By Thomas Negron
If you talked to a Leicester supporter this time last year, they would probably not describe their Christmas as being merry. Leicester, who were playing in the Premier League for the first time in 10 seasons, sat in last place with only 10 points on Christmas day. Relegation to the Championship seemed all but certain for the club from East Midlands.
Oh what a difference a year makes. Right now, the Foxes are flying high in the Premier League and will be first place on Christmas and do not look like faltering. Week after week they continue to stun opposition and baffle Premier League fans. What was originally just thought of as a team with a good run of form to start the season has turned into a legitimate title contender. 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 not.
Total Shots Ratio
While there are not many advanced stats developed for soccer, TSR could be considered a very primitive one. The idea behind the stat is that the chances of a given shot becoming a goal is essentially random with certain probabilities. We can take out this randomness by looking at just the shots. Of course, this measure does not tell us much since it does not take into account certain shots being more likely to score. Performing better than indicated by a team’s TSR could be down to luck, but also could be down to taking better shots or the team just being inherently better at converting shots than their opponents.
Even with the primitive nature of this statistic, Leicester fans should be worried about this statistic. They currently sit in 9th place in the Premier League with about a TSR of 0.5308. The bigger issue is not that they sit in 9th, but how far back they are from Manchester City and Arsenal, who are considered as the main contenders for the title this season. It is hard to see Leicester matching City the rest of the season, if City continues to take 3.4 more shots on average and concede 3.6 fewer shots on average. But we can analyze more than just TSR when looking at shots. We can also look at a team’s conversion rate.
Anyone who has followed Leicester this season knows that they have been the most clinical finishing side in the Premier League. This graph just shows how much better they have been, converting 15.74% of their shots into goals. This is almost 4 percentage points higher than Manchester City who sit in third. While this explains the current situation quite well, what we need to ask is if this is sustainable.
Last year Chelsea (12.77%) and Manchester City (12.24%) lead the league in conversion rate. Two years ago, Manchester City (14.41%) and Liverpool (14.74%) had the two highest conversion rates in the past five years. The only other team to have a conversion rate greater than 14% during this time was the 2012-13 Manchester United (14.29%). While it is possible for a team to have a conversion rate of around 15%, there is a pretty big difference between these teams and Leicester. Each of these teams had a clear world-class striker, Sergio Aguero for City, Luis Suarez for Liverpool, and Robin Van Persie for United. Before this season started, Jamie Vardy was not considered in this league.
A better comparison may be looking at Leicester’s conversion rate last year compared to this year. Last year, they converted 9.85% of their shots into goals. This would be a pretty dramatic increase in conversion rate for a team that had limited activity in the transfer window this past summer, especially in regards to attacking players. Vardy has jumped from a 10.41% conversion rate to a 25% conversion rate. Although it should be noted that Vardy played mainly as a winger last season, it is still a remarkable increase over one season.
Dependence on Vardy and Mahrez
Vardy and Mahrez have been the two of the most important players for a team this year. The two have combined for 76% of Leicester’s goal this season. The only team with two players combining for a higher goal percentage is Watford (83.33% between Ighalo and Deeney). Manchester City (33.33% between Aguero and Sterling) and Arsenal (51.61% between Giroud and Sanchez) have much more balanced attacks. As the season progresses, Leicester may find it tough to continue scoring if one of Vardy or Mahrez is injured or teams begin to adapt their strategy to stopping Mahrez and Vardy to stop the attack as a whole.
Strength of Schedule
A weak schedule was the most prominent argument a month ago. Before their match against Manchester United, they had 6 of last season’s top 8 over the next 8 matches. Most critics saw Leicester slowing down with this run of fixtures. Well halfway through they are looking pretty good, earning 10 of a possible 12 points.
However, there is a bigger issue with Leicester’s schedule so far this season. They have had the easiest schedule so far this season, based on being at the top of the table and having matches against Manchester City and Liverpool coming up between Christmas and New Year’s’ Day. This becomes even more prevalent when you break it down between home and away matches.
This graphic from soccerstats.com provides a nice overview of the fixtures Leicester has already played. The average position of Leicester’s opponents is 11.588 so far this season. The average position of opponents in Leicester’s home matches is 9.75, with the average position of opponents in Leicester’s away matches being 13.22. In fact, the highest-placed opponent that Leicester have played so far this season is West Ham, who sit in 8th. Home-field advantage in soccer is pretty significant, so Leicester are receiving this boost in their harder matches. When this pattern reverses in the second half of the season, Leicester will have a tough time competing with the other top teams while playing away.
While Leicester is scoring like a league champion, they are not defending like one. They have currently conceded 24 goals, putting them tied for the 7th most goals conceded in the league. They are on pace to concede 53 goals this season. The most a Premier League champion has conceded is 45 (1999-2000 Manchester United).
Leicester are simply outscoring their opponents so far this season.The problems discussed earlier, along with this defensive record point to difficulties ahead for the club. Statistically, it is hard to see them avoiding a reversion to the mean and slowly falling out of the title race. Regardless, there would still be a lot to play for, with a potential Champions League spot up for grabs, which would be a pleasant surprise for fans who did not even think they would be playing in the Premier League this season. Of course, there are also reasons to believe they can indeed win the Premier League, and you can check those out here.