Monday, 7 April 2014

Championship Weekend Review: Leicester Special

Leicester City’s inevitable promotion to the Premier League has been mathematically confirmed. They beat Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 on Friday night, thanks to goals from Riyad Mahrez and Anthony Knockaert. QPR’s defeat at Bournemouth, and Derby failing to win at Middlesbrough, meant the job was done. In light of their promotion, this week’s weekend review will be based around the Foxes.

The story of their season
If you had to pinpoint the main factor behind Leicester’s promotion, it would be their team spirit. The heartbreak of losing the play-off semi-final to Watford last season, in such dramatic circumstances, would have had a negative affect on most clubs. Nigel Pearson’s job was on the line, and it looked as though the young group of players would fall victim to a summer overhaul, as Leicester’s Thai owners wanted instant success.

Play-off heartbreak last season
This theory could not have been less accurate. Very few players were brought in, or indeed sold, during the summer months. In Autumn, Leicester won seven of their first ten matches to get a foothold in the promotion race. The first half of their season could not quite be described as mesmerising, more industrious and efficient. Eleven of their fifteen wins before the turn of the year came by just one goal, which underlined the team’s ability to grind out narrow wins in tight games.

Recovering quickly from back-to-back defeats in December, Leicester began to assert their dominance. A crucial, smash-and-grab 1-0 win at QPR before Christmas spring-boarded a nine game winning streak, which included a 4-1 demolition of promotion rivals Derby at the King Power Stadium. After this performance in front of the Sky cameras, Leicester were destined to run away with the league title. Since then they have never looked back, and remain unbeaten since December.

Squad Analysis
It is hard to argue that Leicester have had any stand-out defensive performers. Having a settled back-line has helped, as De Laet, Moore, Morgan and Konchesky played almost all of the games in the first half of the season. On average, they have conceded 3.6 shots on target per game. This is an unremarkable record, and does not necessarily suggest defensive organisation has been a key factor in Leicester’s success.

Kasper Schmeichel
Kasper Schmeichel has been an efficient goalkeeper, without really catching the eye, and he has fallen under the limelight of many other Championship goalkeepers. Though a reliable shot stopper, he has at times been liable to errors from set pieces earlier in the season, most notably at Charlton and Doncaster. Now at the age of twenty-seven, next season will be the ultimate test of whether the Dane can make it as an established Premier League goalkeeper.

It has been a very productive season for Leicester’s wingers. Riyad Mahrez has made a fantastic contribution, with three goals and four assists in just six starts since signing in January. The pacey Lloyd Dyer has been impressive on the left, particularly in the first half of the season, though his form and fitness has declined somewhat since January. Anthony Knockaert has formed arguably the best right-sided partnership in the league with attack-minded full-back, Ritchie De Laet. Knockaert, an excellent spot from the Leicester scouting system, has provided a few key moments of magic. His strong left foot gives the Frenchman a versatility, and has often moved to the left wing in Lloyd Dyer’s absence.

In the centre, Danny Drinkwater and Matt James have had undoubtedly their most successful professional season, since coming through the prestigious Manchester United academy. Both are intelligent players, who can link play from Leicester’s half to the attacking areas very quickly. Drinkwater, seen as one of the stand-out performers for the Foxes, was shortlisted for the Championship player of the year award. In reserve, Leicester have ex-captain Andy King, and Dean Hammond, who played a key role in Southampton’s promotion to the Premier League two years ago.

Jamie Vardy
Up front, Leicester have a very good strike partnership. Jamie Vardy’s relentless pace and energy has the ability to frighten defences into mistakes and rushed clearances, forcing them further back, to create space for the more composed David Nugent. The top assisting striker in the Championship, Nugent has contributed to 39% (30) of Leicester’s seventy-six goals this season, through goals and assists. Leicester have plenty of depth going forward too. Chris Wood has proved a great squad option lately, with three goals and two assists in his previous seven appearances, many of which as a substitute. Kevin Phillips adds a wealth of experience, not just in finishing quality, but as a wise head in the dressing room, having been in promotion battles countless times before.

Summer Strengthening

In essence, this talented young squad has achieved promotion due to the familiarity factor - Nigel Pearson’s consistency of team selection. The dilemma for the Leicester boss now, is what approach to take in the transfer market. Add too many proven, Premier League players, and he risks disrupting the balance of the team, as well as taking an inflated wage bill down to the Championship. Change too little, and this inexperienced group of players could crumble under the pressure.

West Ham's Joey O'Brien
A left-back might be needed, depending on the fitness of Paul Konchesky, who has suffered from hamstring injuries this season. Pearson will be hoping Konchesky can play a part, as one of the few squad members who have played in the top flight before, for a long time. 21-year-old Jeffrey Schlupp, a forward by trade, may not be relied upon to play left-back against the top teams. Pearson might be inclined to make a bid for Ipswich’s Aaron Cresswell, who has been the most promising left-back in the Championship. For want of more experience, he may move for players along the lines of Andy Wilkinson or Joey O’Brien, versatile squad members at Stoke and West Ham respectively.

Pearson’s dealings in the transfer market will test his faith in young centre-back Liam Moore, whose transition from Leicester’s academy to first team has been seamless. However, in certain games, Polish defender Marcin Wasilewski has been favoured. If Pearson opts for another experienced player alongside Wes Morgan, perhaps John O’Shea if Sunderland go down, that could give the side some leadership. However, the potential downside for an aging defender, would be a lack of pace, as Morgan is not the most mobile player.

While Leicester’s wingers have had good seasons, Lloyd Dyer, Anthony Knockaert and Riyad Mahrez are all left-footed. Pearson may want a right-footed winger, perhaps to add some variety. Marc Albrighton has only played nineteen times in his last two years at Aston Villa, which suggests he is not part of Paul Lambert’s plans. Albrighton’s contract expires in the summer, too, so Pearson may be inclined to snap him up, and add more Premier League quality.

Overall Chances
Nigel Pearson
This is a massive opportunity for some unproven players, the likes of Liam Moore, Matty James and Jamie Vardy, to establish themselves among England’s elite. The key will be for Pearson to add experience to the side, and one or two leaders in the dressing room, without going overboard and ripping apart the squad which got Leicester to the Premier League in the first place. The manner in which those players have dominated the Championship from January onwards, suggests they are capable of holding their own in the top flight.

No comments:

Post a Comment