Ken Early: Leicester City’s statistics just do not add up

Fairytale ending looms ever closer for Claudio Ranieri’s unlikeliest of dreams

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri with his Manchester United counterpart Louis van Gaal after their 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in the English Premier League on Sunday. Photograph: Reuters.

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri with his Manchester United counterpart Louis van Gaal after their 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in the English Premier League on Sunday. Photograph: Reuters.

 

As Claudio Ranieri and Louis van Gaal embraced at the end of Leicester’s draw at Manchester United, the Sky camera sneaked up and earwigged on their conversation. Those watching on TV could hear Ranieri telling Van Gaal: “You are doing fantastic job. Fantastic.”

Van Gaal’s eyes shone with gratitude. You wondered how Alex Ferguson might have reacted to being told he was doing a fantastic job by the manager of a relatively small club that had somehow ended up 17 points ahead of Manchester United in the league table.

You suspect that were Ferguson still in charge at United, Ranieri would not have been in the mood to exchange compliments by this stage of the season. When Ferguson was involved in the title race, the heat of competition would sometimes drive him to say and do ungentlemanly things. This season, Ranieri and Leicester have been left to pursue the title in serenity.

The absence of what we used to call mind games has been a striking feature of this season’s Premier League, at least since the sacking of José Mourinho, whose mind games this campaign seemed to be directed mainly at his own employers. Only Sam Allardyce and Alan Pardew have shown any interest in keeping alive Ferguson’s tradition of bullying opponents through the media.

Sportsmanlike standards

Manuel Pellegrini

You suspect that all of them would ultimately have been satisfied with the respectability of a top-four place, and that even if they inwardly consider it somewhat embarrassing to have finished behind a team with a quarter of their budget, they can comfortably refrain from beating themselves up about it.

Every football country on earth has sent a reporter to Leicester to describe what they are doing and explain what is happening. Despite this influx of international brainpower, it’s still as difficult as ever to make sense of the bizarre underlying events. It’s easy to describe Leicester’s play, but it’s very difficult to say why it should have become so successful.

Statistically they are mostly exceptional in ways that would conventionally indicate a poor team. They rank only eighth in shots on goal per game. Their pass completion rate of 70 per cent is the worst in the league, and only Sunderland and West Brom’s record a lower rate of possession.

One statistical measurement in which Leicester do stand out is that is that when they attack, they move the ball forward faster than any other team in the league. But this is not an infallible sign of a formidable side. Analysis by Will Gürpinar-Morgan for statsbomb.com showed only two teams over the last four Premier League seasons who had a higher average pace of attack than Leicester 2015/’16. They were the Burnley team of 2014/’15 (relegated) and the Aston Villa team of 2013/’14 (15th, five points off relegation).

There’s your Leicester model. Sit back and let the other team have the ball. Funnel opponents’ attacks out wide, knowing that your central defenders can usually head away any crosses. And when you win possession, break forward as fast as you can.

When you put it like that, it sounds rather like the Mourinho-coached Chelsea side that won the league last year. Fast counter-attacking football is a style that has been proven to work in the Premier League. But equally, it’s a formula that a million mediocre teams have tried without ever coming close to winning an important championship. Quite why it should have worked so spectacularly in Leicester’s case is impossible to explain.

The outlandish nature of the story means that the “fairytale” tag for once actually seems apt, though in a fairytale the hero always has some magical amulet or insight that explains their success. If Leicester’s case, nobody has yet come up with a convincing theory as to what that might be. This is why all the “Leicester City: what’s THAT all about” stories end up recycling the same comic anecdotes about Richard III and Claudio Ranieri offering to buy pizza for the team if they kept a clean sheet.

Brilliant ascetic

Thomas TuchelBorussia Dortmund

Leicester need just two more points and judging by the tone of the international media coverage, most people have decided that the cat is already in the sack. The bookies agree, with the odds of Spurs overtaking them now out to about 18 to 1. A long shot, in other words, but still almost 300 times more likely than the chance they gave Leicester of winning the league.

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