Leicester City: Are Rodgers’ side better than Ranieri’s title winners?
Leicester near the top of the Premier League table. Where have we heard that one before?
Brendan Rodgers' Foxes have had a flying start to the season – sitting third after 10 games – and it is bringing back memories of their famous title-winning season under Claudio Ranieri in 2015-16.
By most metrics, they are better now than they were at the same stage that season.
So how do the two teams compare? And could Leicester actually challenge for this year's title?
A better start than their title-winning season
Leicester are two places higher in the table now than they were after 10 games in 2015-16, with more points, more goals scored and significantly fewer conceded. Their goal difference would have been better even without last Friday's 9-0 win over Southampton.
With 25 goals, they are the second highest scorers in the Premier League, while nobody has conceded fewer goals than their eight.
Compare that to 2015-16, when they had scored 20 goals (the third best tally) and conceded 17, as many as bottom side Aston Villa, who had lost eight of their opening 10 matches.
But crucially they tightened up their defence as the season went on – only conceding another 21 goals in the remaining 28 games.
The standard of teams they have faced in the opening 10 games is fairly similar – the teams they played at this stage in 2015 had an average position of 11th after 10 games. This year the opponents are in an average of 10th.
But there is one big difference this season – the leaders. Leicester were only three points off top spot in 2015-16, but unbeaten Liverpool are eight points above the Foxes now.
How the line-ups compare
This Leicester team is very different to the title-winning side, as reflected in the odds. Leicester could be backed at 5,000-1 to win the title in 2015-16; this summer the odds ranged from 200-1 to 400-1.
Several of the 2015-16 squad had fairly unremarkable careers until that stage, like ex-Notts County goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, former Aston Villa winger Marc Albrighton, ex-Nottingham Forest defender Wes Morgan and former Newcastle right-back Danny Simpson.
Even their eventual Paris-born superstars Riyad Mahrez – a winger who has since joined Manchester City – and N'Golo Kante – the defensive midfielder who joined Chelsea the next summer – were relatively unheralded and former Fleetwood striker Jamie Vardy had only scored five Premier League goals.
“The year before that they nearly went down and we didn't know anything about N'Golo Kante, while Riyad Mahrez emerged,” said ex-Arsenal and England striker Ian Wright on the BBC Radio 5 Live Monday Night Club. “It was like a flash of lightning and they took everybody by surprise.”
The current team is full of youngsters who appear destined for great careers – even after Leicester lost their star defender Harry Maguire to Manchester United for £75m last summer.
Difference in styles
Leicester's style of play has changed entirely and that is evidenced by their stats.
The title-winning side played a fairly standard 4-4-2, while this season it is more fluid – a 4-1-4-1 or 4-1-2-3 depending on your viewpoint, with creative midfielders James Maddison and Youri Tielemans and wingers Harvey Barnes and Ayoze Perez supporting Vardy.
“The Foxes don't counter-attack nearly as much these days,” says BBC Radio Leicester's Foxes commentator Ian Stringer, who has reported on 600 Leicester games.
“They're disciplined – just look at the heat map of Chilwell and Ricardo from the Southampton game. It's the full-backs who have chalk on their boots meaning Perez and Maddison can drift inside.”
Only 10% of Leicester's passes this season have been long passes – whereas after 10 games of 2015-16, it was 21%. They have played 4,872 short passes this season – the fourth most in the league. In the title-winning season it was 2,630, the lowest amount of anyone in the league.
Their possession average this season is 58.6%, the third highest. In 2015, it was 42%, the second lowest.
“We're talking about the style as much as anything and they are great on the eye, which is true of all the teams Brendan has managed,” former Celtic striker Chris Sutton said on BBC Radio 5 Live.
Michael Appleton was Leicester's assistant manager in the period in between these two sides – between June 2017 and 2018, including a two-game caretaker manager spell.
“There are quite a few differences between the sides,” the current Lincoln manager said on BBC Radio 5 Live on Tuesday night's coverage of Leicester's 3-1 Carabao Cup win over Burton.
“This side looks more fluid with a lot more attacking players in the team. The side who won the Premier League were hard to beat, defending with a low block and allowed teams to cross the ball in because they had two huge centre-backs dealing with everything coming into the box. They had two world-class players in Kante and Mahrez.
“This side has young athletic players. If they have to, they can defend deep against top teams and they can counter. But they can keep the ball against the lesser sides and have a possession-based game.”
Different managers, different attitudes?
Leicester's boss that season, 63-year-old Ranieri, had never won a league title in any country. Their current manager, 46-year-old Northern Irishman Rodgers, led Celtic to two consecutive trebles and left last season with them on the brink of another.
Whatever the demands of the Scottish Premiership compared with England's top flight, there is a lot to be said for a winning mentality. And that shows itself in interviews from players and managers.
When Leicester beat Crystal Palace 1-0 in their 10th game in 2015, it was their first clean sheet of the season – with Ranieri promising his players pizza as a reward. But his focus at that stage was still on avoiding relegation.
“We are taking it step-by-step,” he said. “It's important to achieve 40 points, that is our first goal.”
But the current crop had a very different attitude after Friday's 9-0 win over Southampton – the biggest away win in top-flight history and their third clean sheet.
“We're here to stay at the top of the league,” is how Leicester's England left-back Ben Chilwell reacted.
And Rodgers said: “We will get better. We certainly won't just be content with what we're doing. Our idea was to be as competitive as we possibly could and finish as high as we possibly can. I never want to put any limits on that.”
How do the players compare? Is Vardy better than ever?
Of the regular XI from 2015-16, five are still at Leicester. Goalkeeper Schmeichel and striker Vardy have played all 10 games this season, with winger Albrighton and defenders Christian Fuchs and Wes Morgan also getting in the action.
So how do some of the key roles directly compare?
“Replace Robert Huth with Jonny Evans and you've got a like-for-like Premier League winner bringing their experience,” said Stringer. “Evans is a little more mobile.
“Schmeichel and Morgan's direction and leadership remain, as do Vardy's goals. Wilfred Ndidi in the middle breaks it up and allows other players to be expansive. But that's where the comparison ends.
“Albrighton and Mahrez were, and are, orthodox wingers but Rodgers plays a three-up-front system which offers different options and style of play.”
Mahrez had scored more goals (five) after 10 games than any of the current midfielders. Tielemans and Maddison have three each.
None of Leicester's five midfielders have created as many chances as Mahrez had (22). Tielemens has created 17. Mahrez (36) had also completed more dribbles than the current team, with Maddison on 26. Marc Albrighton (78) leads the way on crosses, above Maddison (71).
But Tielemans has made more passes than any of the 2015-16 midfielders had after 10 games with 551. Danny Drinkwater had made 523 by this stage. And Ndidi has won possession more times (89) than the 2015-16 midfielders, edging Drinkwater (86) with Kante back on 60.
The current Leicester back line have made more tackles than anyone in the 2015-16 defence – Ricardo Pereira's 46 and Caglar Soyuncu's 24 both beat Robert Huth's 17.
But Huth's nine blocks and 80 clearances are better than any of the current team – Soyuncu leads the way for this team with six and 52 respectively.
Schmeichel's stats this season are clearly better – he has saved 27 shots and conceded eight goals. By this stage in 2015, he had made 29 saves but let in 17 goals.
And how about Vardy? He is the Premier League's top scorer this season with nine goals, one fewer than 2015-16. But he has done that with fewer chances. He has had 20 shots this time – compared with 41 four years ago.
His goals-per-minute record in the Premier League is better under Rodgers than any other Foxes manager. He has scored 18 times since the Northern Irishman's appointment – one every 100 minutes. Under Ranieri, he scored 29 times, one every 167 minutes.
“The biggest issue is an injury to Vardy,” said Stringer. “Yes Perez can play through the middle but Vardy is the talisman.”
Who would win between the sides?
Appleton says there is “a fair argument” that Leicester 2019-20 would beat Leicester 2015-16.
But do you agree?
So will Leicester actually win the league?
The Foxes definitely took advantage of a lack of an outstanding side elsewhere in their title-winning season. Their 81 points would have seen them finish third in each of the three campaigns since.
Arsenal finished second on 71 points that season and defending champions Chelsea finished 10th. Liverpool were eighth, sacking Rodgers in October. The runners-up since 2015-16 have earned 86, 81 and 97 points.
Leicester would need leaders Liverpool and champions Manchester City to drop their high standards and start losing games.
But Wright, who won the Premier League title with Arsenal in 1998, thinks the Foxes could win the title.
“There's no accident about Leicester being where they are,” he said. “This team is fantastic from back to front.
“Of course Leicester can win the league – if Manchester City and Liverpool slip up, you have to say which teams can take advantage? With the manager they've got, their experience and the way they're playing consistently, of course they can.
“Whether they do it or not is another matter. But never write them off. This is a club that has done that.”
But Sutton, a 1995 title winner with Blackburn, does not agree.
“Probably the difference between the teams is Kante. Yes they're great to watch but it's only 10 games – it's premature.
“They're not going to win the league this year.”
Appleton says “time will tell”. “The coming months, Christmas and January is when you get an understanding of where you'll finish.”