This one isn’t going to finish 0-0. No way. Even Alex Neil doesn't think so. Dan Brigham finds out everything (literally everything) you need to know about Leicester City from blogger, statto and Foxes fan Leigh Riley.
Dan: Hi Leigh. So, after a bit of a crazy opening to the season for Leicester, let's rewind a few weeks. Nigel Pearson departs and Claudio Ranieri replaces him. Did you react like the entire English football media did, and wonder what on earth was going on and immediately predict relegation? Or were you one of the few who was happy to see the Tinkerman at the King Power Stadium?
Leigh: I was very much looking forward to a season of progression under Pearson after how well we finished last season. He had built a squad full of talented players and we played exciting attractive football most of the time - so I was shocked but not surprised when I heard of his dismissal. There’s no doubt in my mind Pearson would have achieved a mid-table finish this season, however it has to be said there were moments last season where he looked very much out of his depth – and showed it with questionable actions on and off the pitch.
The bookies favourites were uninspiring, and when Ranieri threw his hat in to the ring I have to admit he wasn’t my first choice for the job… that is, until I did some background research on Ranieri’s career – which, in reality, is phenomenal. After this I was somewhat miffed by all the bad press the appointment was getting and how so many tipped us for the drop. I wasn’t one of them.
If anything, Claudio’s track record of top-6 finishes (and making clubs top-6 teams) is unreal – and I was optimistic he would attract a higher calibre of player than Pearson ever could. So ultimately I believe he’s the right man to take our club forward. He’s experienced, has a proven track record at club level and is one of the most successful (win % anyway) managers in Premier League history. And what a start he has made!
Dan: It did seem the club had gone from sacking someone who looked suspiciously like he might have bodies buried under his patio to hiring the nicest man in football. It was a hell of a change, and I must admit I thought it would be a huge mistake to appoint Ranieri. Like Sunderland, where exactly are Leicester aiming for by appointing a manger like Ranieri? So, despite your excellent start, I still think a relegation scrap may be on the cards.
What's Ranieri changed on the pitch? Everything seems more chaotic than last season, when Leicester seemed very tight and tough to break down in most games.
Leigh: On the pitch? Not a great deal. We seem more composed on the ball and he’s allowed players like Riyad Mahrez much more creative freedom which has seen him excel. The goals we’re shipping in is more down to going fromfive5 at the back under Pearson (when we looked hard to break down) to a 4-4-2 – Mahrez leaves Ritchie De Laet exposed down our right and most teams seem to be heavily exploiting that fact. But in all honesty that’s the only major change.
Many will likely still have us down for a relegation battle, but I stick by my assessment in pre-season, 12th or above.
Other things that have changed? Well we’ve made solid acquisitions: Shinji Okazaki, who is Japans all-time leading goalscorer; Switzerland’s captain Gökhan Inler who brings bags of experience at the highest level; Austria’s captain Christian Fuchs, another who has played a lot of Champions League football; Robert Huth who most fans would say was the real game-changer for us last season when he came on loan (and not Esteban Cambiasso); N’Golo Kanté was the leading tackler / ball-winner in Europe’s top five leagues last season and looks a steal at £5.6m; Yohan Benalouane has yet to make an impact at the back, but looks decent also. And Nathan Dyer, who was knocking on England’s door not too long ago, is only going to add to our attacking pace.
The exciting thing is, out of those signing’s only Okazaki and Huth have featured regularly in the starting XI so far, with Inler and Kanté getting limited game time, so there is much more to come from us in terms of development.
Further to this we’re the league’s joint top-scorers this season, Jamie Vardy is the league’s top scorer and has already scored more goals than he did in the entirety of last season - and our top scorer last season is yet to start in the league (Leonardo Ulloa) and sits alongside a striker who has averaged a goal ever two games in his career in Andrej Kramarić who is also yet to start, so if we manage to plug the holes in the back we will be more than OK I should think.
An interesting stat for you: Leicester have only lost twice in their last 18 league and cup fixtures, scoring 40 goals in the process.
Dan: Well Norwich famously (at least in Norfolk) finished 3rd in the Premier League with a minus goal difference, so there are ways of getting away with leaky defences...
From the outside it seems as if Vardy and Mahrez have been on fire this season, but where have your other threats come from? Is there much creativity in your four-man midfield – and how do they match up against teams like Norwich who like to flood that area?
Leigh: Depending on the line-up that Ranieri chooses to go with, there are multiple threats.
Vardy and Mahrez have been phenomenal yes, before the Arsenal game Mahrez had contributed towards 62% of Leicester’s goals this season (five goals and three assists) and Vardy 38%. So far this season these two have been our main threats but there are other sources we can fall back. Marc Albrighton has three assists this season and a goal, and Dyer, De Laet and Okazaki all have a goal each. Albrighton is dangerous with his crossing, as is Fuchs. If Ulloa is on field he would be our main threat with Fuchs and Albrighon on the pitch.
That said, Ulloa and Fuchs are yet to start this season, so it’s more likely that Albrighton and Mahrez will start out wide. Dyer is also a considerable threat if he plays with his pace and direct attacking. Jeff Schlupp is also very dangerous from left-back, often making dashing runs forward with blistering pace. So there are plenty of threats out wide and plenty of goals in attack (Ulloa, Kramaric, Okazaki and Vardy have scored 298 career goals between them).
In terms of creativity, Mahrez is our main outlet and creative source, however Danny Drinkwater has really stepped up his game this season and has been a key factor in City’s great start to the season. Inler isn’t yet up to speed with the Premier League but he’s well known for being able to pick out a defence splitting pass, and Kanté, who is probably the most likely partner for Drinkwater on Saturday, managed a fair few goals and assists in France last season, although he is better known for nicking the ball off opponents.
One thing’s for sure though, Leicester will likely allow Norwich to play, and will concede much of the possession in favour of a counter-attacking, direct-passing game. We defend from the front and the front two are just as likely to nick the ball as any other player.
Norwich are a very good outfit, and like many others I think Saturday will be a big test for both clubs – it will be interesting to see how Leicester bounce back from the Arsenal defeat.
Dan: So you have plenty of threat going forward (although I'm still struggling to think of Albrighton and Drinkwater as Premier League regulars!), but only Sunderland have conceded more than Leicester this season. In fact, you've yet to keep a clean sheet in any competition.
Is there a pattern to the type of goals you've conceded, and is it down to a shaky back four or happily conceding possession in midfield? Seems a bit of a risky strategy when so many sides are adept at keeping possession now.
Leigh: Ha, I’m not sure why you think that. Albrighton has made 115 Premier League appearances and Drinkwater is more than capable, and another product of Manchester United’s youth team – he was our player of the season when we got promoted, but didn’t really play enough last year to prove himself.
There is a pattern to an extent, barring Arsenal who were simply something else at the weekend. Many of the goals we have conceded have been due to either a midfielder not tracking his man (Inler has been particularly suspect of this) or a defender’s lapse in concentration. Our full-backs are both weak areas defensively and are more attacking players than defenders. Schlupp started his career as a striker and now plays left back – he has improved no ends but it’s still quite clear he’s an attacking threat and a defensive liability, often losing concentration and allowing his man to roam free.
Huth is solid, but Wes Morgan is prone to the odd mistake and is fairly poor on the ball – he had a very up-and-down season last year and, for me, if he wasn’t the captain he’d have been dropped a long time ago. Marcin Wasilewski is a beast with bags of international experience who would do just as good a job if not better, and Benalouane looked solid against West Ham so both could be better options to partner Huth.
It’s also worth noting that Leicester had managed six clean sheets in our last 20 Premier League matches… but none under Ranieri so far. The fact we have conceded the second most this season is solely down to the Arsenal game – before that game we’d only conceded 10 in the last 10 premier league matches, which isn’t too bad.
The BBC did something recently on possession football, and the stats actually suggest that there is little correlation between having the most possession and winning football matches, especially if you record one of the highest shots-to-goals conversion rates in the league like Leicester currently do. To back that up, Leicester have only recorded an average 42% possession per game in their last 20 Premier League matches but scored 39 goals (1.9 per game), conceding 26 (1.3 per game), winning 50% of those games and losing only 20%. Leicester also have one of the lowest pass-success rates in the league due to their direct, risky pass game (only 67% in the last 20 BPL games).
Dan: Well with two suspect defences and two teams who haven't had trouble scoring this season, we could be in for some fun on Saturday. It’s heartening to hear that your full-backs pose a weakness in defence, as we’ve had a lot of luck from Robbie Brady, Matt Jarvis and Nathan Redmond on the wings so far this season.
As a neutral, is there much about Norwich that worries you ahead of the game?
Leigh: It won’t be easy, Norwich are playing some good football and are doing surprisingly well so far this season. But, if I’m honest, out of the teams that came up I did think Norwich would do the better of the three as they have a sound foundation throughout the squad.
From what I have seen so far, everything good comes through Wes Hoolahan, and Redmond is a real threat. My only reservations are whether or not you will score enough goals this season, although I don’t know enough about Dieumerci Mbokani to comment as of yet.
I actually really like the look of Brady as well. He’s certainly the danger-man from set-piece situations, which is another weak spot for Leicester. Graham Dorran’s and Youssouf Mulumbu are good acquisitions and Jarvis will be looking to prove himself after a poor stint with West Ham, so I do think Norwich have strengthened well.
I would say that like Leicester last year, not many opponents will be scared of individuals in the Norwich side in the same way you would be if up against Eden Hazard or Alexis Sánchez, but they are a good team, which as Leicester proved last year is a threat in itself. That said I would take Hoolahan and Redmond off your hands any day of the week.
Dan: Yep, all of our threat is in midfield – which has so far excelled this season. Full of really creative players, and nicely shielded by Alex Tettey – with Mulumbu still a way off from recovering from injury.
It's nice to have a manager who recognises the talent our midfield possesses and lets them to out and play. The key for opposition teams is shutting that midfield down, which so far only Southampton have achieved.
So, final quick questions:
Where do you think Leicester will finish this season?
Where do you think Norwich will finish this season?
Score prediction for Saturday?
Leigh: I think Leicester will finish 12th or above. If we carry on how we started a top-10 finish isn’t out the question. I imagine Norwich may still be down there but will finish a fairly comfortable 14th/15th. I’d take a point away from home, so 2-2.
Dan: Brilliant, thanks Leigh. There’ll definitely be goals in this game – even Alex Neil has said it’ll finish 0-0. While you have the more potent strikers, I think our midfield will boss it so I’m going for a 2-1 win.