Leicester City have played 23 matches so far. The Foxes have won 19 of them and drawn 1. So, if you have any expectation that this article will be filled with negativity and harsh grading, temper those expectations now. This has been an extraordinary half-season and the grade will reflect this truth. You don’t get here without most things going right and very few going wrong.
City started this Championship campaign with an incredible roster of strikers, some Premier League holdovers in defence and midfield, and a whole lot of new faces, including that of the manager, Enzo Maresca. We were optimistic, but I don’t think anyone expected us to get this good, this fast, and in this way. The three strikers, who are among the three highest-paid players in the Championship, are the lowest-graded unit in this article.
It’s been a little surreal.
- We had four first-team goalkeepers but we brought in a fifth.
- The best defence in the Championship features a defensive midfielder who doesn’t defend and a centre-half who couldn’t make the bench under Brendan Rodgers.
- Our best defensive midfielder has been converted to an attacker and it’s worked brilliantly.
- While the players have moved around to different roles at times, the system has remained the same. This includes playing only one striker, even when behind.
- A team that couldn’t defend corners fired its set-piece coach and now is the best team in the air of the very aerially-minded Championship.
It’s been, as the kids say, a lot. So, without further build-up, here are our player grades for the first half of the season. We’ve included scouting stats from the amazing fb-ref.com and we cannot thank them enough for their work. Please note that the charts show the last 360 days of statistics, but for the players in our starting XI, those numbers will be heavily weighted towards the last 6 months.
One final caveat: The Foxes play an extreme brand of possession football. This being the case, the Leicester defenders have a lot less defending to do than the average player in their position. There are just fewer balls available to intercept, fewer chances to tackle, and fewer shots on goal. Keep that in mind when evaluating the defenders.
Mads Hermansen: Going into the summer transfer window, I expected that goalkeeper would be well down on the list of priorities. Not because we didn’t need to upgrade, but because we had four first-team keepers under contract. Maresca agreed with the first part, but didn’t care about the second. He made quick work of identifying his man. Denmark’s #2 immediately became Leicester’s #1.
Hermansen was brought in for his distribution and calmness on the ball, both of which are outstanding. What doesn’t get enough attention is his shot-stopping. He’s the reason the Foxes have been able to get away with playing such a high defensive line. Has he made some mistakes? Certainly. But, he’s the ideal base for the style of play Maresca insists on and he’s only going to get better. Grade: A
As mentioned above, this unit has had relatively little to do when out of possession. They have, however, been busy little guys when we have the ball. When called upon to defend, they’ve done fantastic work even if it looks a little chaotic at times. Wout Faes is an agent of chaos; he can handle it. The bottom line is, we’ve allowed fewer goals than any other club. Can’t ask for much more than that. Group Grade: A
Wout Faes: The Belgian had the scent of a last-minute panic buy when he came in at the end of the summer window last year. The available video suggested that he was prone to, let us say, “high-risk” endeavours that didn’t always come off. Thus far this year, he’s curtailed his more impulsive defensive activities and restricted his adventures to swashbuckling runs into the opponents’ area. You can see from the numbers that he has been excellent in both passing quality and quantity without losing his focus on keeping the ball out of our goal. Grade: A+
Jannik Vestergaard: Let completely out in the cold by Rodgers, Vestergaard has forced himself into the starting XI and refused to relinquish his position to Conor Coady. Playing in the centre of a back three when in possession, the quality and range of his passing has been so good it makes you wonder what it was that Brendan Rodgers didn’t like. He’s also the primary reason the Foxes have the highest aerial duel success rate in the league. Grade: A
Callum Doyle: The Manchester City loanee was a mainstay on the left side of the back three before a knee injury put him on the sidelines for an extended period. Doyle loves to trigger the attack both with the ball at his feet and with a long pass. The passes haven’t always come off, but when they did they were special. He’s also seldom passed up the opportunity to shoot, which will count as a plus when he starts getting more of them on target. Grade: B+
James Justin: In many ways, he’s the opposite of Doyle. Forced to play on the left, the right-footed centre-half/fullback has stuck to playing tidy passes and minding his defensive duties. These are things that might not excite the crowd, but managers love players like this. Grade: B
Ricardo Pereira: The vice-captain has the unusual job of playing as a fullback in defence and a central midfielder in attack. I’m sure that there’s a proper footballing term for this role, but I’m going to call it a “Ricardo.” He’s not beating people off the dribble anymore, but one suspects that this is at the instruction of the gaffer as much as a lack of ability. He’s keeping the attack ticking and providing defensive cover alongside Winks when needed. He’s taken to the unique, new role like a thing takes to a thing it was born to take to. That’s a phrase, right? Grade: A
Hamza Choudhury: He was the Championship’s best defensive midfielder last year so it’s no surprise that, when called upon to fill the Ricardo role, he’s absolutely aced the defensive side of things. He’s not contributing to the attack, but his pass success rate is way up from last year. He’s been fantastic as a fill-in when Ricardo was unavailable or when closing out a match. Grade: B
I swear, I thought Winks would be the #8 and Ndidi the anchor of the formation. Shows how much I know. I still don’t really get how this works. It doesn’t matter though: Wilf is a monster in attack and Winks is the best, um, “inverted #10” (?) I’ve ever seen. Group Grade: A
Harry Winks: Huh. I didn’t see this coming. Winks is absolutely brilliant at what he does, which is orchestrating the ball movement from the back. He’s the deepest midfielder of the three, but he contributes almost nothing defensively...unless you count “keeping possession,” which you absolutely should count. He plays a role that doesn’t light up statistical charts, but there’s no denying he’s been integral to everything Leicester have done. Grade: A
Wilfred Ndidi: Speaking of things I didn’t see coming, how about “dominant offensive force Wilfred Ndidi.” Look at all that green in the attacking section of the stats. This is a combination of a player having untapped ability and the intelligence to understand the manager’s system and execute it. He’s been a revelation. Grade: A
Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall: KDH said at the outset that his goal was to be the best player in the Championship and he has arguably been that over the first 19 matches. His attacking contribution has been literally off the charts in every area and he’s been brilliant launching the attack from deep positions as well. The scary thing is that he may have another gear. Grade: A+
With packed defences to unpack, high lines to defend, and relentless pressing from the front, the wingers have a lot of responsibility in this system. All they have to do is score goals, get assists, pass the ball, keep the ball, win it back when they don’t keep it, and cover for the wide defenders when they get caught up the pitch. That’s all. I had no idea what Stephy Mavididi and Abdul Fatawu would be able to do in England, but it wasn’t this. Brilliant across the board: Group Grade: A
Stephy Mavididi: I was skeptical of the Derby-born winger when we bought him, but I need not have been. He’s been excellent across the board in all areas of the pitch. Maresca asks a lot of his wide men and Mavididi’s been up to the task. Not only does he rack up goals and assists, but he gets attacks started and even contributes defensively. Can he do it in the Premier League? We’ll know in 19 matches, won’t we? Grade: A
Kasey McAteer: The academy product was the first-choice right-winger at the start of the season and was our first player to fourth goals. He’s not the prolific passer Maresca might prefer, but he does everything else well and his workrate has been outstanding. He’s lost his place not so much because he did anything wrong, but because Fatawu has been so good. Grade: B+
Abdul Fatawu: Goodness, this lad’s still a teenager? He’s an absolute terror on the pitch and far too good for this level. He does everything well other than score and anyone who’s watched him knows that it’s just a matter of time. The Curse of Riyad Mahrez has finally been lifted. Grade: A
This is the one area of the pitch where we expected to overwhelm our opponents. Leicester have so much class and experience in their strikers that they would surely be the lynchpin of our promotion campaign. Or, you know, not. That’s not how Maresca plays. The goals come from the wings and overlapping #8s. The strikers are often called upon to receive short passes from their own keeper (or, ideally, the opposing keeper, but that doesn’t happen very often). It seems like a waste of resources until you look at the results. Group Grade: B
Jamie Vardy: The ageless wonder is starting to age a little. There are still goals in him, and he’s adapted to Maresca’s play style well, but the pace isn’t what it was. What he still does better than anyone else in the squad is lead the press and handle his defensive duties. I hate to say it, but he’s just not the first choice to lead the line right now. Grade: C+
Kelechi Iheanacho: Iheanacho likes to drop a little deeper and is more involved in the build up than Vardy. As such, he seems like the perfect Maresca striker. He very nearly is, but he’s not a great presser and don’t get back and defend much. That said, he’s performed the most consistently of our strikers this year. Grade: B
Patson Daka: Daka’s numbers are funny looking. They include his massive goal drought from last year and his recent run of form hasn’t really moved the needle yet. It’ll come, as the Zambian is the best out-and-out striker we have right now. That’s fortunate, as he’s the one we have under contract next year as well. Grade: B and trending up
This will be the least surprising grade I’ve ever assigned anyone ever. Leicester are top of the table and on pace for an absurd number of points. The gaffer changed the system, assigned roles new roles to old players, brought in new players who had mixed (or no) records of success, and integrated it all into a footballing juggernaut almost overnight.
I’m not 100% sure I understand why or how it all works, but there’s no denying that it does. Will it work in the top flight? I don’t know and I’m not fussed about it yet. This year’s job is to get back to the top flight and we’ve made more progress towards that goal than any of us dared hope. Grade: A+++