What a season 2015/16 was for Leicester City. Claudio Ranieri’s team surpassed all pre-season expectations and secured the Premier League title. But what happens now for Leicester? They have the additional challenge of the Champions League, and will attempt to defend the title. Before that there is the small matter of the summer transfer window. Looking at Leicester’s squad and the unprecedented position the club finds themselves in, there are a number of issues which make it this transfer window, and those that follow it, crucial to the future success of Leicester City.
Issues for Leicester include the possibility of a bigger squad being needed for additional matches and potential replacements for key players if the vultures swoop. Something that is also worth looking at is the age of the squad. From a distance the squad seems on the old side, but is it much different to other teams and is it something to be concerned about? Could this affect their decisions in the transfer market?
An Age-Utility matrix is a chart that can be used to visualise just that: Which players are being used? How often? How old are they? It also contains a ‘peak years’ area, within which a player should be performing at their highest level (in theory). Although many factors can affect a player’s ‘peak years’, such as injuries and position, 24-30 is generally a good fit. I first came across this on Ben Torvaney’s blog where he used it to look at Bournemouth, credit to him for the idea.
Looking at this chart (here is a better quality interactive version) for Leicester last season, you can see that a large number of players with high % league mins (i.e. key players) are around the end of the red zone (their ‘peak’ years). This isn’t generally good news. (At this point it is important to note that this simple analysis looks at how successful a squad may be in the future, not currently. Having a squad full of peak age players is in theory very good for the team in the present. All of the players should be around their ‘peak’ ability. It may not be so good a few years down the line however…)
So how does this compare to other Premier League teams? I have already touched on the fact that from a distance the Leicester team seems older than most, but how much older, if at all?
If we ignore players that have played less than 10% of league mins as ‘non-regular’ members of the squad, let’s have a look to see which teams rely on players who have left (or who are soon to leave) their peak years. I’ve taken this to be 29 or older, so within two years all of these players would be considered ‘non peak age’ players.
You can see on the chart below that Leicester use the third most ‘regular’ players that are 29 and over, as a proportion of their squad. 53% of ‘regular’ players are 29+ compared with a league average of 37%. It would be desirable in theory to be around the average, implying you do not rely too much on players who are soon to leave their ‘peak’ but does not leave your squad inexperienced.
OK, but how much football are these older players playing? How important are they to the team? If they are only playing, say 15% of mins in a season, they should be reasonably easy in theory to phase out. Not an issue. They aren’t ‘key’ players. What wouldn’t be ideal is if a lot of a team’s key players were about to enter an age where a lot of players tend to decline…
Taking a ‘key’ players to be someone who played more than 50% of league mins last season, let’s do that chart again:
Ah… this chart is showing that Leicester have the highest proportion in the league of ‘key’ players that will not be considered in their ‘peak’ within two seasons. 64% of their ‘key’ players last season were 29 or older. The league average is 39%. That doesn’t sound like good news.
On the other side of the coin, how many Leicester players will reach their ‘peak’ years soon? …Not many, is the short answer. Only one player in last season’s squad (Schlupp) will reach ‘peak’ years in the next two seasons. The squad contained four players younger than 24, with only one (Schlupp again) playing more than 10% of league mins. Admittedly, two of these four (Gray and Amartey) under 24s arrived in the January window, so only had half a season to reach the 10% cut off.
How does this compare to other clubs in the league?
As the chart below shows, this is the fifth lowest proportion for Premier League clubs last season at 7%, the average being 16%.
So, what does this mean for Leicester and their future transfer dealings?
Leicester have the league’s highest proportion of ‘key’ players that will be, in the next two seasons, of an age where deterioration in ability is more common. They also play the fifth lowest proportion of players in the league yet to reach their peak. This means it would be wise to be looking for younger (not necessarily ‘young’) players to phase into the squad more urgently than other teams in the league.
So Leicester play lots of older players regularly and not so many younger players. But what makes this transfer window so crucial for them and not another club in a similar position? West Brom, for example?
Well, look at the situation Leicester are in. It’s unprecedented for them. Premier League holders. Pot one of the Champions League. Income set to soar due to not only the new Premier League TV deal, but Champions League prize money, and the inevitable increase in commercial income. However repeatable you think last season was, it’s hard not to think that Leicester are about an attractive as a proposition as they are ever going to be. It’s unlikely they will win the league again this season. Now is the time to secure the talent that was previously unattainable, and with a need for younger talent to add into the squad, they are in an excellent situation to secure some high quality younger talent. This could go some way to ensure the club is competing at the top end of the league in the coming years.
A few points of caution should be noted, however. One of the main reasons for the success of last season discussed the media was the togetherness of the squad. Any new signings would have to fit the ethos of the club, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed with the players, and indeed the head of recruitment, Steve Walsh. It is also unlikely that many, if any, of the starting XI that played so often last season will be displaced before the start of the season. So any new signings, if there are no notable departures, may have to accept a place on the bench to start the season.
It presents a fascinating scenario for Leicester. They likely need to add to their squad for extra games next season, yet at the same time have bigger clubs taking an interest in key players. They are as attractive as they likely will ever be, yet it is imperative not to disrupt the close-knit squad with the wrong kind of player. They have a league high proportion of older key players and play some of the least amount of younger players. They need to think about the future and take advantage of the present. So what is the answer?
A likely move would be small number of additions to the current squad of younger players (23-27 could be a good age band to look at). They should also be able to use their current situation and attract talent that was previously unattainable.
The transfer business done already this summer has been encouraging. Nampalys Mendy (24), Ron-Robert Zieler (27) and Luis Hernández (27) all fit the age band suggested and will all have at least two ‘peak’ years by the time all of the current 29 and over group will have passed their ‘peak’ years. Leicester bid for Mendy last summer without success, to land him now may be a sign of their increased attractiveness to players, whilst Zieler was linked with more prestigious clubs before signing.
With a couple more additions, the future of this Leicester City side could be secured for a few more years yet. They may even continue to upset the established order of the Premier League.
Feedback is welcome on here or on Twitter (@GeorgeBall95). If you are interested to see the age-utility matrix for other PL clubs, I tweeted this showing all PL clubs from last season in GIF form, and this is it as an interactive chart. Data for the charts is from whoscored.com.