After the five years Leicester City fans have had you could forgive them for settling for a quiet season.
They have seen more drama than most fans experience in a lifetime. A quick recap: 2013 – Lose Championship playoff semi-final in the last minute after missing a penalty seconds before, 2014 – promoted to Premier League with 102 points, 2015 – win seven of last nine games to complete one of the greatest great escapes, 2016 – Premier League title by ten points, 2017 – Brush with relegation and Champions League quarter-final.
Exhausted? Well, it’s likely things will calm down this season as Craig Shakespeare starts his first full season as a manager. Aiming to improve on a mid-table finish, upper mid-table may be the best the club can hope for, as the top six looks increasingly like a closed shop.
In this preview, I’ll have a look at some of the numbers from last season, how the squad is shaping up, examine the transfer business and give my predictions for the upcoming season.
How did they do last season?
It makes sense to split 2016/17 into two parts: Claudio Ranieri and Craig Shakespeare.
Claudio Ranieri oversaw a fine run in the Champions League, but it was a different story in the league. A leaky defence, non-existent midfield and ineffective attack saw Leicester in serious danger of relegation and he was sacked in February. Whilst the rest of the world erupted in incredulity, most Leicester fans were sad to see him go but knew it was the right decision.
With Ranieri in charge, Leicester were ranked 14th for expected goal difference (-9.4), a measure of chance quality created and conceded. Examining the average expected goal difference over a rolling 5 game period (see the chart below), Ranieri oversaw a heavily fluctuating campaign, opening the season fairly well, but soon deteriorating. A pre-Christmas resurgence was soon displaced by a further run of bad performances, reaching a low in game week 24 – a 0-3 humbling at home to Manchester United.
Craig Shakespeare then took over (marked by the black line on the chart) and oversaw seven wins, two draws and four losses to secure safety. Performances were mostly positive, with wins over relegation rivals and respectable showings in narrow defeats at the Emirates and Etihad. However, a 1-6 loss at home to Tottenham did lead some fans to question Shakespeare’s suitability for the full-time job. Looking at the expected goals numbers, Shakespeare’s Leicester had an expected goal difference of -2.2, the 10th best in the league, an improvement on Ranieri’s time. As you can see from the rolling expected goal difference chart, Leicester had improved from their lowest point when Shakespeare took over. This improvement continued for his first few games, before petering out as the season finished.
Despite finishing 12th, they were an erroneous offside flag in the last game of the season away from a top ten finish, which should be the minimum expectation this season.
To date, Leicester have spent around £50m bringing in four new faces into the squad.
Eldin Jakupovic comes in from Hull to replace Ron-Robert Zieler as No.2 goalkeeper.
Also joining from Hull, Harry Maguire doubles the number of first team defenders under the age of 30. At 24, Maguire has his best years ahead of him and should grab the opportunity given by Robert Huth’s early season injury to cement his place in the side.
On the face of it, Vincent Iborra looks like a solid signing from Sevilla, whom he captained, with three Europa League titles to his name he brings a wealth of experience. Interestingly, he very nearly signed for Sunderland last summer, so make of that what you will!
Up front, and after weeks of speculation, Kelechi Iheanacho finally signed for a reported £25m last week. Iheanacho comes with a reputation for goal scoring in the little minutes he was allowed for Manchester City. He played just 525 league minutes last season, however he managed 4 goals and 3 assists. 2015/16 saw him score 8 and assist 2 in 753 minutes. These are excellent returns but come with the official Small Sample Size™ warning. Observers will be keen to see how Iheanacho does with regular league football for the first time in his career. He has started just 12 league games to date, playing the full 90 in only three. Naturally, his goal tallies will have been inflated at Manchester City by playing in one the best attacks in the league and often appearing as a substitute against tired legs.
From this small sample size, it has become apparent that Iheanacho is clever with his shots. As you can see from the chance map below, he ranked 3rd in the league last season for average chance quality (xG/chance), a valuable skill to have and one that is more repeatable than actual goals scored. It is expected he will play alongside Jamie Vardy in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 formation, with Iheanacho dropping deeper, supposedly his favoured position.
Looking at the squad visualised above (lighter blue represents younger players), it is obvious that the squad is on the large side, particularly in central midfield and up front.
Departures are expected before the season starts, most notably Riyad Mahrez. Whilst no one has come near the £50m asking price, teams such as Arsenal and Tottenham may be tempted if the price is lowered towards deadline day. This departure would leave a gap at right midfield. A potential solution would be moving Marc Albrighton back to a conventional winger, playing on the same wing as his strong foot, and placing Demarai Gray on the left wing and allowing him to cut in on his right foot. More importantly, this would leave a massive gap in the creativity of the side. The chances Mahrez created had an expected assist value of 7.1, which was by far the highest in the team (see chart below), and the 21st best highest in the league.
Elsewhere, the only depth available at right back is Daniel Amartey, who is primarily a centre midfielder. This may be a workable solution for now but as Simpson gets older it may be wise to invest in a younger right back to rotate with Simpson, similarly to the situation with Chilwell and Fuchs on the opposite flank.
In midfield, the club currently has no fewer than seven central midfielders on the books. Nampalys Mendy barely got a kick last season due to injury and whilst it would be a shame to see a player written off without being given a fair chance, it is hard to see a future for him at the club. Danny Drinkwater has been linked with a move to Chelsea. This looks unlikely currently but would be a big blow, despite below par performances last season.
Islam Slimani is an interesting case. He had a season disrupted by participation in the African Cup of Nations and injury but he did well when called upon. He had the highest expected goals per 90 minutes (0.39) of the squad, as well as the highest combined expected goals and assists per 90. The chart below shows this for the whole squad, with xG shown in blue and xA in yellow. Despite these numbers, it is hard to see where he fits in. He didn’t get much time to form a partnership with Jamie Vardy last season, and with the addition of Iheanacho, you do wonder what plans the club has for him. To see a club record signing leave after only 13 league starts would be a massive shame. In my view, it would make more sense to offload Leo Ulloa, who is 31, only started 3 league games last season and asked to leave in January.
Overall, the squad looks in good health. Younger players such as Gray, Chilwell, Iheanacho, Ndidi and Maguire should all see significant minutes, signalling a shift from the previous two seasons, in which the squad was one of the oldest in the league. A major problem will be created if Riyad Mahrez leaves, and it may see the club delve back into the transfer market to solve.
Players to watch
Kelechi Iheanacho – This one goes without saying. At £25m, Iheanacho comes with high expectations from media and fans alike to score goals. He may not score as regularly as he did in Manchester, but it is hoped he will form a fruitful partnership with Jamie Vardy.
Demarai Gray – Despite rumours about leaving, it is expected Demarai Gray will stay at the club. Craig Shakespeare has suggested he will play a larger role in the team than his did last season. Gray was a solid performer last season, if not frustrating with his shooting (see below). Can someone please explain shot locations to him! In fact, for average chance quality (xG/chance) he ranked 142nd out of the 144 players to have 20 or more chances last season. An area to improve on!
Matty James –With Danny Drinkwater set to miss the season opener on Friday, this is the man expected to partner Wilfred Ndidi in the centre. It is fair to say he’s had a tough two seasons. After rupturing his anterior ligaments at the end of the 2014/15 season, he had to sit out the whole of the famous 2015/16 season and then spent the second half of last season on loan at Barnsley to get back up to match speed. Now, he is ready to make up for lost time. Let’s not forgot, this is the man that kept Drinkwater out of the side in 2014/15. Looking at his radars for his time Barnsley (red) and the 2014/15 season at Leicester (blue), he was a solid centre midfielder, rarely losing the ball or being dribbled past, whilst creating chances himself.
With the top six seemingly off limits, I think Leicester City can be the best of the rest. Everton will have the distraction of Thursday night football, whilst Southampton are an unknown quantity, with another new manager in charge. Solid additions have been made to the spine of the team and without the distractions of the Champions League, the Premier League will be the sole focus.
Thanks for reading. I’m on Twitter @georgeball95.
This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.
Data for the radars is from whoscored.com
All other data from StrataBet.
Expected goals numbers exclude penalties.