Leicester have made a pretty poor fist of defending their title this season and, with 11 Premier League games completed, they sit in 14th place with 12 points after losing to West Bromwich Albion in their first home defeat in 20 games. The default response, given that the Foxes have added firepower in Islam Slimani and Ahmed Musa, is to bemoan the loss of N’Golo Kante, currently ripping it up at Chelsea; he’s the obvious change and therefore the Foxes’ woes must be down to him leaving. But how much is that the case?
The first thing to look at is Leicester’s strategy last season, which was predicated on Kante’s exceptional reading of the game forcing, in rugby parlance, turnovers that allowed Leicester to counter-attack at pace with Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy to the fore. In 2015/16 for Leicester, Kante managed 156 interceptions, the most of any Premier League player and comfortably ahead of much of the chasing pack (Idrissa Gueye was in second with 141 and Laurent Koscielny third with 126); this equated to 19% of Leicester’s total of 819, also a league-leading amount. That equated to a massive 21.55 interceptions per game for the Foxes, but this has dropped this season to 14.55 interceptions per game, from top of the table to ninth worst. That shows that Leicester have been forced to change their game plan, because their midfield is less capable of replicating Kante’s work. It also implies, when taken with the number of shots faced, that they are defending deeper, allowing more shots but crucially for their game plan, being less able to turn defence into counter-attack higher up the pitch.
In terms of shots faced, Leicester’s 159 this season is the eighth worst, but they’ve given up the fourth most shots on target, 60, with only usual suspects Sunderland, Burnley, and Hull City worse. This season, that equates to 5.45 shots on target per game, compared to last season’s 3.74; only six clubs were better at keeping opposition shots on target away from the goal in 2015/16, whereas so far this season, only the three teams cited above are worse. Again, this shows a deeper line of defence that is less well protected, as shots from further out tend to be off target more often.
What about costly mistakes? Last season, Leicester allowed only one error that led to a goal and a miserly 10 errors that led to shots on target. Manchester United only made two errors that led to goals and Stoke only made three; only West Ham with eight had fewer errors that led to shots on target, and Leicester were also equalled by Southampton on ten. Contrast that with this season, where Leicester have already made two errors leading to goals (or 0.18 per game) and three errors leading to shots on target (or 0.27 per game); last season, these figures were 0.03 errors leading to goals per game and 0.26 errors leading to shots on target per game. While Leicester are making roughly the same number of mistakes that lead to shots, they are already making more errors that lead to goals, by a significant margin. Now obviously, they could eradicate this from their game, but the absence of the protective figure of Kante and the chopping and changing in goal that has occurred due to Kasper Schmeichel’s injury issues make this seem unlikely to me. They might rein it in, but they’re unlikely to get rid of the problems altogether.
[As a quick aside, last season, the worst errors leading to goals per game figure was Aston Villa’s, with 0.39; this season it is West Ham United, with 0.36 errors leading to goals per game – this does not bode well for Slaven Bilic’s side.]
In summation, then, the statistics would show that Leicester’s interception followed by counter-attacking style is less capable this season, and that is down to the absence of Kante. As a side effect, the side would appear to be defending deeper and allowing more shots on target, which then leads to the concession of more goals, but also prevents the team from breaking higher up the pitch and using the pace of Vardy to threaten the opposition. Leicester’s issue with errors cannot be solely down to Kante’s absence, but it’s likely that a more pressurised defence would make more mistakes. All in all, Leicester have had to change up with the loss of the man who made their tactics tick and so far, they’ve failed to do so.