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Why Are Leicester City Struggling This Season?

The answers are obvious. The fixes? Not so much.

Leicester City v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League - King Power Stadium Photo by Tim Keeton/PA Images via Getty Images

After consecutive fifth-place finishes and a productive summer of addressing obvious shortcomings, Leicester City were expected to mount another charge for the Champions League in 2021/22. That hasn’t exactly materialised. The Foxes currently sit 13th on the table with 8 points from 7 matches and last in their Europa League group with a point from the first two fixtures.

We’re going to take a look at what I believe are the three main factors in the slow start. Please note that I am not offering them as excuses; they’re just an attempt to make sense of what we’ve seen so far.

1. The makeshift defence is struggling.

Take a moment and imagine your first choice Leicester City back line. With three at the back, it’s easy: Jonny Evans, Wesley Fofana, and Çağlar Söyüncü flanked by Ricardo and Justin. With a back four, you leave out (or rotate) either Cags or Little Wes.

Of course, we haven’t seen that defence this year. Söyüncü has played 630 minutes of the 7 league matches so far, but Ricardo has only managed 325 and Evans a scant 30. Neither Fofana nor Justin has played a minute.

FBL-ENG-PR-LEICESTER-CHELSEA
Tammy Abraham running at three long-term Leicester absentees. This ends badly for Abraham.
Photo by TIM KEETON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

We bought reinforcements over the last two years in Timothy Castagne, Ryan Bertrand, and Jannik Vestergaard, but only Castagne has truly impressed thus far. The former Southampton players have been exposed to more playing time (and exposed in general) than the club had planned for even with the long-term injuries going into the season.

A suspect back line affects all aspects of the team. I cannot emphasize this enough, so I’ll direct you to watch Liverpool play last year after losing Virgil. Even when they got the results, they were a different side. Trent Alexander-Arnold went from a surefire starter in the England setup to being on the fringe of the squad because problems in defence expose everyone’s weaknesses.

Prognosis: If Leicester can get Evans and Ricardo playing at something close to their prior levels, we’ll see a much more comfortable Söyüncü and we can live with Bertrand at left-back until Justin is ready.

2. The tactics and the squad composition make for an awkward fit.

What a close season we had! We brought in a striker, a winger, a left back, a centre-half, and a defensive midfielder. Every position where we lacked depth was sorted in a single summer.

Or was it? We’ve already discussed the two defenders we brought in as stopgaps as opposed to long-term solutions. Let’s take a look at the other three:

* Patson Daka has shown signs of being a fine striker, but with both Vardy and Iheanacho on brilliant form, he hasn’t had the chance to show it yet. Through no fault of his own, he has yet to have an impact.

* Boubakary Soumare was sold as a defensive midfielder, but there was nothing in his history to suggest that this was the case: he’s strong, he keeps the ball well, but ball-winning isn’t one of his strengths.

* Ademola Lookman has had a promising start to his Leicester career, but he’s best deployed on the left or in the centre of the park and he’s going to find himself on the right-wing.

The net of this is that, when Rodgers deploys these players, he either has to play them in unfamiliar roles or adjust his tactics. Ever game for a challenge, the gaffer has chosen to do both in recent matches. Here are the team shapes used so far this year in all competitions:

Leicester City Fixtures

Formation # of times used
Formation # of times used
4-2-3-1 4
4-3-3 3
4-4-2 2
3-5-2 2
Data courtesy of fbref.com

It is normal, of course, to change tactics from time to time, but this is quite a spread for 11 matches. This is a manager trying to find the right mix of players and shapes with a suspect defence. If you think the players have sometimes looked as though they were on different pages, it’s no wonder when the faces and roles are changing so often.

This team desperately needs some continuity. I think, ideally, Rodgers would like to play Iheanacho and Vardy up top because who wouldn’t want to do that? That leaves Daka plenty of opportunities to play as a sub and to rotate into the starting XI. Obviously, he doesn’t feel like he can do this with the defence in its current state and it’s hard to argue.

Prognosis: Losing Wilfred Ndidi for 4-5 weeks only exacerbates the problem but kudos to the managers for recognizing that Hamza Choudhury is the best 1-for-1 replacement in the squad. I don’t see any way this gets sorted until the defence is stabilised, so expect to see some disjointed displays from unfamiliar lineups in the near future.

Hamza was brilliant against Palace. Also, if you find yourself questioning the substitutions, you’re not alone. Image from: WhoScored.Com

3. The performances have been getting better while the results are getting worse.

There has been almost no relationship between the quality of performance and the result for the Foxes this year. This has led to some unwarranted early optimism and premature calls for a change in management more recently.

We started well this year, winning two of our first three, but were very fortunate to win as Leicester lost the xG battle in both matches. In fact, up through the Napoli match, they had a negative xG differential every time out (fbref.com doesn’t have xG for the Community Shield or the League Cup match against Millwall):

xG Difference (first 5 matches)

Opponent xG xGA Difference
Opponent xG xGA Difference
Wolves 0.8 1.1 -0.3
West Ham 0.8 2.5 -1.7
Norwich City 1.3 1.6 -0.3
Manchester City 0.8 2.8 -2
Napoli 0.7 1.9 -1.2
TOTAL 4.4 9.9 -5.5

Looking at that, you’d have to say they were a little fortunate to have won 2 and drawn 1 over that span. Starting with the Brighton match, things completely reversed:

xG Difference (last 4 matches)

Opponent xG xGA Difference
Opponent xG xGA Difference
Brighton 1.7 1.4 0.3
Burnley 2.6 0.7 1.9
Legia Warsaw 1.9 1.1 0.8
Crystal Palace 1.7 1.3 0.4
TOTAL 7.9 4.5 3.4

The Foxes have bagged only 2 points over four matches where they’ve been the better side in each of them. It’s worth noting that xG gives no credit for the bizarrely ruled-out goals against Brighton; our advantage would have been heavier otherwise.

Brighton & Hove Albion v Leicester City - Premier League
Still salty. Literally the only people who concurred with the decisions were people who are expected to back up refereeing decisions in all cases.
Photo by Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images

I’m not going to do the linear regression, but I can assure you that five negative data points followed by four positive ones will give your line an upward slope. The Foxes ARE playing better than they were and than the results suggest.

Prognosis: Most of the time, improved performances will result in improved results. I say “most of the time” because you may recall that Brighton was xG’s darling last year and you saw that turned out. However, metrics like xG and even goal differential are better predictors of future performance than results are. I can say with certainty that the team is improving. What I can’t say is that the results are certain to reflect this.

Conclusion:

It all comes down to the defence. If every turnover in midfield turns into a goal-scoring opportunity for the opponent and if every set piece forces you to watch through a crack in the fingers you have covering your face, your team is going to struggle in all areas.

You may have noticed that I didn’t say anything about the lack of creativity in the final third and the disappointing displays from some of the star attacking players. I’ll be honest: I don’t think that those issues are the real problem here. If/when the Foxes steady the ship, it will be by solidifying the back line. Can a team struggling at the back afford to have a creative player like Madders in midfield trying to get his rhythm back? I want to see him on the pitch, but it’s hard to blame Rodgers for his reluctance.

Legia Warszawa v Leicester City: Group C - UEFA Europa League
This ain’t Anfield. Sometimes you will walk alone.
Photo by Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images

There is a very real chance that we won’t see our first choice back four any time this year. The challenge for Rodgers is to find a way to glue together a defence in which every player on the pitch is confident no matter who is available. There have been improvements: The xGA for the first five matches averaged just under 2 goals per match; it’s been just over 1 per match over the last four. If he can sort that out, the attacking flow will come. If not, his time as Leicester’s manager could be running out.