We talk about Leicester City all the time, and yet we still don’t talk about Leicester City enough.
In age of increasing stratification across European soccer and England in particular, this team got promoted to the Premier League, were bottom of the table come Christmas, avoided relegation with an incredible run in the second half of the season, immediately fired the manager who led them on that incredible run, hired a new manager and … immediately won the Premier League.
Somehow, that’s only, like, a third of the story. The next season, they cashed in on the Premier League Player of the Year as N’Golo Kante joined Chelsea, finished 12th, fired their manager and still managed to reach the Champions League quarterfinals. The next year was a relatively tame one by Leicester standards: They dropped into the relegation zone by Christmas again, fired the coach that brought them to the CL quarters and ultimately finished ninth. They exchanged their best attacker (Riyad Mahrez) for some $60 million that summer, and then a couple months later, their owner died in a helicopter crash at the stadium.
Somehow, that’s only, like, another third of the story. A few months after the passing of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, they hired another new manager: Brendan Rodgers. Despite moving on from their best defender (Harry Maguire) for close to $100m the following summer, they had all but locked up a top-four spot by February, before a global pandemic hit and the Premier League season stopped for a couple months. When play resumed, they completely collapsed and missed fourth place by four points. Then, once again, they transferred out their best defender (Ben Chilwell) for tens of millions of dollars, and again, they had a top-four spot all but locked up by February — before completely collapsing again and missing fourth, this time by one point.
Which brings us to where we are today: After finally producing a forgettable season last year, Leicester are now dead-last, with one point from six matches. They’ve gone from perennial top-four contender to a favorite for relegation in a little over a year. What the heck happened?
How they became contenders (again)
When Leicester moved on from Claude Puel in February 2019, Leicester were in 12th place. They hadn’t won a game since the start of the calendar year and as these things tend to go, they were getting pretty unlucky. Puel himself claimed as much, which did little to endear him to fans or his players.
Through their first 27 games, Leicester produced a minus-6 goal differential from about a plus-4 expected-goal differential, per Stats Perform. Their performances were better than their results and once they brought in Rodgers, their results improved — and so too did their performances. In just 10 games under their new coach, their total xG differential (plus-4.75) was better than in the 27 games under Puel.
Over a full season, that would’ve made them the fourth-best team in the Premier League after Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea — the eventual Premier League, Champions League and Europa League winners, respectively.
The following season, they were basically just as good (plus-0.45 xGD). We’re less concerned, today, with why they didn’t finish fourth — read: a bunch of injuries, plus Manchester United got a lot better once Bruno Fernandes arrived and Jose Mourinho departed — than how they achieved this level of performance. It certainly wasn’t that season’s transfer market. Maguire left for Manchester United in exchange for $95.7m, while Leicester brought in the likes of Ayoze Perez, Dennis Praet and James Justin for around $66m combined. Praet played 33% of the league minutes, Justin 30 and Perez 59. If they got more out of the Perez role — something more than an at-best-average attacker — then maybe they do finish top-four.
As for the 10 players who did play at least 60% of the minutes, there’s perhaps a team-building lesson somewhere in here for the rest of the Premier League.
At 61% of the minutes, you had 21-year-old winger Harvey Barnes, and at 69% of the minutes, you had 22-year-old Ben Chilwell — both products of the Leicester City academy. At 74% of the minutes was 25-year-old right-back Ricardo Pereira, signed from FC Porto the previous season for $24.2m.
Then there was the midfield — three 22-year-olds. James Maddison, acquired from Norwich for $27.5m the year before, played 77% of the minutes. Wilfred Ndidi, brought in as the Kante replacement in the summer of 2017 for $19.36m, played 78% of the minutes. Youri Tielemans, who came over on loan shortly before Rodgers arrived and then had his move from Monaco made permanent for $49.5m the following offseason, was out there 83% of the time.
Finally, you had the major mainstays: 32-year-old Jamie Vardy (89%), acquired from Fleetwood Town for $1.4m in 2012; 23-year-old Caglar Soyuncu (89%), acquired from Freiburg for $23.2m the year prior; 31-year-old Jonny Evans (99%), acquired from West Brom for $4.4m the year prior; and Kasper Schmeichel (100%), acquired from Leeds for $1.8m in 2011.
To challenge for fourth without a top-four payroll, it seems, you basically need to do a bit of everything:
- You need to hit on a couple of “no-cost” academy prospects.
- You need to use the spending power of the Premier League to acquire “pre-prime” players from better teams elsewhere in Europe; grab as many as you can in the $20m range (they missed on a bunch of other similar buys) and then make sure you get it right when you pay more (they were confident that Tielemans was a $50m-plus guy because they had him on loan for half a year).
- You need to find gems in the Championship.
- You need to find low-cost veterans with unfairly diminished reputations. (Evans is one of the most underrated Premier League players of the decade.)
- And while “find a star England international while he’s playing non-League football” isn’t repeatable for other teams, I think the fact that Leicester hung onto Vardy — and not Kante or Riyad Mahrez — as they rose back up the table says something about how much easier having a star striker makes the team-building process. If you find one, do what you can to keep him.
On top of all that, the team still required a bit of tactical ingenuity to get them on the verge of the Champions League — something to make this collection of talent perform at its highest-possible level. This came in the form of Rodgers playing Ndidi alone at the base of midfield, behind a pair of not-at-all-defensive midfielders in Tielemans and Maddison.
Most of the time, teams outside the Big Six will respond to the tactical trends from the bigger sides; Rodgers instead copied Pep Guardiola’s introduction of “free eights,” which are basically traditional No. 10s masquerading as central midfielders — behind three other attackers. Guardiola was able to do it because he had Fernandinho. Rodgers gambled on Ndidi being able to hold up under a similarly heavy defensive load, and he was right — at least for one year.
How it all fell apart
Although they finished with more points and closer to fourth in 2020-21 than the year prior, the signs of decline were already there. The per-game xG differential dropped down to plus-0.25 — still above average, but closer to 10th than to fourth. The only big personnel departure was Chilwell moving to Chelsea for $55m. In the other direction came 19-year-old center-back Wesley Fofana from Saint-Etienne for $38.5m and 24-year-old fullback Timothy Castagne from Atalanta for $23m.
Leicester got worse mainly because their best players stopped playing so often. In Chilwell and Pereira, they had one of the best fullback pairings in Europe. Chilwell left, and Pereira only played 28% of the minutes in 2020-21 thanks to a knee injury suffered the previous season. Evans played 72% of the minutes at the back and Soyuncu 53%, but Fofana more than filled in the gaps with 66% of the minutes. Everywhere else, there were just minor declines: Vardy went from 89% to 83% of the minutes, Ndidi from 78% to 64%, and Maddison from 77% to 61%. It all added up over the course of the season, and their drop in performance quality finally caught up to them as they coughed away the fourth spot for the second year in a row.
From a personnel perspective, it seemed clear that they needed insurance both up top and in the midfield given the particular importance of those specific players. And so they did what they always do: spent $20-30m on a pair of 22-year-old prospects — $33m on RB Salzburg striker Patson Daka, $22m for Lille midfielder Bakary Soumare — from Champions League-level teams elsewhere in Europe. The problem is that the players were either not good enough yet or wrongly not considered good enough yet by their manager.
In 2021-22, Daka played 34% of the minutes and Soumare featured 32% of the time. Meanwhile, Vardy’s minutes share dipped down to 53% and Ndidi’s dropped below 50%. A not-insignificant number of his minutes came at the back, too, as Fofana missed most of the season with injury and Evans only played 39% of the minutes. Pereira, meanwhile, once again only played 29% of the minutes because of injury issues.
This meant that players like Luke Thomas, Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, and Daniel Amartey — significant downgrades from the 2019-20 core — all featured in at least half of the minutes last season. It added up to an eighth-place finish and a plus-3 goal differential, but it was even worse than that. Their xG differential was minus-18.6 (minus-0.48 per game), only the 14th-best mark in the league.
Why it could get even worse
At this point in the season, Leicester are the only team in the league without a win and the only team with fewer than four points. It hasn’t been quite that bad — they have a minus-8 goal differential from a minus-4.6 xG differential — but those underlying numbers are still the fourth-worst in the league. Given the random nature of this sport, the fourth-worst team in the league gets relegated all the time, especially when they start with only one point from the first six matches.
FiveThirtyEight’s projection system gives Leicester a 26% chance of being relegated — fourth-highest in the league — while the Caesars Sportsbook gives them the third-shortest relegation odds after Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest.
The scary part is that most of the stalwarts from the past few seasons have been on the field this year. Evans has played every single minute, while Ndidi, Tielemans, Maddison and Vardy have each started five of the six games. (Sadly, Pereira tore an Achilles in the preseason; the guy just can’t catch a break.) However, after the $88.4m departure of Fofana to Chelsea, an injury to Soyuncu and the late arrival of $18.70m signing Wout Faes from Stade Reims, Ndidi has played multiple games as a centre-back, again.
On the other end, Vardy has been on the field, but he’s barely done anything. He has attempted just five total shots across his six appearances. Put another way: 106 different Premier League players have attempted more shots than Vardy this season.
Of course, Vardy turns 36 later this year, but, well, the team currently in last place in the Premier League is relying on a guy who turns 36 later this year to rediscover his form. Meanwhile, the club’s other holdover from the title-winning team’s starting XI, Kasper Schmeichel, left for Nice this past summer. His replacement, Danny Ward, is a 30-year-old with no prior experience as a first-division starter.
Through six matches, Ward has conceded 2.5 goals more than expected: the second-biggest discrepancy in the league.
Make a bunch of consistent, minor degradations across the squad — due to age, injuries, missing on transfers or all of the above — combine that with a complete lack of production at both goalmouths, and that’s how you go from the brink of the Champions League to the brink of the English Championship.
It might not seem like a satisfying explanation, but this is how the league works now. According to data from the company Off the Pitch, Leicester recorded the seventh-highest revenues in the Premier League for 2021, the most-recent year accounted for. Except, at $305 million, they were closer to West Brom ($144m) in last than Chelsea ($586m) in fourth. A lot had to go right for Leicester to come so close to finishing fourth two years in a row. Unfortunately, a lot less had to go wrong for them to find themselves where they are now.
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