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Leicester City Are For Real Again

When Leicester City won the Premier League title in 2016, it felt like an accident. Sure, they had N’Golo Kanté, Riyad Mahrez, and Jamie Vardy, but outside of those three, Leicester weren’t a team full of great players. Rather, they had a good system that worked to perfection long enough to complete the greatest underdog story in club soccer history. This year, Leicester are once again up near the top of the table, only this time it doesn’t feel like an accident. The difference between the flukey 2016 run and the one that currently has them sitting in third place is that, today, Leicester City truly do have a whole lot of legitimately very good players.

This weekend’s 5–0 thrashing Newcastle was the Foxes’ loudest announcement yet that they are real contenders to upset the top six:

So far, no one has been better for Leicester than Wilfred Ndidi, the league’s best defensive midfielder through the first seven matches of the season. He’s currently tied for the league lead in tackles with 33 (all stats from WhoScored), and also averages a whopping 3.8 interceptions per game, the most in the league by nearly half an interception per game. Perhaps most impressively for a player who breaks up so many opposition attacks, Ndidi is only committing 1.5 fouls per match.

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The Nigerian’s role is especially important because of how Leicester line up in their usual 4-3-3, with Youri Tielemans and James Maddison flanking Ndidi. As the Athletic’s Michael Cox has pointed out, both of those players are much more involved while attacking than defending. That leaves a lot of stress on Ndidi and the back-line, and yet Leicester are tied with Liverpool for the fewest goals conceded (5), and are second in expected goals against, per Understat.

About that attack, though: How is Jamie Vardy still doing this? The 32-year-old pace merchant hasn’t slowed down since terrorizing Premier League defenses in 2016, and he’s scored five goals so far, including a nice brace on Sunday against Newcastle:

According to UnderStat, Vardy is currently over-performing his expected goals by a wide margin, which is a microcosm of Leicester’s overall xG over-performance so far. Vardy’s five goals have come on an xG of 2.18, just as the Foxes’ 13 goals (good for fifth-most in the league) are a good amount more than the 8.0 goals (the fourth-fewest in the league) the model would expect them to have scored.

But while those advanced goal-scoring stats might seem like cause for concern, there’s plenty of reason to believe Leicester’s early success is more gold than pyrite. For one, even if Vardy is arguably scoring at an unsustainable rate right now, he’s still making the same blistering runs and supportive flicks and walloping shots that he always has; the skills that have allowed him to be one of the EPL’s better forwards for going on five years now are all still there. Likewise, Leicester might be benefiting from some good fortune in the scoring department, but with creative talents like Tielemans, Maddison, Pereira, Ben Chilwell, and Demarai Gray feeding scorers like Vardy, Ayoze Pérez, and Kelechi Iheanacho, the team shouldn’t have trouble creating chances against anyone.

And even with potentially lucky scoring stats, Understat still has Leicester in fifth place on its expected points table, taking into account their xG for and against. If the offense gets going and the defense stays stout, this team could definitely make some real noise.

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If we agree that Leicester are indeed “real” this season, we should make clear what exactly “real” means in this context. While this team might, from top to bottom, be stronger than the title-winning group in 2015-16, Leicester will not win the Premier League this year. Liverpool and Manchester City are operating on a different plane of existence from the rest of the league, and no one is catching them. However, the Foxes have a real chance of breaking up the Big Six’s hegemony at the highest reaches of the table, with an outside chance of even nabbing a spot in the Champions League.

If Leicester’s title campaign was made possible by the complete failure of the league’s biggest clubs to field great teams, then something similar is happening this year at the level below Man City and Liverpool. Tottenham are injured and a little shaky. Chelsea are nothing special and currently under a transfer ban. Arsenal haven’t figured out how to put everything together yet. And Manchester United are, well, Manchester United. In terms of pure talent, cohesiveness, and managerial acumen, Leicester shouldn’t believe themselves demonstrably inferior to any of those clubs. In fact, you could argue that the Leicester starting XI is flat-out better than at least one and maybe even two of those teams’ starting lineups. If ever there were a year when Leicester could look at their supposed betters and think Meh, we can hang with all those guys, this is the one.

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Qualifying for next season’s Champions League should be the ceiling of Leicester’s ambitions, and while it’ll be hard, it’s far from impossible. (FiveThirtyEight gives Leicester a 25 percent chance of finishing in the top four.) Barring that, Leicester should absolutely expect themselves capable of finishing higher than one or two of the Big Six and earning a Europa League spot for the feat. But regardless of the Foxes’ final resting place in the league table, what’s most important is that they will have gotten there by building a very strong team that can compete with the best. Whether Leicester finish the season in third or fifth or seventh, they will have deserved it.

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