Leicester City are stubborn, relentless and proving everyone wrong. Much has been made of the manner of their surge from relegation candidates to top of the Premier League table (for a period), and rightly so.
The predictable underdog clichés shading toward playing with a weightlessness—without expectation and using a chip on their shoulder to find an extra edge—are unfortunately all applicable here. But, instead of assuming that you are satisfied with awful sports rhetoric, I’ll try to detail these notions with numbers and tactics.
Leicester have been on an offensive tear through the first half of the 2015-16 season, led by the sharp arrow point of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. They are currently first and third (tied) respectively in goals scored, while Mahrez is also fifth in the league in assists. In that time Vardy set the record for most consecutive goals scored in the Premier League era, with 11, breaking Ruud van Nistelrooy’s previous mark.
While Leicester scored a lot of goals (37 total, second best in the league), they also conceded a lot of goals (25 total, 11th in the league). This created an exciting concoction that baffled onlookers who generally pegged them to fade into their “rightful” place in the table, but consistently proved the same public wrong.
Some of the numbers are excellent, like worldly excellent. According to Michael Caley's numbers they are the most counter-attacking team in Europe's top four leagues (Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and Serie A) through the 1st half of the season, with 33 percent of their total shots coming from counter-attacks. Most impressively, not only are they showing these proportions, but they have outperformed their expected goals numbers (xG—which calculates how many goals an average team would have scored with the amount and quality of shots created) by the best differential in the same European leagues (13.9 more goals than xG). They are scoring at an incredibly high clip, and they're doing it with a high conversion rate from “unexpected” situations.
Table: G (Goals), xG (expected Goals), color gradient respects %CAS (counter-attack shots) where red is minimum and green is maximum.
Driven by a counter-attack that resembles a compressed coil, Leicester is generally disciplined and selfless in their condensed defensive shape, but when released in possession they are strong, quick and ruthless.
Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri has deployed a 4-4-2 formation in almost every league match this season and has consistently and publicly told his team to “enjoy their football” and to “run, run, run.” This freedom in offensive expression and willingness to shed the shackles of pressure and structural constraint has proved extremely successful.
There are a few key factors in the Leicester City counter-attack, some unique and some fundamental to most successful counter-attacking styles.
The first element is fundamental: complete defensive commitment from all players in work rate and starting position. There is no question that the Leicester players work tirelessly for their cause (queue underdog, pressure-free cliché), but it is all tied together with positional discipline concerning a starting point.
The point of a counter-attack is to launch from some intentional defensive position (either deep, or fairly deep into one's defensive half) to an attacking position through quick transition. The launching point is particularly important in order to have the space to run into, to move the opposition's players to create vulnerability, and to be frustratingly hard to break down in your own defensive half.
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Leicester City, although they concede goals at an above league average rate, are disciplined, athletic and dogged in their work rate at every position. But, they simply do not have the quality in defence (specifically their back four), as they do in offence. This is made up for by a striker (Vardy) who hounds the opposition in possession, wingers (Mahrez and Marc Albrighton) who are willing to track back and tuck into a cohesive shape, and two central midfielders (N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater) who combine to epitomize the pillars of the Leicester City style of selflessness through work rate, defensive tooth with offensive burst and unpredictability.
This style of offence, complimented by the side's Scoring% (goals for/shots on target for)—second in the league at 38.5 percent—and Vardy's willingness to pull the trigger through such an effective streak, might account for some of the gap between their xG and goals scored numbers.
One of the weaknesses of an xG metric is the inability to completely account defensive player locations, and attempt to do so without GPS, or locational data. When in a counter-attack transition, the possession style heavily favours the offence for aforementioned reasons (space for attackers to run into, defenders are moving and transitioning back into a team shape and defenders in a vulnerable position running back towards their own goals).
Such a possession lends itself to attackers shooting from mediocre distances and sometimes rather acute angles because of the other compiled advantages and the pressure to end the counter-attack with a shot on target. To then cycle ball back out of the attacking third through possession, or slowing the tempo down instead of risking a shot on target would be considered a wasted chance.
Now, the obvious question is if this style play, with such underlying statistics, is sustainable through the second half of the season? Will teams finally respect Leicester City's full throttle attack instead of their suspected place in the established Premier League pecking order and play a more compact, condensed style against them?
Although the sample size of collected Premier League data is insufficient to claim there is no significant historical precedence of a sustained, season long run similar to what Leicester City has been pacing thus far, there are some recent examples. Simon Gleave points out that this is not the first time that Leicester have found themselves in a such position, as other sides have “surprised” as well—but none have finished above sixth.
Either way, 39 points achieved by Leiceister City in the first half of the 2015-16 Premier League season is great. It's great for the league, it's great for the fans, it's great for the complexity of systems used in the league, it's great for the underdog, and it's a nightmare for analytics. Great.
Coleman Larned is soccer analytics writer based in Antwerp, Belgium. Follow him on Twitter