On Saturday Everton play their third match in 7 days, this time at home to Leicester City. Tuesday’s draw against Manchester United means that the Toffees are a near-lock for 7th place this season. 5 wins in as many games has lifted Leicester comfortably out of the relegation zone and has them set for a lower mid-table finish.
We have officially reached Stage 3 of the Leicester City Story®.
Stage 2 was the first 25 matches of this season. Leicester picked up just 21 points during this period and were sitting in 17th place when on 23 February the board sacked Claudio Ranieri. Once again Statsbomb was on the case, with Dustin Ward explaining in December how the league had adapted to the Foxes’ style and James Yorke noting that the same variance skews that propelled Leicester to the title had swiftly and dramatically turned against them.
Enter Craig Shakespeare, who has casually led the Foxes to 5 straight league victories, as many as Ranieri had managed all season long. More importantly, enter the narrative. Shakespeare has turned Leicester around! He’s even a hero of his country, becoming the first British manager to win his first 4 Premier League matches (do people actually care about this?). Smell the confidence!
So, what’s actually going on over at the King Power? One thing is for certain, Shakespeare has Leicester taking way more shots than Ranieri did. 5.9 more shots per game, to be precise. That’s a good thing, and the Bard probably deserves some credit for it. Even more remarkable is that they are now taking 4 more shots on target per game than they were with Ranieri. Considering that the average Premier League team takes about 4.3 shots on target per game, casually upping your output by 4 is actually kind of ridiculous. It also means that under Shakespeare, the Foxes have been putting 43% of their shots on target.
And this is where things get fuzzy because long-term, that is almost certainly not sustainable. Everton currently lead the league with 39% accuracy; last year the leader had 38%. If we dig into Leicester’s shot quality (expected goals per shot) we find that it’s barely changed under the new manager and is still about 20% down from last year. This adds up to a team that has upped its xG output simply by shooting more often, but has been compounding that with a dramatic improvement in finishing and shot accuracy. The result is that Leicester are averaging 2.6 goals per game since Ranieri’s sacking.
Looking at the other side of the ball, Leicester are conceding just about the same amount of shots and shots on target as they always have (and still more than last year). But again, the finishing pixie has been kind: suddenly their opponents are way underperforming expected goals.
In summary, Shakespeare should absolutely be commended for the fact that Leicester have improved their offensive tempo and output, and of course for winning 6 straight games (one of which was a Champions League match against Sevilla) when things looked really really bad for a bit. However, the evidence suggests that the Foxes are also running really hot right now and thus making what is probably a slight improvement look like a massive transformation.
Those in the Leicester boardroom considering handing Shakespeare a permanent deal would do well to understand that this kind of over-performance will not last forever. When the finishing on both sides of the ball regresses towards the mean even a little bit, what will be left is a team with some big questions to answer. It still really seems like the league has caught on to their tactics (except you, Jürgen Klopp), and despite some promising youngsters, key members of the squad are on the wrong side of the age curve.
Tactically, Leicester are still very much trying to be the team that won a title last year. In other words, they live and die on the counter-attack. Almost always employing a 4-4-2, Leicester’s plan is to be narrow and solid in defense and lightning fast in transition. Notably, they thrive on chaos. Their attackers—Jamie Vardy especially—have an almost preternatural instinct for dangerous transitional situations. Vardy is constantly looking to make a run that will break the opponent’s lines and create an opportunity for a killer through ball. Such an approach can be lethal against teams that like to play a high line and a high tempo. Here is the opening goal of Shakespeare’s first match in charge, against Liverpool:
This was vintage (if last year can be vintage) Leicester: a chaotic moment read perfectly, and the perfect execution to take advantage of it.
Against a completely different team in Stoke, the Foxes were again back to their former selves, demonstrating their ability to suck an opponent forward, then go the length of the field in seconds:
Vardy and Riyad Mahrez are key to this; Vardy, with his pace and finishing ability, is seemingly built specifically to play this kind of game, whereas Mahrez is a brilliant soloist and often the best pure footballer on the pitch. (Traits which last year led Spielverlagerung to prophetically declare him “an unknown factor if Leicester’s form declines one day”).
At their best, Leicester are an extremely frustrating opponent to play against; they often seem to be second best, allowing the other team to have their way, but in fact they are simply waiting for the one opening they need to spring a counter. Again, I think Spielver hits the nail on the head:
In a rather static environment, they don’t feel comfortable. If opponents don’t do them a favour in trying to determine the course of a match while in reality allowing Leicester to exploit openings, it has to be at least a chaotic match.
Contextually, they find ways to implant a certain impetus into the game, enabling the encounter with another team to move in the direction they want. Knowing they thrive in chaos, it can even be a goal to cause turmoil and destroy structures that otherwise could lead to a more conventional trial of strength which doesn’t usually favour Leicester.
Matching up with Everton
In December when the two sides met, Leicester had several key injuries and were in the depth of their Stage 2 malaise. To his credit, Ronald Koeman made a shrewd tactical decision which snuffed out Leicester’s primary route to goal. Specifically, he employed a back 5, protected by the double pivot of Gareth Barry and Idrissa Gueye. From Adam Braun’s post-game analysis here on RBM:
By utilizing the three-man backline, Koeman substantially mitigated the danger associated with Leicester’s attack. Three Everton defenders were always present to deal with the Foxes’ attacks — so the numbers favored the Toffees in those situations, but Everton’s successful defense was about more than just numbers.
The outside center-backs, Ramiro Funes Mori and Mason Holgate, have both spent time playing as out-and-out full-backs — these players are comfortable chasing opposing players out along the side if needed. Often, the downfall of a back-three comes when big, slow center-backs are forced to defend in wide positions in the absence of the true full-backs.
With Funes Mori, who plays left-back for Argentina, and Holgate, who played right-back for Everton earlier this season, this was a non-issue. It must be said then, that Koeman’s plan for shutting down Leicester City’s attack was very effective.
Unfortunately the Toffees had problems in attack, with almost no ability to connect play through the center and an over-reliance on long balls and wing play. The result was a deserved but decidedly unspectacular victory.
I can see Koeman setting up his team similarly this time around for the same defensive reasons. Again, though, the issue will be how to generate an attack. Ironically Leicester have had issues this season in the same type of situations which they use so proficiently in attack: transition. With an average age exceeding 30, their back line isn’t exactly the most mobile, and without Kanté to protect them, they can be exposed. In a breezy 3-0 win two months ago, Manchester United discovered as much:
The upshot is that Everton’s best bet here might actually be to back off a bit and see if they can resist the urge to play into Leicester’s hands. It could end up being a battle to see who can best get their speedy forwards in one-on-ones against aging defenders. This might not result in the prettiest game, but I’d rather see a game like we had in December than watch Jamie Vardy run at Phil Jagielka.
An alternative is to take Leicester’s bait and simply try to outplay them in their own end, using combinations between Barkley, Lukaku, and co. break into the box. The problem is that (a) Everton just aren’t that creative, and (b) they need to make sure they have enough help staying back to deal with the counter, and that means more than just sticking Gareth in the middle of the field. As such, I’d personally prefer not to see this approach.
The draw against United means that it will be really hard to drop out of 7th place and also really hard to get into 6th place. So the final 7 games of the season are a chance for us to continue to learn about the team and the manager in advance of what could be a big summer and a season with European football. Like Liverpool, Leicester present a fairly specific challenge—how will Koeman deal with it?