At the end of a season, there is usually one club that never seemed to be of Premier League quality before who surprise the world. Last season Sunderland were at the bottom of the table in the middle of April, seven points from safety, and its remaining schedule included matches against Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea. The Black Cats suddenly reeled off a five-match unbeaten streak, including victories over United and Chelsea and a draw with City. From near-certain relegation Sunderland sprung forward to finish in 14th place.
This season the miracle workers are the Foxes of Leicester City. Through February 8th, Leicester had won just four matches of 24 and were bottom of the table. News circulated that Manager Nigel Pearson had been sacked, and then a day later it was reported that he was reinstated. The saga was strange, but nothing in Leicester’s play particularly suggested that the Foxes would improve under the same management. But that is exactly what happened. Leicester City has gone 6-2-4 in twelve matches under the same manager and with 37 points the Foxes are very close to securing a place in the Premier League next season.
This weekend sees a matchup between the miracle workers of last season and the present one, as Sunderland host Leicester City on Saturday. Neither side is fully safe from relegation once again. Further, the match should provide some real attacking excitement as well, because Leicester City has transformed itself into a truly dangerous side going forward in the weeks since the near-sacking of its manager.
Before Pearson was sacked (and then reinstated), Leicester City had been averaging about 11 shots per match. By expected goals, a measure of the quality of chances created, these shots added up to about 1.0 expected goals per match. Since the sacking and reinstatement, the Foxes have averaged about 13 shots per match and 1.5 expected goals per match, an incredible 50 percent improvement in chance creation.
This means the club has improved its total shots attempted, but more importantly Leicester has been creating higher-quality chances. Through Feb. 8, the Foxes were averaging a very poor four shots per match from the danger zone, the area in the center of the penalty box from which most goals are scored. Since that figure has jumped up to 6.1 attempts per match.
Leicester has improved both its ability to create high-quality chances and its discipline seeking out shots with better goal expectation.
This transformation of the club’s attack is a striking confirmation of one of soccer analytics’ more counter-intuitive findings. A study by Bas ter Weel found that teams which sacked their managers saw improved performance over the following matches. But Ter Weel also found similar results for other teams which, when they found themselves in similar kinds of slumps as those which sacked their manager, chose to stay the course. The result suggests that the improvement that clubs appear to see from manager sackings is actually, for the most part, an effect of regression to the mean. These teams were not as bad as they seemed to be, and their improvement in play would happen regardless of whether the man at the top remained.
Leicester City, in sacking and then un-sacking Nigel Pearson, provide a great example of a team which was in position to let its manager go. The club not only improved its play, but added attacking discipline and radically improved its shot selection. Clearly Pearson made adjustments to his attacking tactics and they were effective. It does not necessarily take a new manager to make changes and improve a club’s performance.
This weekend, Leicester City has a chance to ensure safety. At the moment in my projections the Foxes are most likely safe, with a chance of relegation under three percent. Any result this weekend away to Sunderland would make it nearly impossible for the Foxes to be relegated. On the other side, Sunderland is looking for a victory to once again secure its last-minute safety.
This match has major implications for the relegation battle, with both clubs at risk of dropping to the Championship if results go against them. It is further a match to watch because Leicester City’s turnaround is the story of the season at the bottom of the table. The Foxes have suddenly created a Premier League quality attack with impressive discipline, and if they continue to play at this level they should be assured a spot in the top division next year, as well.