Three seasons after their famous title win, Leicester are in second place in the Premier League. Despite the losses of key players from that team, they are once again near the top of the league. In fact, they would be the first non Big Six team to qualify for the Champions League since their magical run. How have Leicester rebuilt?
A need for a more sustainable squad
Their main lineup in that 2015–16 title-winning season was a classic 4–4–2 formation lined up like so:
Managed by Claudio Ranieri, Leicester combined a strong, sturdy defense with exceptional counterattacking play. They sat back on defense, controlling only 44.7% of possession. This possession figure was 18th in the league. When they did get the ball, they were very direct in moving towards the goal. They got over half of their goals out of the Jamie Vardy and PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez. Meanwhile, N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater formed a midfield that was next to impossible to play through.
This lineup had many weak links. The back line was old and not particularly good. Within a couple of years, Robert Huth would retire, Danny Simpson would be released, and Christian Fuchs and Wes Morgan would both be benched for better options. As a result, the Foxes were overly reliant on Kante to clean up messes. They also needed to cede possession to opponents for defensive stability.
Leicester was always going to struggle to maintain its success. The system was reliant on the talents of Vardy, Mahrez, and Kante. Now that they had won the league, teams with bigger budgets could come calling for their players. The rest of the team beyond them was weak.
The Foxes did convince Vardy and Mahrez to stay and sign new contracts, but had to sell Kante to Chelsea for £32 million in 2016. He was a crucial loss, and they slipped down the table without him controlling the midfield the next season. Then, they sold Mahrez to Manchester City in 2018 for £60 million. So while, they did keep Vardy, this Leicester team is down two of the best players from 2015–16. Replacing them with players of the same quality was going to be impossible, so Leicester had to spread the money around lots of different players.
Leicester have spent a lot on young talent, and have made some very good purchases. Their best successes have come from purchasing expensive prospects from the lower divisions and other leagues. These players have lots of potential, but are not sure things. If Leicester were to wait until they had proven themselves at the Premier League level, they would likely be priced out by bigger clubs. But Leicester can afford prospects and can offer more immediate playing time than the bigger clubs. The Foxes made a lot of these purchases over the past several year, and a number of them have paid off.
The first example of the this strategy is Harry Maguire. The center back was bought from Hull City at 23 years old for £12 million in 2016, then was sold to Manchester United this past summer for £80 million after starting for a couple years in defense. He gave them solid play and a huge sell-on value to add to their squad.
James Maddison also looks like a stellar purchase. Maddison was purchased from Norwich City at the age of 21 when they were in Championship in 2018, and he has produced in the Premier League. At £20 million, he was an expensive purchase, but Leicester were smart to target him as a possible future star.
Wilfred Ndidi is another key player. Leicester got him from Genk in Belgium in 2016 for £17 million when he was 19. He has become a crucial player for the Foxes at defensive midfield. He is another premium prospect that Leicester was smart to target before he became a star.
Çağlar Söyüncü and Youri Tielemans are also young players who were purchased for prime fees recently. The Foxes have also successfully integrated academy talents Ben Chilwell and Harvey Barnes, a godsend for teams looking to get quality on a budget.
Leicester built their starting lineup for a total of £147 million, less than Kante, Mahrez, and Harry Maguire sold for together.
There have been some failures in the transfer market as well. Islam Slimani was purchased in 2016 for an at-the-time club-record fee of £28 million. He was 28 at the time, and would go on to play 47 times for Leicester at striker, scoring only 8 goals. This was a purchase that was hard to justify, as he was not going to improve. They were never going to be able to resell him for a larger fee, due to his age.
Adrien Silva, Vincent Iborra were also over 25 when purchased and did not turn out either. Younger signings like Ahmed Musa and Nampalys Mendy have not worked either, despite relatively large fees. The jury is still out on Kelechi Iheanacho and Filip Benkovic, though they are not playing much this season.
Still, Leicester have managed to rebuild their squad without having to increase spending to unsustainable levels. Even though they have missed on a fair amount of signings, they have hit on enough to succeed.
This season, their most common lineup is this:
Brendan Rodgers is now the manager, and he has played them in a 4–3–3. Jamie Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel are the lone holdovers from the title-winning squad in the starting eleven, though Marc Albrighton, Christian Fuchs, and Wes Morgan are all still with the team in substitute roles. They have 54.1% of the possession in their games this season, good for fifth in the league.
Rodgers likes to use Maddison and Tielemans as twin 8s ahead of Ndidi in midfield. Ndidi has been an elite defensive midfielder, winning lots of balls and providing a lot of stability. However, he does not contribute much to the team in attack. Maddison and Tielemans split creative duties and are primarily responsible for driving the ball forward.
Maddison has posted elite numbers in dribbles and fouls won. He has been very key to Leicester moving the ball through midfield. In addition, he has contributed 6 goals and 3 assists in the Premier League this season, with a corresponding 3.8 expected goals (xG) and 3.8 expected assists (xA). He has been a key part of their success.
On the forward line, Leicester use Harvey Barnes and Ayoze Pérez as wingers around Vardy. The attacking star of this team is still Vardy. He is still very fast and lethal on the break. Even though the Foxes have focused more on possession, they do not task Vardy with dropping deep and helping in the build-up. He is allowed to hold the top of the line and finish movements.
Vardy has 17 goals and 3 assists on 11.1 xG and 2.7 xA. Those numbers include 3 penalties. It should be noted that Vardy has beaten his xG numbers in all three years that Football Reference has xG data, so he may be able to continue beating them.
Barnes and Pérez have contributed creativity and secondary goal threats around Vardy. Barnes has 5 assists on 4.0 xA and Pérez has 4 on 3.5 xA. When you combine those passing numbers with Maddison and Tielemans, it is clear Vardy has had excellent service this season.
Defensively, Leicester have also been solid. Çağlar Söyüncü has done an excellent job stepping into the role departed by Harry Maguire. Out wide, Ben Chilwell has been a good one-on-one defender and has been useful going forward as well. Ricardo Pereira is also an effective offensive player on the other side.
Leicester’s underlying statistics are good, though perhaps not second in the league good. They have 34.2 xG, good for the fourth-best in the league. They have scored 46 goals, so it looks like they have had some luck on their side going forward. Defensively, the Foxes’ 25 xG allowed ranks ninth. They have only given up 19 goals, so they are beating xG at this end too. Without improving the team in the January window, Leicester is likely to regress a little going forward. However, their expected goal difference of 9.2 is still good for fifth in the league, ahead of both Arsenal and Tottenham.
The Foxes’ xG indicate that they are unlikely to improve their position in the table. But they have built up an 11 point lead on Manchester United in fifth. Even with some drop off in form, they should be able to hold on to that lead and make the Champions League for next season. With a more stable and balanced squad, they may be able to hold on to their stars this time. They can add to their squad, instead of having to replace departing production.
One thing to watch for is that Brendan Rodgers appears to have been given more control over transfers. His record on transfers at both Liverpool and Celtic is not stellar. Rodgers making poor purchases could set Leicester back some.
Leicester has not been perfect in all their decisions. But by spending on young talent, they have been able to form a very good squad again, with more depth. They may not be able to win the league over Liverpool and Manchester City again, but they may have more staying power near the top of the league this time.
Possession stats from whoscored.com, xG from fbref.com, transfer info from transfermarkt.com