Football analysts, pundits, statisticians, and fans alike will all be advancing their theories as to how Leicester City, a team which battled to stave off relegation last season and a team without the capital investment on players as the traditional powerhouses could actually win it all in England. A commonly spoken indictment will be on the quality of the league itself and while it is patently obvious that the top teams have all regressed this season and will need a shot in the arm over the summer, it still doesn’t explain why this ‘small’ team did it and not others. To win a league title you need to be good in close matches and Leicester have been the best in that regard (In 24 games ending with a separation of a goal or fewer their record is 13 wins, 9 draws, and 2 losses). They have also been healthier than the rest. A question still remains unanswered. What in their style of play sets them apart from other small teams that can scrape 1-0 and 2-1 wins in a relegation fight?
Maybe much of the truth lies in the pass. Leicester still play like a small team in many ways. Their possession, or lack thereof, and long balls are still indicative of a smaller team with less quality from top to bottom. However, we can delve deeper into the raw numbers to put forward as credible explanation as the other teams allowed them to (which is also true). Here is a look at Leicester’s coup from the attacking side.
Leicester City are the antithesis in style of just about every top team in Europe’s major leagues bar Atletico Madrid. Unlike Barcelona, Bayern Munich and PSG who boast astronomical numbers of passes and possession, Leicester have won England with fewer than a half the total passes. It is also noteworthy that all these teams play proportionally more back passes than the average team in methodical, dominating possession. England’s champions elect have attempted and completed fewer passes than all teams in England except West Brom and Sunderland. In this sense, they must be looked at as somewhat of a low budget Atletico Madrid who are seemingly content with 40% possession (although Atletico Madrid still attempt considerably more passes).
Herein appears the first indicator of separation between The Foxes, and the Sunderlands and Aston Villas of the world. Although not an exact measure of where you will end on the table, it is a fairly accurate guide as to both general league position and goals scored. This indicator is the ratio of forward passes to back passes. Leicester are ranked second in (successful) passing directness and only two teams in the top half rank in the bottom half of passing directness, Manchester United (20th) and West Ham (11th). That in itself is a chilling slam on Manchester United’s playing style. The least direct team, the team that is trigger happy in the pass to David De Gea is clearly the top team performing the worst in terms of goals per match (10th). The highest placed team on the table that has scored less than Man United is Stoke City (14th goals and 15th passing directness). In contrast, Leicester City have scored the 3rd most goals, behind Man City and Tottenham, and are the second most direct in passing.
Interestingly and unsurprisingly, this phenomenon is unique to the English Premier league where direct football is rewarded. This is in direct opposition to the Serie A, Bundesliga or La Liga for example where the top teams are very patient in their build-up and would fit more in line with Manchester United than a Leicester or Liverpool. It is this high octane football that stretches defenses as nigh everyone plays manically and fitness, speed and persistence is highly valued. This is perhaps one of the factors which puts the EPL at a disadvantage in European competition. Aside from the cumulative fatigue which it exerts on players, the patience of a Barcelona will wear down an impatient team used to end to end football. Precision has beaten persistence especially as Spain has scooped up the very best EPL stars in Luis Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric. A comparison of how English teams pass in European competition would also offer some more insight.
Now, back to Leicester City who will get to worry about European nights soon enough.
The table says a lot and lays the building blocks in explaining the Leicester conquest from a playing style perspective. Even then, this analysis on its own is incomplete. Crystal Palace are the most direct team and Sunderland aren’t far off. Yet they are at opposite ends of the table.
Leicester’s ratio of short passes to long passes also tells a story of a team with a small team’s style of play. In this they rank 17th in the ratio of short passes as a percentage of total passes. The only top ten teams with a bottom half penchant for long passes are West Ham (14th) and Southampton (11th). Given West Ham’s traditional style and also the presence of Andy Carroll, this is quite understandable.
The traditional powerhouse teams are also most adept at playing short passes which is also expected given the volume of passes they attempt. Leicester City have proven to be a small team in all aspects reviewed thus far except how forcefully direct they are in completed passes.
One explanation for the directness is clarity. Contrast them with Man United who are often forced to recycle the ball and play backwards when out of ideas. That’s in part to the lack of an effective creative outlet. True, Leicester have a below average pass completion rate. However, given the swiftness of their play and the clarity involved in their attacks some amount of possession loss is expected. The payoff is what we will see next.
There is no direct correlation between counterattack goals and league success. Again though, Leicester’s victories have come against the backdrop of a number of statistics that have worked together in synergy to culminate in a title. Just look at the contrast. Bayern Munich have scored 77 goals; none have come from counter attacks. Juventus are also yet to register a single counterattack goal this season. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Real Madrid and Barcelona have scored seven and six by this means. So Leicester’s five shows that there is some directed effort at hitting teams when vulnerable with swift attacks.
The complete story of the quick Leicester attack isn’t finished. It seems as if that’s all they do and if you think that you have good reason to. Soaking up pressure by allowing possession, then once the ball is recovered (often by the locomotive N’golo Kante and his support, Danny Drinkwater) it would then be shunted to Riyad Mahrez in a perfect world for himself and Jamie Vardy to cause havoc. It is the story of a season of ‘surprise’ Fox attacks.
The second part to the story of the quick Leicester attack has been the award of 12 penalties over the course of the season, tied most amongst winners since 2006/07 with 2009/10 Chelsea (10 have been converted). Vardy by himself has won six. The England striker has used his pace to devastating effect as he continually gets fouled (or seemingly fouled) time after time. The second most awarded teams have only scored five penalties. Man United, Liverpool and Arsenal have won three, one and one, respectively. Between counterattack goals and penalties Leicester City have mustered 15 goals. In Europe, only Barcelona have more on 17 thanks to 11 penalty goals. Stuttgart stand alongside on 15 while Borussia Dortmund lie on 14, and Real Madrid are tied with Granada on 13.
Chance creation, Dribbles and Goal efficiency
Launching swift attacks and passing the ball forward are one thing but Leicester have excelled most in capitalizing on the limited number of possession they have been afforded this season. While they lie only ninth in terms of chances created (9.72 per 90 mins), this has translated into the fifth most attempts on goal and fifth most on target. Not only that but they take the fourth least proportion of their shots from outside the 18 yard box. This is indicative of a team taking sensible shots. Unlike the fire-from-all-angles approach from Harry Kane and Spurs which is fine from a team enjoying the majority of possession since they’ll inevitably win the ball back and have more opportunities, Leicester have created quality chances.
This is also indicated in the amount of penalties won as the action is in the box most of the time. The use of Vardy’s pace has been brilliant and the skill of Mahrez has often led to defenders backing off. Leicester have also tapped into the importance (or effectiveness) of dribbling in England. They rank only below Arsenal, Man City, Chelsea and Everton in dribbles per game, some of the highest scorers in England. This again reinforces the direct approach that Leicester have taken and separated themselves from other smaller teams who play more back passes with their limited possession, attempt to beat their opponents less, and do not attack as quickly or directly in a manner as to draw penalties or score counterattack goals in any noticeable quantity. Instead, the small teams who play the sterotypical small team football opt for the cross which is a low percentage attacking option. Leicester, in contrast, have played less crosses than only six teams, two of which are Arsenal and Tottenham.
Leicester City have essentially created the perfect storm of a clear attacking plan which has translated into goals, favourable results, points and a title. Unlike the Man United team that has been metronomically slow and methodical in their build-up play, Leicester have been more gung-ho while maintaining clarity in what they attempt to do. Their style of play and the overall lower quality from top to bottom leads to unflattering statistics such as 71% passing accuracy. Remember though that Luis Suarez has a 73.1% passing accuracy and according to statistical measures is a poor dribbler. It isn’t that simple. Knowing this is untrue we can appreciate the method behind the chaos that has been Leicester City.
They have played perfectly to their strengths, the ball winning prowess of Kante, the skill and dribbling ability of Mahrez, and the pace and ability to draws fouls in the penalty box of Vardy. In what has been the worst year for quality football from the top teams in quite some time in England, a small team has played a refined version of small team football and squeezed every last ounce of effect from the talents of three x-factor players to pull off the improbable.
This coup has been a carefully executed and crafted one guided by a study of the styles of the traditional powerhouses blended with a strategy designed to maximise the strengths of the three outstanding players in their ranks. They deserve all the plaudits they have and will receive.