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A Leicester top 4 finish might actually happen

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Before Leicester faced Arsenal on a cold, windswept November night at the King Power Stadium, talk of a top 4 finish was minimal. All the focus was on whether or not City could break the fabled “Big 6”, and this match with Arsenal was supposed to be a gauge of that.

As James Maddison lashed home Leicester’s 2nd goal in the 75th minute to make it 2-0 to the Foxes, that question was answered emphatically.

The manner of Leicester’s win against Arsenal – a long-time member of the Premier League elite – proved how far Brendan Rodgers‘ team had improved this season. They controlled the play, pinning the Gunners inside their own half as they passed their way through their defence. Every player exuded confidence, and there was rarely a mistake from anyone.

This is a different Leicester from the legendary title winners or 2016; there’s no sitting back and counter-attacking. This team takes the game to the opposition, and the fact they outplayed Arsenal at their own game so comfortably speaks volumes.

Leicester mean business, and they have big ambitions. But how far can they realistically go?

Playing with balance and intent

The key to Leicester’s success this season has been a clear style of play. Credit to Rodgers here, his coaching has very quickly established the kind of football he wants to see. Tactically, the balance of the starting XI is perfect.

Building on an experienced spine of Kasper Schmeichel, Jonny Evans and Jamie Vardy – all title winners, let’s not forget – Rodgers has blended youthful energy in abundance.

Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira are providing the kind of attacking wing-back play that’s served Liverpool so well. On current form, they’re very close in their importance to Leicester as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson are to the European champions. And not far behind in quality.

The midfield trio of Wilfred Ndidi, James Maddison and Youri Tielemans is where the balance is struck. Ndidi protects the back 4, Tielemans spreads the play, while Maddison supports Vardy with goals and assists. There are few midfield trios playing better in the Premier League right now.

On the wings, Harvey Barnes is turning into a formidable player, with Ayoze Perez settling well into the team. While in attack, Vardy is having his best season since the title win. If you were pushed to find a weakness in this Leicester team, you’d struggle.

Harry who? Soyuncu settles in.

The departure of Harry Maguire wasn’t a surprise. In fact they’ve been preparing for his departure since the summer of 2018, when Manchester United first sounded him out.

That summer they signed a relatively unknown Turkish defender from Bundesliga side Freiburg for a modest £19m. Caglar Soyuncu’s transfer went under the radar because of the focus on Maguire, Evans, and club captain Wes Morgan, all ahead of him in the defensive pecking order.

But Leicester knew Maguire would leave, and Morgan isn’t getting any younger. The signing of Soyuncu that summer was one of the smartest pieces of transfer business in the last few years, by anyone.

His attributes almost match Maguire’s like-for-like, and for a fraction of the record fee they eventually received for him. The scouting behind this deal is superb, and a hallmark of the Leicester set-up in recent years.

The same could be said of Tielemans. They lost NGolo Kante and Danny Drinkwater, but the acquisitions of Tielemans and Maddison for a combined £64m has proved a huge success.

What value would you place on those players now?

Are Leicester over-achieving?

Talk of a top 4 finish for Leicester is picking up pace, but there’s even talk of a title challenge from some – they are in 2nd place after all. But is this all warranted?

In truth, they have been very clinical with their finishing. Their xG (expected goals) is only 15.33 at this point – 14th highest in the league. In reality, they’ve scored 29 goals, that is incredible chance conversion.

In the 9-0 rout of Southampton, Leicester’s xG was 4.3 – they scored twice as many as expected.

What does all this mean? It means that in front of goal, Leicester don’t miss many chances. The fact that Vardy is the league’s top goal scorer confirms this. It also means that, yes, they are over-achieving. The challenge now is to make their own luck, and not let xG catch up with them.

Where will Leicester finish?

They lie 2nd in the table at the moment by virtue of some stellar performances, incredible goalscoring and a lot of good fortune. Their recruitment has worked superbly so far, and confidence is high.

These are all ingredients for a successful season. Leicester haven’t faced any adversity yet; a clean bill of health has helped them massively. They will lose a player to injury at some point, and a couple are indispensable right now. How they respond to this will be crucial.

Can they break the “Big 6” stronghold? Without a doubt. Are they a better team than Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea and Man Utd? On paper it’s very close, but on form they certainly are. A top 4 finish is very achievable for this Leicester side.

Can they win the title again? That might prove a stretch too far against world class Liverpool and Man City teams. But Leicester fans are in for a fantastic season one way or another.

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© Mike Barclay at The Football Diary 2020