With only 13 games left of the season, surprise package Leicester City are at the front of the pack in the Premier League. The question on everyone’s lips, as it has been for the last few months, can Claudio Ranieri’s men win it? Here’s a look into both arguments:
The Yes argument
At this point, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic for Leicester to win the league. They’ve got through a number of tough games, with one ahead against Arsenal this weekend, but they’ve passed almost every challenge in front of them.
The real positive is that they’ve only been held goalless three times this season, all in a three-game spell over Christmas against Manchester City, Liverpool and Bouremouth. Since then, they’ve beaten two of those teams in return fixtures.
In 16 of their 25 games this season, they’ve scored more than once. They average 13.3 shots per game, ninth best in the league but get 4.8 on target, which is fourth-best. The danger they represent in attack is simply startling and no-one has worked out how to shut them out on a consistent basis or even stop them from scoring more than one goal per game.
The obvious contributors to that are Ryiad Mahrez, who has 14 goals and 10 assists, and Jamie Vardy, who has notched 18 goals. They have been vital, with the next best goals total being Shinji Okazaki with four but the assists have been spread out through the likes of Marc Albrighton (6), Danny Drinkwater (4), Christian Fuchs (3) and N’Golo Kante (3).
While they have the fifth-best defence in the league with 27 goals conceded, it’s the work rate when out of possession that’s impressive. Averaging the second-most tackles per game with 22.6 and the most interceptions with 21.8, claiming the ball back so regularly has clearly given them more opportunities to spring quality counter attacks their forwards thrive off.
Unsurprisingly, the player leading that is the French midfielder Kante, who notches 4.1 tackles per game (2nd best in the league) and 4.1 interceptions (best in the league). His tireless work in breaking up play before either playing it to a forward or driving at the defence itself has been a real inspiration for the Foxes.
Keeping those players on the pitch has also been crucial and both their disilinary record and injury report have been very good. Only Robert Huth and Vardy have served suspensions due to yellows and none of their best players have been out for an extended period of time, along with Ranieri’s consistency, they have a settled group in superb form.
The No argument
The real worry for Leicester is that while they have scored plenty, they’ve struggled to keep others at bay on a consistent basis. They’ve managed just eight clean sheets, giving plenty of teams hope that they can at least grab a goal against the league leaders.
Unlike some, I actually believe their biggest test comes after the Arsenal game, regardless of the result. The best teams need to knock some of the little teams out of the park and early before they get too much of a foothold in the game.
With that in mind, their next four are at home to Norwich, West Brom, then away to Watford before returning home against Newcastle United. While some will rightly see these as pretty simple fixtures against at least three sides that have leaked goals in recent fixtures, these are also teams desperate for results.
That is actually a significant difference to earlier in the season. Even in November and December, teams still saw Leicester as a side they could pick points up from, so would set up in their normal way, only to be blitzed by a vicious counter-attack. Inferior teams will not make that mistake again.
So expect them to have 10 men behind the ball (except Watford, who may be more adventurous but are more defensively solid) in order to stifle Leicester into coming onto them. That’s not really a situation the Foxes have faced, they tend to have less possession than the opposition so do they give it to them? No, a lucky goal puts them at a potential serious disadvantage.
This is hopefully where the experience of Ranieri comes into play, adjusting his team to deal with the threat. He may throw on an extra winger instead of a forward to work in the intricate spaces but how Leicester deal with having more of the ball and less space to counter into will be their truest test.
Especiallly because they have slow centre-backs. Wes Morgan and Robert Huth are very solid but aren’t blessed with pace, which could kill Leicester when, ironically, they are counted on. That deeper back line has helped them prove how good they are but when they need to push on against weaker teams, it is a weakness that others will seek to exploit.
Also, can they deal with the pressure? They have up until this point, because so many doubted them but especially if they beat Arsenal, they are absolutely favourites to win the league. Others have buckled in the past, even Blackburn Rovers did but had just enough in the bank to win it and they wouldn’t want to have to go to the likes of Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge towards the end of the season to seal the deal if they’ve slipped.
They also need to be wary of any injuries or suspensions, I’m thinking of Morgan and Huth for the latter if they are countered on. If they can keep everyone fit, they have a real chance but a serious blow to any of their crucial four players and it could be enough to topple them.
I’m not coming to an absolute conclusion here but based on the evidence, they have enough to win it. They’ve put in an astonishing amount of effort and with that, the Champions League is an absolute possibility. Like I’ve mentioned, the relegation teams will actually be the real worry as they are favourites but if teams set up like they have all season, combined with their rivals stumbling even more, they could even run away with it.