 million (€8 million) from Caen in the summer.

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The 24-year-old French midfielder has been a revelation for Leicester this season, making more successful tackles and interceptions than any other Premier League player since the start of the campaign. On Tuesday night, he dominated proceedings once again, with his work-rate and energy making a big difference in the middle of the park.

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And while these incidents may seem relatively insignificant in isolation, in tandem, they had a big impact in grinding Liverpool down and causing their attack play to have an increasing air of desperation and frustration.

At the back too, Robert Huth has been a largely unsung hero. With invaluable protection from Kanté and Danny Drinkwater, Huth and Wes Morgan have built up a solid partnership, aided by a competent set-up that enables the team to defend in numbers with two banks of four when required (see image below).

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What Huth gives the team in defence is reliability. The former Chelsea and Stoke defender does the simple things extremely well. You won’t ever catch him doing Cruyff turns in the vicinity of his own six-yard box á la John Stones.

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Everton are an interesting comparison to Leicester in general. There is even a case to be made that the Toffees can field a more talented starting XI overall. But why do they currently sit 18 points below the Foxes?

Whereas Roberto Martinez’s side are prone to overplaying and making individual errors at the back, Leicester’s no-risk approach means they rarely give goals away cheaply. If there is any danger, Huth and Morgan won’t hesitate to put their foot through the ball, or throw themselves in front of it if necessary.

Individual brilliance 

Overall, Leicester are a solid, workmanlike outfit with an old-fashioned 4-4-2 formation and roughly the same starting XI every week. They manage the game very well, clearly upping the intensity during certain periods of the game, while dropping off and reducing the tempo to take a breather at the appropriate times.

The league leaders’ two anomalies are Mahrez and Vardy. The deadly duo are responsible for 31 of Leicester’s 44 goals this season. They linked up superbly again on Tuesday night, as Vardy latched onto an exquisite 45-yard Mahrez pass, before unleashing a thunderbolt of a half-volley to give his side the lead.

All season, the two stars have been benefitting from teams underestimating Leicester. Whereas sides routinely defend deep against more esteemed opponents such as Man United, they are usually happy to push up against Ranieri’s men, with Mahrez, Vardy and (to a lesser extent) Okazaki exploiting the space as a result. It would be interesting to see if Leicester’s prolific pair could repeat their heroics with a traditional big team that other sides opt for a more cautious approach against.

What’s particularly special about the Foxes’ attacking trio is the work they put in off the ball, which is not necessarily a given in the Premier League these days. It arguably started with Ronaldo. When discussing the Portuguese superstar, Gary Neville once commented: “By the end of Ronaldo’s Manchester United career I was willing him not to chase back so he was free. He just decided his own position, which was based upon where the space was and who was the weak link. He made me realise you didn’t always need to be in your shape.”

Yet while Ronaldo scoring 30-plus goals a season invariably justified his reluctance to track back, a culture has started to develop where less talented players (one or two Chelsea stars, for instance) wrongly think they have earned the right to do little work in defence and hang about nonchalantly in the final third. Yet with the occasional exception of Mahrez, who tends to drift and get caught out of position sporadically, every Leicester player adopts an incredible level of intensity when chasing and harrying opponents.

On Tuesday, therefore, Liverpool struggled to create any chances of note. While they had 14 shots — one more than Leicester — only one of these hit the target in comparison to the Foxes’ six.

The clip below sums up the scrappy nature of a match that was often lacking in quality, which was exactly what Leicester would have wanted.

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That said, there were occasional flourishes from the hosts in attack where they suddenly threatened to turn into Barcelona.

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So can Leicester actually win the league?

One factor that’s certainly in Ranieri’s side’s favour is that they only have 14 games to play outright. Arsenal, Spurs and Man City could all end up playing roughly twice that number depending on their progress in various cup competitions.

Nonetheless, the Foxes have a tough run-in and they have at times found it difficult against the top teams. For instance, Liverpool are the highest-ranked league side that they have beaten at the King Power Stadium this season.

In games against their top five rivals since the campaign began, their record is decent but not spectacular, only losing one but also just winning one – Tottenham (draw), Arsenal (loss), Man United (draw), Man City (draw), Tottenham (win).

Moreover, they have difficult-looking away games to come against Man City (later today), Arsenal, Man United and Chelsea before the end of the campaign. How well they do in those matches will surely play a large part in determining whether or not they do indeed make Premier League history by pulling off an unlikely triumph.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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