By Faraz T. Toor
One of the most fascinating aspects of Leicester City’s run of strong form and assault on the summit of the Barclays Premier League is that there are fixtures on their calendar that are worth swooning over. These are fixtures that never would have interested non-Leicester fans before, the sort of games that seem to the laymen to be fillers.
Then you look at the calendar and see that the Foxes are set to face Tottenham Hotspur twice in the next week, in the FA Cup this Sunday and in the league three days later. Drooling over the entertainment?
Well, Leicester fans should sweat more than drool; this week may be a preview of how the Foxes will fare in the league over the next few months — how they’ll play against the best teams in the Premier League down the title stretch run — and their supporters may not like this glimpse into the future.
After all, there are not many signs that the Foxes will fare well in the second half title race. They certainly have played well enough to hang around towards the top of the table, as they have been defeated just twice through 20 matches and are the second-highest scoring offense in the Premiership.
But when it comes to actually winning the league, Leicester’s chances don’t look so hot given how they match up with the top clubs.
In their first three meetings with Arsenal, Manchester City, and Tottenham, the other teams in the top four and the Foxes’ main competition for the trophy, Leicester City were thoroughly outplayed in the possession battle.
Even though Leicester only lost one of those games, they only managed as much as 42 percent possession against Arsenal in September, City had the ball 61 percent of the time in their game last week, and Spurs posted a whopping 65 percent possession total in their 1-1 draw with Leicester in August.
Granted, these possession statistics are nothing out of left field for the second-place club in the EPL. In 16 of Leicester’s 21 matches against Premier League teams this season, including their extra time win against West Ham United in the League Cup in September, their opponents have had the ball more often by at least eight percentage points. And in nine of those games, Leicester had possession percentages of 40 percent or lower.
This has not yet turned into disaster for the Foxes in the league table, as they are fully prepared to cope with having the ball less, because they have two of the most dynamic goal scorers in the league.
Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have tallied 15 and 13 goals in the league, respectively, numbers more akin to the likes of Sergio Agüero, Wayne Rooney, and Diego Costa, players who are more accustomed to having the ball at their feet every few minutes thanks to their clubs’ high pass totals.
Vardy and Mahrez may only get a handful of chances to score each game, but in most of those instances they split defenders wide on deep counter attacks and through balls, turning matches into sudden sprints. It’s hardly different from the strategy of many other English teams; the difference is that most other clubs don’t have as dynamic of an offense, nor two strikers with such high conversion rates.
But that strategy can only get a team so far in the Premier League. Playing so often without the ball may work just fine against the average and bottom-of-the-table teams, but the best clubs this season — Arsenal, City, and Tottenham — don’t usually have suspect defenses.
Unlike most clubs Leicester have faced this season, the big three are in the top five in the Premiership in fewest goals allowed this season, with Spurs leading the way with only 16 goals allowed in 20 games.
Collectively, the backlines of Arsenal and Spurs are particularly stingy, against even some of the best strikers. The Gunners held Agüero, Kevin De Bruyne, and Raheem Sterling, three of the most creative players in the league, without goals when they beat City a few weeks ago, and Tottenham have allowed more than one goal in only three Premier League games this season.
And even Man City, with all their road issues and their much weaker defense when Vincent Kompany is not in the lineup, have allowed only three more goals than Arsenal in the Premier League this campaign.
To triumph over defenses like these, a club will want to make sure it does not have unseemly levels of possession. Seems simple enough. Arsenal and City in particular have thrived for years on constant passing, which not only eases pressure of their defenses, making they sure do not face high numbers of shots, but it also opens up separation near the penalty area for scoring chances.
The strategy for the opponent, then, would not be to give the ball away constantly, not only to make sure Arsenal’s, City’s, and Spurs’ carousel of potent scorers do not have excess chances to eat at a backline, but also so the strong scorers on the opposing club — Vardy and Mahrez, in this instance — have more opportunities to chip away at the backlines.
So considering that on average the Foxes are out-possessed by any opponent by a fairly significant margin, let alone the most pass-happy teams in the league, there is reason to worry about their chances of beating Arsenal, City, and Tottenham in the coming months.
Vardy and Mahrez were not actively involved in most of their previous matchups with the three clubs, getting only a few shots against City and Spurs. And in the game in which they were active, against Arsenal, Vardy only got the second goal in cleanup time, as Leicester trailed for most of the game.
These next two matches against Tottenham, then, even though one is in the FA Cup, will tell us a lot about how Leicester will fair against the best defenses as the season grinds on. The sample size of their possession rates against the other top four teams is small. But given that the rates are consistently bad outside of these high-pressure games too, it would be a lot to ask of the Foxes to even have 45 percent possession when they face their main competition again, especially since Vardy is expected to miss the two games against Tottenham.
If Leicester continue to scrape the well for goals because of the low possession rates, like they did in their previous matchups against City and Spurs, then their title aspirations may be folly. As opportunistic as Leicester have been against the smaller and average teams this season, taking the majority of their points from them, it’s unlikely that they can win the title without handing this season’s big three some zero-point days themselves. The Foxes need that kind of separation to win the title, just as Chelsea did to City, Arsenal, and Manchester United last season. But that likely cannot be done when the Foxes cannot spread the pitch when they barely have the ball.
So as excited as neutral fans are when they see powerhouses collide twice in the span of a week, Leicester City supporters should be concerned. Their club already dropped golden opportunities in the first half of the season, taking just two points in its three meetings with Arsenal, City, and Tottenham at King Power Stadium.
The task to win at the Emirates, Etihad, and White Hart Lane, then — grounds that have yielded just four losses combined for their tenants this Premier League season, and only 13 goals between 19 Emirates Stadium and White Hart Lane matches — is one that seems unlikely to happen given how Leicester play.
After all, Leicester have their fine foxes in Vardy and Mahrez, but they can’t be chased back so often like rabbits if they want to take down the scariest beasts in the forest.