Received wisdom says Leicester City will fall away, a club of their stature cannot keep winning. Eventually injuries and suspensions will bite and their form will suffer. They’re not, after all, the first club from outside the expected top six to find themselves near the top of the table in December.
But watching them beat Chelsea convincingly on Monday, it seemed impossible to avoid the question: At what point should we start taking Leicester seriously? What would they have to do to be regarded as serious title contenders rather than a statistical blip?
While it’s true other unexpected sides have been on extended good runs from the start of the season into December, Leicester’s position is unprecedented. None of those other sides have sustained their runs for so long. Newcastle United were the last surprise Christmas leaders, having taken 36 points from 18 games in 2001. They’d finished 11th the previous season, but a sense lingered that they were a big club-in-waiting.
Perhaps more comparable is Aston Villa being top in 1998 with 36 points from 18 games or third in 2008 with 34 from 18. Wimbledon were third with 34 points from 18 games at Christmas in 1996, Sunderland were third with 37 from 18 in 1999 and Leicester themselves were third with 35 from 19 in 2000. To put that in context, if Leicester beat Everton at Goodison Park on Saturday, they will be top at Christmas with 38 points from 17 games.
Newcastle finished fourth, Villa came sixth in both 2008-09 and 1998-99, Sunderland ended up seventh, Wimbledon eighth and Leicester 13th. That suggests a major fall awaits in the season's second half—part regression to the mean and part the result of their squad size. But precedent is also beginning to work in Leicester’s favour; no side has ever been top after 16 games and failed to finish in the top four.
And there are perhaps reasons to believe they can buck the trend of those other surprise leaders. The first is injuries. Even with Danny Drinkwater suffering a hamstring strain against Chelsea, Leicester have lost remarkably few players to injury this season: just 12 in four months.
It’s common to speak of sides being lucky with injuries as though it’s all simply a matter of fortune and perhaps that is the case. But maybe it has to do with the work Leicester’s sports scientist Matt Reeves, who has designed bespoke fitness plans for players, insisting upon 48-hour rest periods and installing a cryogenic chamber at the training ground.
Shortly after the final whistle on Monday night, the Dutch website 11tegen11 tweeted its "Expected Goals" analysis. This is a growing field that assesses the quality and quantity of a side’s chances and works out what the score “should” have been.
Its significance is over the long term—the analysis, for instance, effectively predicted Swansea City’s miserable run before it began, pointing out they were getting results far better than Expected Goals suggested they should have been, something that isn’t sustainable. Nonetheless, it was intriguing that Expected Goals suggested a Chelsea victory by 2.22 to 0.77—and in a game that, certainly in the stadium, had felt like a relatively comfortable Leicester win.
This was a magnificent match! Let me ruin it by pointing out how Chelsea were actually quite close to a result here. pic.twitter.com/zCr9VNwiQS— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) December 14, 2015
Is it, then, simply a case of Leicester taking a high percentage of their chances thanks to unusual runs of productivity from Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez? Leicester, it’s true, are top scorers in the division despite only having the seventh-most shots per game, according to WhoScored.com, but their conversion of what Opta terms Big Chances, is not particularly unusual. What is important is that a high percentage of the chances they create are Big Chances.
The defence is the bigger concern. Leicester have leaked 22 goals this season, only the 13th-best record in the Premier League. Sooner or later, you suspect, the goals will dry up—all strikers eventually hit a lean run—and when that happens, the defensive leakiness becomes a major problem.
That said, Leicester have improved at the back as the season has gone on. All three of their clean sheets have come in their last seven games. Having let in 17 goals in their first nine games of the season, they’ve only conceded five in their last seven. This isn’t a simple case of a team enjoying a brilliant state to the season; Leicester have also improved.
There’s a danger, for all manager Claudio Ranieri’s protestations that Vardy and Mahrez are priceless and not for sale in January, that one or both will be plucked away. Every one of the big teams could do with an attacking boost, and as they look to kick-start their respective seasons, it’s natural their eyes should be drawn by the two most in-form attackers in the division.
Even if Vardy and Mahrez stay, there’s the danger transfer talk will destabilise them. Perhaps the spirit at Leicester, the sense of being on a unique adventure, will override that, at least until the end of the season. Perhaps not.
But perhaps the biggest caveat is whom they’ve played. It seems a strange thing to be saying at this stage of the season, but Leicester’s fixture list has been kind. They’ve only played four of the six wealthiest teams in the division, all of them at home, with those four games yielding four points.
The next three games, away to Everton and Liverpool and then home to Manchester City, will give a far clearer indication of where Leicester stand—partly because they’re difficult matches, partly because it’s three games in the space of 10 days and partly because they go to Goodison without the injured Drinkwater and the suspended Robert Huth, which means a first real examination of the depth of their squad.
That said, Andy King performed well after coming in for Drinkwater on Monday, and Gokhan Inler, a late substitute, has barely been used this season because of injury and the fact he couldn’t dislodge Drinkwater and N'Golo Kante once fit.
If Leicester can come through those games relatively unscathed, even with, say, four points, then they really do have to be taken seriously as title challengers.