Manchester City plays on Saturday in a match between the English Premier League’s top two sides. This would not have been surprising before the season, given City’s talent and payroll. It is difficult to overstate how unlikely it was considered that Leicester City would the other club in a match between the league leaders. Over the summer, the betting markets placed the chances of Leicester City winning the title at 1 in 5,000. The goal that new manager Claudio Ranieri set for his team was 40 points and safety from relegation. Now the Foxes have taken 50 points from 24 and are top of the table by three points over Manchester City, five over Tottenham and Arsenal.
Is it possible that Leicester can keep up this pace? Pundits and analysts have projected that Leicester would get “found out” at some point or another, but it has not happened. One would expect that when Ranieri’s side reached first place on the weekend of Nov. 21, other clubs should have keyed on Leicester and worked out how to beat this unusual team. Indeed, the numbers show that while Leicester has maintained its pace by points, the style of play has notably changed. Opposing teams have made a few of the obvious adjustments to slow down the Foxes, but Ranieri and his players have adjusted in turn.
The first key to beating Leicester City, surely, is slowing down its best goal-scorer Jamie Vardy and its primary creator Riyad Mahrez. And indeed, this has happened. Mahrez and Vardy combined for 15 non-penalty goals and 7 assists through the first 13 matches, and only 9 goals and 6 assists since. This is not a function of a finishing slump either. Both attackers have been defended more tightly and limited in the shots they can take and create.
Before Leicester took over first place, the two were putting up dominant shot and assist totals. Since, neither has been poor, but both Mahrez and Vardy have been much more effectively contained as opposing teams developed defensive tactics to slow down Leicester’s key men.
However, Leicester City has adjusted with more effective defensive tactics and a relatively less wide-open attacking style. Since taking over the EPL lead, Leicester has conceded more opposition possession but less attacking penetration. Ranieri has pushed his side to sit back more conservatively in defense. Leicester has allowed about 150 final third passes per match since taking over the lead in the table, compared to about 130 per match before. However, it has become harder to play the most dangerous passes against the Foxes. They conceded about three danger zone passes (passes within the area from which most goals are scored) per match earlier in the season, and that has dropped by half, to two DZ passes per match since. With a somewhat lower block in midfield and continued spectacular play from center backs Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, Leicester has been able to defend effectively from deeper positions despite its attack being slowed down.
These adjustments have enabled Leicester to basically maintain its early pace. Still, the Foxes have not posted elite statistics, with an expected goals difference of plus-6 that places them well behind the league’s best. Leicester has managed to avoid falling apart, but a top club should still have the advantage.
The question for Saturday is whether Manchester City is the team that can break down Leicester’s newly capable defense. Manuel Pellegrini’s side has its own problems. In particular, since center back Vincent Kompany went down to a calf injury in November, City has been far from the elite team it was before.
Kompany is not the lone cause of City’s problems, but his loss has had knock-on effects that revealed problems all over the squad. Most notably, the organization of the defensive line has fallen apart. City conceded only six throughballs in its first 12 matches, but has conceded over four times that total (28) in the most recent 12. As the club’s aging midfield and fullback corps has been deputized to protect the center backs, the attack sputtered. After creating 32 big chances in the first 12 matches, City has created a mere 12 since. The looming return of Kompany may help to fix these problems in the coming months, Pellegrini will need another tack on Saturday.
This analysis suggests that a shock Leicester City win at the Etihad is perhaps not as unlikely as it might appear. Still, the Foxes are far from unbeatable. But whatever weaknesses Leicester may have, a victory would put it six points up on Manchester City and a minimum of five up on Arsenal or Tottenham. This would make Leicester, if not absolute favorites for the title, clearly as likely to win the title as anyone else.
The miraculous Leicester City has not been found out yet. If a sputtering Manchester City cannot do the job on Saturday, it may be too late for the rest of the Premier League.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.