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Why Are Leicester City Suddenly Good?

Not gonna lie: This was a lot more fun to write than “Why are Leicester City Suddenly Bad?”

West Ham United v Leicester City - Premier League Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

Leicester City started the season poorly. How poorly? The defence was the worst in the top four flights of English football. We had amassed a grand total of 1 point from the first 7 matches, Somehow, Brendan Rodgers wasn’t sacked, but there was no lack of voices calling for it. Things were bad enough that people were writing what amounted to eulogies for a club that had been held up as the model for other clubs until recently.

As you are probably aware, things turned around in a hurry. I cannot emphasize how curious this is, given that we have the same manager, (mostly) the same players, the same pretty much everything. We’ve become a completely different team over the last 8 matches. How does this happen?

The team has played a lot better.

That answer, while undeniably accurate, isn’t particularly helpful. Even though it looks as though nothing changed, there have been adjustments, both large and small, that have led to a change in style and identity for the Foxes. There’s also one huge external factor, but let’s save that for the end.

The Tactics

When we were shipping goals like never before, the Foxes were playing a 4-1-4-1 shape with a single holding midfielder screening the back line. At the start of the season, this was Wilfred Ndidi, who wasn’t in the best form. He got hurt, and Boubakary Soumare took over and the initial results weren’t encouraging.

You won’t see it in the recaps, which still list the same 4-1-4-1 shape, but Rodgers tweaked the tactics and had Youri Tielemans playing deeper to help Soumare. This bolstered the defence and provided an additional outlet for the defenders trying to play the ball out of the back.

Defensive Shape

In addition to lacking cover, the back line was struggling to be a line. It was more a scattering of four or more players all over the pitch and their movement seemed entirely independent of each other or even where the ball was at the time.

Watching the Everton match on a large screen, it was striking just how disciplined the line had become. The Foxes had four players moving as one, and that made it much more difficult for attackers to find space. Against West Ham, I only saw the line break once, and it would have resulted in a goal had Jarrod Bowen not strayed offside. I can’t say if it’s coaching or if it’s individual accountability or another factor, but City have definitely made defensive discipline a priority.

Leicester City v Newport County - Carabao Cup - Third Round - King Power Stadium
Hair like that doesn’t happen on it’s one. Scalp massages are your friend.
Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images

Attacking Directly

The first seven matches this season brought comparisons to “Puel ball” which, if you’re new to Leicester City, is seldom meant as a compliment. The Foxes were dominating possession match after match, but not creating a lot of quality chances. From an aesthetic standpoint, it wasn’t a lot of fun to watch, but my opinion might be influenced by the fact that we were losing every match.

Since then, Leicester have rediscovered the joy of striking on the counter. Both goals against West Ham came from counterattacks, reminiscent of the days when Vardy and Mahrez were scoring every time an opponent took a corner. Speaking of corners...

Set-Piece Defence (and the Goalkeeper)

I have no clue what set-piece coach Lars Knudsen has taught this team, but I can tell you that it works. Leicester not only don’t concede from corners anymore, they don’t look overly fussed by them. That’s fortunate because we’re still giving them up in abundance; we’re just not being punished for it.

A lot of the credit has to go to Danny Ward. Danny’s debut in the #1 shirt was rough, and I was among those who weren’t convinced that he was up to the task. I was wrong. Ward has upped his shot-stopping game, but just as importantly, he commands the area on set pieces. He loves to come for the cross and, if he can’t collect it, he’ll knock it a mile out of the area. I’d almost forgotten goalkeepers were allowed to do that.

The look of a man who has just made his sheets anything but clean (and no, even I’m not sure exactly what I mean by that).

The Manager

Add “Brendan Rodgers’ ability to turn this team around” to the long, long list of things I’ve been wrong about. I didn’t see any positive movement in the performances and thought that he’d run out of ideas. We seemed to be trying the same thing, week after week, and that one thing wasn’t working.

The gaffer has had a hand in all the above changes in the way the Foxes have played. He hasn’t gone in and made wholesale changes to the tactics or the personnel, but he’s subtly changed a lot of smaller things and they’ve added up to a huge difference in the performances. I have to give credit where it is due: Rodgers has done some of the best work of his career over the last two months.

The Personnel

Here’s where things start to get a little weird. There haven’t been any new players brought in, but injuries have forced a couple of changes to the defence and the defence got a lot better immediately afterwards. I haven’t been Soumare’s biggest fan, and when Ndidi went down, I thought we would be in big trouble if we tried to play the same way with Soumare as the holding midfielder.

I wasn’t wrong, but, as I’ve mentioned, we got him some help. But, he’s also upped his game. Soumare’s greatest strength is his great strength; he’s almost impossible to take off the ball once he gets it. This skill has provided much-needed stability to a midfield that likes high-risk/high-reward play. In addition, he’s growing into his defensive duties and improving as a passer.

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Leicester City - Premier League
“Boubakary Soumare holds off Adama Traore.” Think about that one for a sec and appreciate it.
Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

The other injury was the loss of captain Jonny Evans after the loss to Bournemouth. Daniel Amartey has stepped in alongside Wout Faes and they’ve been nigh-unbeatable. In the six matches where we’ve played a back four with Amartey and Faes, we have surrendered exactly zero goals. Yes, I know how crazy that sounds and I’ve gone back and checked the numbers numerous times. The only goal we’ve allowed was the Keven De Bruyne free kick for Manchester City, and we were playing three at the back at the time.

I don’t have any explanation for this, at least, not beyond “Wow, Wout Faes is really, really good.” You have to give credit to Amartey as well; I’ve never seen him stick to his task and be where he’s supposed to be as regularly as he has over the last month or so. Whatever the reason, the Faes/Amartey partnership is now the best in the Premier League and you have to question whether or not Evans gets right back into the team.

And if this had gone in? Scenes.

The Schedule

Look, I hate to be a spoilsport, but I don’t think we should ignore the fact that the recent improvement in form coincides with the softest spot in our schedule. The teams we played in the first 7 matches have an average position on the table of 8.5, with 23.6 points. The next 8 teams have an average position of 14.1 and have amassed 16.6 points. Of the last 8, only Manchester City are in the top half of the table.

My point isn’t that we haven’t improved, but that we have improved and we’ve played significantly weaker competition. You put those two together and you can go on a nice run. I just don’t want to create the impression that we’re back to “competing for the Champions League form”...yet.

As fans, we’re accustomed to associating changes in form with big, obvious changes: New players, new manager, or new tactics. That’s not the case here. Instead, there have been a number of smaller, more subtle changes that have added up to a massive change in results. Those changes have coincided with a run of less-challenging fixtures, allowing the team to string together an impressive run of results.

How good are the Foxes? Which is the “real” team? I don’t expect us to continue to shut out almost every opponent, but this team is genuinely better than they were. Leicester sit 13th on the table, but their goal differential is exactly zero, which is the same as Manchester United (5th on the table) and Chelsea (8th). With a little fortune and a shrewd purchase or two in January, could this team challenge for European football?

Yes. Yes they could. Let us know your take in the comments.