This truly is madness. Coming into this weekend, a third of the way through the Premier League season, the team sitting atop the table wasn’t the reigning champions Chelsea, nor the rich and stacked squad in Manchester City, or even Arsenal, enjoying their most promising season in forever. No, the club that occupied the top spot in the league—the one with two of the Prem’s top five goal scorers—was the club that barely managed to claw its way to safety in last season’s relegation battle and didn’t make any significant additions in the offseason. And yet somehow Leicester City have snatched up more points than some of the biggest clubs in the entire world, to the astonishment of everybody.
The match this weekend against the league’s second-place club, Manchester United, was supposed to be the first of a gauntlet-like run leading into the New Year that would put the Foxes back in their place. Before this game, the Foxes hadn’t yet faced any of the following teams, all among the best in the Premier League: Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton, and (yes, current form be damned) Chelsea. The only top teams they had played were Tottenham, with whom they drew early in the season, before Tottenham had learned to embrace Dele Alli as their Lord and Savior, and Arsenal, who pasted them 5-2. The United game kicked off a seven-match stretch where six of their opponents will come from that group of very good teams (and Chelsea) that their schedule fortuitously allowed them to avoid until now.
This isn’t likely to go well, and nobody believes there is even the slightest chance in hell that Leicester are for real. Their title chances are as illusory as Wayne Rooney’s constantly waxing and waning hairline, or Cristiano Ronaldo’s and Gareth Bale’s “friendly” relationship, or Arsenal’s chances of staying healthy enough to Do It this season (lo and behold …). There does not exist a single even minutely believable hypothetical situation where Leicester end the season champions, and the odds are only marginally higher that they’ll hang on to a European qualifying spot.
With all that being said, Leicester’s insane streak to the top of the table should still be appreciated for what it has been: an honest-to-God shocker that, while to a large degree the product of scheduling quirks, is by no means an absolute fluke. This team has some goddamn horses that can run with anybody.
We’ve already touched on this some in this Jamie Vardy Came From Nothing And Now Is Dope And Great post (which shouldn’t be confused with our unrelated Jamie Vardy Is A Dickhead Punk You Should Not Want To Befriend post), but it’s worth touching on again. This dude is the truth, and not a single soul saw it coming.
Vardy remains the top scorer in the EPL with 14 goals to his name, the majority of them coming in his record-breaking 11-match scoring streak which continued on Saturday. He works extremely hard in attack and defense, is just about unplayable when running at defenders on the counterattacks he so thrives on, and is the favorite to beat the keeper from nearly any angle in and around the penalty box, such is his affinity for cracking and curling shots that bend and fly into all corners of the goal. Some haters still consider him a one-season wonder, and while he probably won’t continue on this pace for the rest of the year, there’s no reason to believe he isn’t a legitimately top-quality EPL striker capable of terrorizing even the best Premier League defenses. That he’s attained this status as a 28-year-old after spending most of his playing career as a semi-pro way way down the English soccer pyramid is flat-out astounding.
As great as Vardy has been, there’s no way he and the team would be in this place without help from the rest of the squad. The striker’s chief companion on the pitch is Riyad Mahrez, who himself has gone from being a nobody to becoming one of the most highly-coveted wingers currently out there. Before joining Leicester, then in the English second division, in January of 2014, the Algerian winger had made what little name he had in France’s second tier with Le Havre. The now-24-year-old quickly became one of Leicester’s most dangerous attackers that season, and continued putting in consistently strong performances in the Premier League last year, but it wasn’t until this season that he’s really blossomed.
Simply put, Mahrez cannot be contained when running at players:
It’s fun watching Mahrez’s spindly little legs spin all over the place when bombing down the pitch. His is a game of misdirection, as he stops, starts, dips, feints, and bobs around, always waving his legs around the ball, giving them an illusion similar to the rubber pencil trick to confuse defenders not only trying to keep pace with his sprints but predict where his path will turn next in their usually unsuccessful attempts to corral the winger and take the ball off him. Mahrez’s legs are always moving so fast that it’s easy to tell why opponents marking him get their own feet knotted together in the process, though it’s a little less obvious how he manages not to fall over himself.
Not only is Mahrez supremely gifted at getting past other players (proof is on offer in his league-leading 3.7 successful dribbles per game), his feet at the end of those toothpicks are surprisingly adept at whipping the ball into the top corner of the goal. As a left footer who usually plays on the right, Mahrez loves slipping and slashing from the wing into a more central position and shooting. His seven goals are tied for the fifth-highest mark in the Prem. And not only has he gotten bundles of goals for himself, he has flicked out six assists, a number only beaten by Mesut Özil, and sets up on average 2.3 shots for his teammates every game, a rate that puts him in the top 10 league-wide.
First year manager Claudio Ranieri has set up his team to play in a way that perfectly complements the skill sets of his two best players. The typical Leicester attacking move normally goes a little something like this: after surrounding an opposing player, one of the encircling Foxes will nab the ball off of the man in possession; immediately, they’ll hit out on the counter, with the first priority being to move the ball out into space on the wing, hopefully to Mahrez, who will then bust out down the flank. Depending on how disciplined the defenders are in not being hypnotized by the winger’s whirling legs, Mahrez will either continue on his way towards the touchline and look for a pass or take a shot of his own. If it’s the former, he’ll send a cross or a cutback into the box for Vardy to fire into the net; if it’s the latter, he’ll watch as his own shot arcs toward the far post. Leicester love immediate pressing and fast attacks, don’t much care for stale possession, cross the ball early and often, and basically try to do as few things as possible between recovering the ball, hitting it at the other keeper, then doing it all over again:
While Vardy and Mahrez are unquestionably the stars of the show, every Leicester player has their role to play in making everything come together. Midfielder N’Golo Kanté focuses winning the ball, and has more interceptions than anyone in the league and the fifth-most tackles; his partner, Danny Drinkwater, is the brains of the operation, playing the most passes and generally being the one to set Vardy and Mahrez loose into space; Marc Albrighton plays opposite Mahrez and has a somewhat similar style, burning down the flank and popping in crosses for the goal-getters; defenders Robert Huth and Wes Morgan maintain the shape and height of the back line, trying to make sure the defense as a whole is organized and compact enough to protect the press should it be broken. Ranieri deserves a ton of credit for taking the pieces he was given in a squad that spent almost the entirety of last season dead last in the league and turning them into this.
Still, it’s nearly impossible to believe this form is sustainable at the league-leading pace they’ve exhibited so far. Most likely, Manchester City and Liverpool and Everton will sneak a handful of goals past Leicester’s none-too-impressive defense, focus all their energy on making sure Vardy and Mahrez can’t kick in a couple goals to beat them, and, unlike a depressingly high number of EPL teams up to this point, accept that, yes, pressing hot and high is something Leicester will do. By this time a month from now, Leicester probably will have fallen out of the Champions League places as they drift back toward the center of the table where they belong.
Of course, it was nearly impossible to believe that Stocksbridge Park Steels’ Jamie Vardy would ever make it to the Premier League, let alone score more at that level than any other player, or that Quimper’s Riyad Mahrez would stunt so hard on the fullbacks of England that he’d have scouts at Barcelona rumored to be interested in putting him in a blaugrana shirt, or that in their second season in the top division, little old Leicester City would sit above Chelsea and Liverpool and Manchester United at the very top of the table. Point being, we’ve seen what the Foxes can do when underestimated, and no one should be too keen on repeating the error.
Photos via AP