Leicester City 19/20 Review: The rise and the fall
Now is a good time to assess the 2019/20 Premier League season so far, and here's Alex Keble's take on a campaign of two halves for Leicester City...
Like so many clubs in this inconsistent and bizarre Premier League season, Leicester City's campaign can be split into two halves: first the rise, then the fall.
Brendan Rodgers will have been hoping that their 4-0 win over Aston Villa just before the suspension was a turning point, because before that Leicester had claimed just 12 points from their last 12 league games. That is in sharp contrast to the 38 won across their first 16 matches, a record that - in ordinary times - would make them title favourites.
But Leicester just couldn't sustain the good form. With no major injuries or European distraction, it is difficult to understand quite why that's the case. Perhaps opponents have worked out how to counteract the Foxes' tactics, or, more worryingly, perhaps they have simply regressed to the mean after dramatically outperforming their xG stats in the first half of the season.
Season so far
Leicester were unstoppable through Autumn. Jamie Vardy scored 16 goals in 16, excelling in a stripped-down role that - by staying higher and more central - meant he was ready for the sudden tempo changes that characterised Rodgers' tactics.
He fused patient possession football with rapid shifts of gear via vertical passes through the middle, piercing the lines at speed to get Vardy in behind seemingly out of nowhere. James Maddison and Youri Tielemans, operating as tandem number tens, worked to shuttle unseen into space, ready to receive the pass on the half-turn and pounce.
The surprise element of this approach explains why Leicester so consistently beat their opponents, racing into second place and six clear of Manchester City by the start of December. Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira offered another threat on the overlap, Harvey Barnes blossomed on the left, and everything was rosy at the King Power.
And then Wilfried Ndidi got injured. His last game was on New Year's Day, a comfortable 3-0 win against Newcastle, and while he was out the Foxes won just once in the league - at home to West Ham.
Without his athleticism at the base of midfield Leicester lost their defensive steel and their metronome in possession. All of a sudden Tielemans and Maddison looked disconnected from the back four and those quick vertical passes disappeared. Vardy slumped, as did both full-backs, and Rodgers just couldn't find a fix.
Then Ndidi returned to the starting line-up and Leicester promptly thrashed Villa. Rodgers won't be comfortable relying quite so heavily on one key player.
There is only one place to start: the 9-0 win against Southampton in October, an extraordinary match in which both Jamie Vardy and Ayoze Perez scored hat-tricks. Having beaten Newcastle 5-0 just three weeks earlier, Leicester's players must have felt invincible.
Beating Spurs 2-1 and Arsenal 2-0, both at the King Power, will also live long in the memory as matches that confirmed Leicester under Rodgers had broken up the Premier League 'Big Six'. Beating Mauricio Pochettino's side was particularly sweet given the visitors had a goal disallowed by VAR for a marginal handball, only for Maddison to score the winner from 25 yards in the 85th minute.
In terms of individual performances, Caglar Soyuncu has been a revelation in central defence and a more than adequate replacement for Harry Maguire, while Pereira has firmly established himself as one of the best right-backs in Europe.
The whole of January and February was more or less a write-off, but since they had such a large buffer within the top four the biggest disappointment from this period was losing the Carabao Cup semi-final to Aston Villa. They should have been able to beat Villa over 90 minutes, let alone 210, and Rodgers' side would have had a decent shot of causing an upset against Man City in the final.
The 2-1 defeat at home to Southampton was a disappointing symbol of the reversal of their fortunes since the 9-0, with Maddison, Barnes, and Hamzah Choudhury all particularly poor.
What they can achieve in 19/20
Fortunately for Leicester the rest of the Premier League's top sides have faltered in the same period, and so the Foxes remain eight points clear in the top four. Should the campaign resume they will surely qualify for next season's Champions League, currently priced at1.27 with Betfair Exchange.
They also face Chelsea at home in the FA Cup quarter-final, and given Frank Lampard's side aren't particularly strong on the road this presents a very good chance to reach Wembley. Rodgers' team can go all the way, available at12.00 with Betfair Exchange.
What next: Summer transfers & 2020/21
The squad needs to be filled out, that's for sure, because the extra Champions League games are bound to take their toll. The club need a new striker to compete with 33-year-old Vardy, as well as an upgrade on Choudhury should Ndidi get injured again.
Leicester are at a critical moment in their history; invest in a couple of rising stars and they can consolidate their position as one of the biggest clubs in England, particularly with Tottenham potentially falling away. After 12 successful months in the job, there is every reason to believe Rodgers will get it right.
Had the traditional 'Big Six' not been in collective meltdown in 2019/20 then Leicester City would already have fallen out of the top four, kicking themselves for a wasted opportunity.
Then again, the league table doesn't lie, and it would hardly be fair to criticise Rodgers for taking a mid-table club to an eight-point cushion within the Champions League spots. When at their best, Leicester are a brilliant side. All they need is to find consistency.