We all follow the Arsenal; over land and sea (and Leicester!) — traditional
With a five point lead in the table Leicester City are on the verge of being crowned English Champions. First they need to beat Arsenal, the only team who have handed them a convincing defeat this season, and also one of their only real title rivals. But if they beat Arsenal, the remaining twelve games of the season should be a victory march for the little club from Leicester. And if they are crowned champions, Leicester will be the luckiest team to ever win a Premier League title.
What makes the Leicester story so unique is that they were bottom of the table last December and they are top of the table this February, that in itself is simply never done. In the modern era, where teams are built to win with vast sums of money — Chelsea, Real Madrid, Man City, PSG, and so on — frugal clubs typically have to find a new way to win their respective leagues. They have to find special value.
The classic way to do that is to play counter attacking football. In Spain, Atletico Madrid epitomizes this approach; they are a stalwart defensive team who hit the opposition with rapier like counter attacks. Atleti won La Liga two years ago allowing 26 goals in 38 games. They scored 23 fewer goals than second place Barcelona that season but finished the season with a respectable +51 goal difference based on their counter attacking philosophy.
This season Atleti are playing even more amazing defense than two years ago. They have only conceded 11 goals in 23 games. And despite scoring 22 fewer goals than league leaders Barcelona, they are only 3 points off the top of the table and sit one point above their profligate neighbors, Real Madrid. Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone has created a thrilling style of football which is able to challenge huge spending teams. And he has built that team on the foundation of solid defense.
Leicester also play counter attacking football but the difference between Leicester and Atletico is that Leicester have gotten away with significantly less than stellar defending up to this point.
When Atletico won La Liga in 2014 they only averaged 13 shots per game for offense, which is very similar to the way Leicester are playing, with their 13.2 shots per game. But the difference is the quality of Atletico’s defense, they only allowed the opposition 9 shots per game, while Leicester is allowing 13.5. No team that I have found has won any of the top leagues with a negative shot ratio. Please, correct me in the comments, I would love to be wrong. Even Montpellier, who surprised everyone winning Ligue Un with Giroud as the main striker, had a positive total shot ratio.
“Ah but Tim!” you say “what if Leicester are allowing shots but the shots are really bad?” It’s a good question. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
This chart illustrates what I’m talking about, comparing Arsenal, Leicester, and Tottenham.
First, a little help reading my chart: goals scored and conceded doesn’t count own goals; big chances does include penalties; and “SiP” is “shots in prime” which refers to shots taken in an area that extends from the 6 yard box in a circle up to the penalty spot — average shot conversion is 9.5%, SiP conversion for the top teams that I polled this year is almost 24%.
Leicester have only created 45 big chances from open play (54-9 penalties) and have allowed the opposition 32 big chances (34-2 penalties), a 1.4:1 ratio. Meanwhile, Arsenal have created almost 3:1 big chances against their opposition and even Tottenham have an almost 2:1 ratio (it is 2:1 unless we remove their penalties).
This indicates quality of chance creation. Arsenal are creating bags of quality chances, they just aren’t finishing them. Both Spurs and Leicester are finishing their big chances at or near 50%, Arsenal just 33%. The average conversion for all the top teams that I polled was 42%. This explains why Arsenal have a large number of big chances created but a smaller goals scored total.
It’s a similar story with shots in prime. Again, Arsenal are league leaders in this stat but just like big chances the problem is that the Gunners lack quality finishing up front. In terms of big chances Ramsey and Walcott have combined for 4/24 — 17% finishing. And in terms of finishing when in close, Ramsey, Walcott, and Alexis have combined to go 7/100 for shots in the 18 yard box. 7% finishing. This is atrocious considering that across the League on all shots taken the average is 9.5%..
What you see with Leicester’s numbers is that they are allowing the opposition a ton (106, a ton and 6) of shots in prime, more shots in prime than they are taking, but what they are doing is converting at 13.5% points above the opposition. And what’s even stranger is that their goalkeeper isn’t even saving them: Arsenal and Tottenham have the two best keepers in the League. Cech has saved 75% of the shots in prime he has faced and Lloris 68%, Schmeichel is only saving 56%. And it’s similar for big chances: Cech is saving 59%, Lloris 50%, Schmeichel 41%.
One last quirk about Leicester’s season. Penalties make up 28% of Leicester’s big chances scored, 17% of their big chances created, and 15% of their overall goals scored. They need penalties to win the League and the good news for them is that they are facing Sunderland and Norwich in the final 12 games, the two teams who have conceded 7 penalties each.
This is not a model of football I have seen yet: allow the opponents to take more shots than you, to take great shots, don’t have a great keeper, don’t create a whole lot of shots for yourself, win a bunch of penalties, and hope that your team can convert shots at a vastly superior rate. But it does indicate a huge drop in quality at the top of the Premier League.
I’m not saying that Leicester suck. They lead the League in goals scored and are tied for 6th in goals allowed and, of course, they have the most points, which is the only stat that matters come May. Instead, what I suspect is happening is that Leicester are exploiting weakness in the league, specifically finishing. Chelsea’s Mourinho-induced collapse, Manchester City’s struggles in away games, Arsenal’s injury record (and atrocious finishing), Manchester United’s anti-football under van Gaal, and Liverpool struggling to rebuild because they don’t seem to understand the transfer market, have all created a vacuum at the top of the table. Chelsea, Man U, Arsenal, and City are all historically the best finishing teams in the League and they are simply not doing it this year.
And Leicester are.