EPL

Goals, guile and graft – How Leicester City won the Premier League title

By Sports Desk May 02, 2021

Five years have passed since Leicester City stunned the football world and sealed their astonishing first Premier League triumph.

The Foxes had faced relegation the previous season before rallying late in the year but then stormed clear at the summit in 2015-16.

Leicester are now regular Champions League challengers, yet the story of that campaign remains remarkable.

With Opta data, we tell the tale of their title success through their three key performers.
 

VARDY'S GOALS

Jamie Vardy's rags to riches football fairytale story is well documented, but by this point in his career it is fair to say he had not yet made the grade in the Premier League. 

Having scored 16 times in their 2013-14 promotion campaign, Vardy scored one, created two more and won a pair of penalties for the further goals in a delirious 5-3 defeat of Manchester United in September 2014, then did not net again until March 2015.

Team-mate David Nugent provided an obvious, easy comparison, the player too good for the second tier but not good enough for the top flight.

Nugent's 20 goals in 46 games in 2013-14 improved his Championship tally to 90 in 254. He had found the net only nine times across 64 Premier League appearances, though, and would add just five more from 29 matches for Leicester.

But where Nugent's 2014-15 season followed a familiar, underwhelming theme, Vardy improved drastically over the course of a relentless run-in.

Playing a vital role as seven wins from nine games lifted Leicester from the foot of the table, Vardy ended the season with five goals and eight assists. Three of his five strikes came from fast breaks, having been involved in 11 counter-attacks – the fifth-most of any Premier League player – as the Foxes found an effective way of playing.

Leicester had fewer fast breaks in 2015-16 (21) than the previous year (34) but still led the league in this regard and scored from six such counters. Four of those goals came from Vardy among a breakout 24 for the season.

Freed by a quick, direct set-up, Vardy ranked fourth in the league for shots (115), second for shots on target (53) and third for touches in the opposition box (221). The ultimate confidence player, Vardy scored in a record-breaking 11 consecutive matches.

The tireless forward maintained his nuisance factor, too, winning possession in the final third 33 times and earning seven penalties – both league highs.

The Leicester number nine took 20.87 per cent of his chances but only marginally outperformed his expected goals (xG) total, his 19 non-penalty goals coming from shots worth a top-ranked 18.34 xG.

Vardy has since become more clinical – peaking with 28.17 per cent shot conversion in 2017-18 – but has never again been so busy in the area.

MAHREZ'S GUILE

Anthony Knockaert also fell into that Nugent group, lasting a mere nine games at Leicester in the top flight having created 2.6 chances per 90 minutes in the first of his three Championship promotion campaigns.

Riyad Mahrez, signed in January 2014, was the Foxes' other star winger and also struggled in his debut Premier League season. Having been involved in seven goals in 19 Championship outings, he could only match that tally again across an entire year in the top division.

As with Vardy, though, Leicester's late-season resurgence allowed the Algeria international to carry momentum into the new campaign; he started the final four matches of 2014-15 and netted both goals in a win over Southampton.

And the improvement in Mahrez's play was even more pronounced.

There were two more goals against Sunderland on the opening day, among 13 by Christmas alongside seven assists. That pace slowed – he finished with 17 goals and 11 assists – but Mahrez trailed only Vardy for goal involvements.

Despite this, Mahrez was far from the most prolific creator. His 68 key passes ranked eighth but made up less than half of leader Mesut Ozil's output (146). Mahrez crafted high-quality openings, however, second only to Ozil (28) in creating 20 'big chances' – situations where Opta would reasonably expect a player to score.

This was all the more impressive as Mahrez was also required to provide an outlet for a side with the third-lowest average possession (42.4 per cent) in the division. Only Wilfried Zaha (274 to 255) attempted more dribbles, while nobody completed more (131).

Mahrez has never once attempted 100 dribbles in a season since joining Manchester City, but the close control and spellbinding skill that is merely another option at the Etihad Stadium then attracted defenders and opened space for sprinters Vardy, Marc Albrighton and Jeffrey Schlupp.

KANTE'S GRAFT

Gokhan Inler was presumed to be the replacement for Esteban Cambiasso, who had led Leicester's rescue act from midfield with five goals – as many as Vardy – at the age of 34.

Inler started only three games but for good reason. Fellow new signing N'Golo Kante was perhaps the biggest game-changer for the Foxes. Opponents might have dominated possession but they could never rest.

Kante, at Caen, had led Ligue 1 midfielders in tackles (178), tackles won (146) and interceptions (110) and ranked second for recoveries (369) in 2014-15.

The transition to the Premier League was seamless. He was first again for tackles (175), tackles won (125) and interceptions (156), although he fell to third in terms of recoveries (326). The man in second was Leicester team-mate Danny Drinkwater.

What the Foxes lacked without the experience of Cambiasso, Kante's bite more than made up for.

The midfielder became more careful in possession following his move, too, losing the ball with just 18.1 per cent of his touches, the lowest rate of any Leicester player with 1,000 touches or more and an improvement on his 23.4 per cent with Caen.

Even then, it was not as straightforward as a single signing fixing every issue. Idrissa Gueye, another Ligue 1 recruit, ranked second in tackles, tackles won and interceptions and first in recoveries yet was relegated with Aston Villa.

But Kante's infectious tenacity set the standard at the King Power Stadium and only Tottenham blocked a greater share of their opponents' shots (32.7 per cent) than Leicester (30.6), contributing to a conversion rate of just 6.9 per cent.

When Kante then left for Chelsea at the end of 2015-16, struggling Leicester waited only until January before signing another tough tackler in Wilfred Ndidi, one of just two players – the other being Gueye – to have since registered 130 or more tackles in a single Premier League season (each doing so twice).

In that time, nobody has been able to match Kante's title-winning mark.

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