By Thomas Negron
After a stunning first half of the season, Leicester see themselves in first place. However, it is hard to see a way for them to continue this run of form over the second half of the season. They are overachieving in pretty much every standard and a reversion to the mean seems likely.
But likelihood and probability seem to have no hold on this Leicester City squad. At the start of the season, the odds of Leicester winning the league, according to Sky Bet, were 5,000/1. Now they are just 11/1. In other words, a $1 bet on Leicester City to win the Premier League at the start of the season would now be worth $454.55. Again I ask the question, can this team that look destined for a short stint in the Premier League this time last year really lift the trophy at the end of the season? Of course they can.
Inflated Conversion Rate
In my other post, I talked about Leicester’s goal conversion rate and how it showed Leicester to be over-performing. However, this statistic is a little over inflated for Leicester, due to penalties. Leicester lead the league with 7 penalties so far this season (next highest is Crystal Palace with 4). Penalties are much easier chances than most shots so should be separated from the rest of shots completely. It would be like comparing football kickers’ overall kicking percentage, rather than splitting up field goals and extra points.
Leicester are a perfect 7 for 7 with penalty kicks, including going 2 for 2 this past weekend. Taking these out of the conversion stats brings them down to a 13.16% conversion rate which does not seem as much of an outlier. It is still significantly better than last year, but with this adjusted conversion rate they sit in second in the league. This rate seems like it is maintainable for a truly top tier team, which this Leicester side is playing like so far this season. Here, it seems like Leicester’s biggest issue is they are going to have a tough time maintaining this rate of penalties the rest of the season.
Why not Leicester?
The Premier League has been hectic so far this season. Leicester are amongst just a few surprises so far this season from the good (Crystal Palace, Watford) to the ugly (Chelsea, Swansea). It begs the question, who else could win the league title?
While Leicester’s strength of schedule is a worrying trend, the good news is that the current second place team, Arsenal, has actually had a worse balance between home and away matches. Arsenal has only played two of the top ten teams on the road so far this season (Leicester and Watford). They have faced most of their toughest challenges at the Emirates, so they can also expect a tougher challenge over the rest of the season.
After hot starts, both Manchester sides have cooled off considerably. Manchester United have earned 19 points in the previous 12 games, while Manchester City have done worse with 17 points in the previous 12 games. After starting the season with five clean sheets, with Vincent Kompany leading the back four, Manchester City have allowed 19 goals in 12 games, a defensive record even worse than Leicester’s.
Great Escape to Title Challengers
Earlier this year, on February 20th, Leicester sat in last place in the Premier League, 5 points from safety. Since then, they have played 30 games and earning 62 points. In this same time period, the only team to score more points is Arsenal (66), with Manchester City (59) close behind. Thirty games is almost an entire season, so it is hard to just say this is a good run of form. The fact is, over the past 9 months Leicester have been one of the best teams in the Premier League in getting points.
This has especially been the case since the start of April. This is when Leicester’s great escape from relegation really began. Sitting in last, 7 points from 17th place, they went on to win 7 of their last 9 games, getting 22 points to end the season. Since this point Leicester have played 26 games and earned 60 points. This is substantially better than any other team in the Premier League with the closest two other teams being Arsenal (53) and Manchester City (48). (NOTE: Due to a scheduling conflict with the English League Cup last season, Leicester have played one more game than both Arsenal and Manchester City over this time period).
Style of Play
It is hard to look at Leicester’s rise analytically, as all the evidence points to them faltering at some point and returning to mid-table form, yet they continue to impress week after week. The stats provided yesterday point to a team that should not be in the top four of the Premier League, let alone at the top on Christmas. However, this is not just a good run of form as they have been playing at this top level for the past 30 games.
Most of this discrepancy comes down to the way Leicester play. Never before have we seen a team challenge for the title with a counter-attacking gameplan. Leicester rank 18th in the Premier League in possession (averaging 43.6%) and last in pass conversion rate (70.1%). They are not controlling games, they are letting the game come to them and taking risks, and they are exceptionally good at it. They know they cannot beat the richer teams at their own game so they are playing with their own style. Because of this, comparing them to past champions or their rivals for the title is extremely difficult.
At the end of the day, predicting how Leicester will finish this season is extremely difficult. There is evidence to say that Leicester is a mid-table side vastly outperforming their true ability, as well as evidence to say that Leicester is one of the top teams in the league. My opinion is that the success of their season will come down to whether other teams adapt their strategy to make Leicester play a more possession-based game. If this happens, I think Leicester will have a very difficult time replicating their success in the new year. However, if teams continue to allow Leicester to play their style, then I think we may just see the most surprising league champion in the history of English soccer.