Leicester City are now 8 matches into the long Championship season. This is both far too early to draw any definitive conclusions, but exactly the right amount* of matches to take a look at the direction of the club.
We’re currently at the top of the table, but there’s a nagging feeling that we haven’t really played our best yet. Let’s take a look at not just where we are but how we got there and see if we can suss out whether we belong in our lofty position and, more importantly, whether or not we can remain there.
Taking a page from Enzo Maresca’s book, let’s build from the back. Did you know that the Foxes have allowed the fewest goals of any club in the Championship? I’ll be honest; I was a little surprised to see we’d only conceded 5 times in the league. The reason for my surprise is that our xGA is a less-impressive 7.8. Only Hull City have bettered their xGA by a larger margin, so if it feels like we’ve been a little fortunate? That’s why.
But...if there’s any role where Premier League players are key for us, it’s in the back line. Ricardo, Faes, Vestergaard, and Justin are all veterans of the top flight. You would expect this defence to fare well in the Championship as they certainly have. The 7.8 xGA is still the fourth-best in the division, so even if we’ve been lucky, we’ve also been quite good.
Of course, you can’t talk about the defence without mentioning the goalkeeper. It was a little surprising that this position was prioritised when we already had a glut of keepers. Neither starter from last year has been able to get a minute in the side since the arrival of Mads Hermansen and it’s hard to argue with the results. He is fearless with the ball at his feet (something that has made me feel fear on multiple occasions) and he’s proven a terrific shot-stopper as well.
Then there’s our sole defensive midfielder, Harry Winks. I’d not been a big fan of his when he was at Spurs and there’s very little in his statistical record to suggest that he’s capable of having a big impact. For a defensive midfielder, he doesn’t really defend very much. I’m coming around, though. Think of him more as a #10 at the back. His role is to provide an outlet for the defenders and to safely transition into attack. He’s been outstanding and, while I’m still a little sceptical, I’m starting to think I was wrong about him. He is exactly what Maresca wants in a #8.
Here’s where it gets interesting. We’ve scored 14 goals and have the best goal differential in the league at +9. Our xG is 14.8, behind only Ipswich, but three teams have scored more goals than we have (the Tractor Boys along with Norwich City and Plymouth). So, the attack is working well and we’ve scored about as many goals as xG things we should have done.
It’s where those goals are coming from that makes it fun. Only three players have scored more than one goal in the league: Kasey McAteer (4), Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall (3), Stephy Mavididi (2), and Jamie Vardy (2). Even Wilfred Ndidi has chipped in with a goal (and two in the League Cup). Both wings and both #8s are getting heavily involved in the scoring which will surely delight Maresca.
Let’s talk a little more about Ndidi. If you’re like literally everyone else I know, you assumed his conversion to an attacking midfielder would be over as soon as Casadei was up to speed. Wilf has never been the most convincing player on the ball, but I will say he’s improved every year he’s been with us. He’s taken a huge leap so far this year and, with his defensive skills, our press is now a much bigger threat with him playing forward. If it seems strange that he’s still improving, remember that he’s younger than Vardy was when he scored his first Premier League goal.
Now, what’s really scary about this attack is that, while McAteer is our leading scorer, he might not even remain a starter. We addressed the chronic problem on the right wing with great wrath this past Summer. Abdul Fatawu looks like he could grab the job the way Mavididi did on the other side of the pitch. We haven’t seen much of Yunus Akgun yet, but I strongly believe he’ll play a key role this year. Oh, and let’s not forget that Patson Daka has yet to play a minute. We have a lot of arrows in the quiver right now.
I’m sold on him.
Enzo Maresca has a system. He seems to have the ability to teach that system and get the players to buy into it. That’s massive, and it’s massive with any system. You don’t see players on the ball looking up and holding their arms out, begging someone to make themselves available. They may not play it to perfection yet, but they understand what they’re trying to do.
Another thing that counts in the gaffer’s favour is how he manages when we’re chasing the game. You don’t see him throw striker after striker onto the field in the hope that one of them will do something interesting. He may switch the personnel around, but the system has stayed largely the same. There’s a plan rather than a panic.
The system itself doesn’t seem all that complicated. We line up in a 4-3-3 defensively and move to a (sorry Jack) 3-2-2-3 when in possession. The right-back, usually Ricardo, moves into midfield with Winks. The wingers stay wide and the #8s make runs behind the defenders when the ball goes to McAteer or Mavididi.
Only, it’s a lot more flexible than that. Usually, one defender makes a run into the opponent’s half. It’s often Doyle, but both Faes and Vestergaard have done it from time to time. On the left, Mavididi is prone to play give-and-go passes with KDH, while on the right, the ball often goes to Ndidi in the right channel. As for the striker? The striker seems to go wherever they want, although I suspect there’s more to it than that.
Anything Else We Should Know?
If all of that flexibility sounds confusing, it might be, but not to the players. We’ve had 60.2% of the ball and we’re completing 88.4% of our passes, second only to Southampton on both counts. We’re averaging 16.5 shots per match, third behind Ipswich and Southampton, so it hasn’t been aimless possession. For a team with a lot of new faces playing a brand new system, the early returns are very, very positive.
Here’s a number that will shock City supporters: We have won 60.6% of the aerial duels, which is the best in the Championship. We’ve also picked up the fourth-most yellow cards which I actually regard as a positive. We’re defending very aggressively. That’s why, even though we’re often leading matches, we’ve only faced a league-average number of shots on target. Add that to Hermansen’s league-leading 82.8% save rate and we’re very hard to score against.
So, Is This Performance Sustainable?
Oh, you wanted a longer explanation?
The underlying performance suggests that we’re one of the best, if not the best, team in the Championship through 8 matches. The table says the same thing. It’s always nice when the two of ‘em agree. You add that to the fact that no one believes we’ve found our top gear yet and things look very promising indeed.
It’s still only 8 matches, so the fact that this level of performance can be sustained doesn’t mean that it will be. Injuries happen. Clubs find something that works against this system and learn to shut us down. There are no guarantees. But if you put money on us to win automatic promotion, I suspect you’re feeling pretty good right now.
So, what do you think of Leicester’s start? I feel like it’s just a formality to ask, but let us know.
How are you feeling about Leicester City’s start to the campaign?
This poll is closed
Great! Premier League, here we come!
It’s been about what I expected, ask me again in January when we’ve played everyone.
Maresca out! (please, for the love of all that it is good, explain why in the comments)