With yesterday’s Tottenham draw at Stamford Bridge, Leicester City clinched their first ever Premier League title, finishing a story that will go down as one of the most unlikely and remarkable in the history of English football. Though the Foxes never really had a bad run of results this season, there were several key turning points in the campaign that will define the season as we remember it in years to come.
To figure out where exactly those turning points are, we’ll use Michael Caley’s xG data on the Foxes. Here is a full match-by-match xG report on their season up to this point. (I will update the Storify after each of their remaining two fixtures.)
Looking over their results, here are the three key turning points that stand out.
Leicester Learns to Defend: Week 10 (Leicester City 1-0 Crystal Palace)
At the time the main story with this game is that it was Jamie Vardy’s seventh consecutive game with a goal as the English striker scored from three yards out after some poor defending by the Eagles. But the other big story is that this was Leicester’s first clean sheet of the season. After conceding in each of their first nine league games, the Foxes held Palace scoreless. (And this is back when Palace was actually good, remember.)
Their xG numbers also improved considerably. They were conceding an average of 1.44 xG per game through the Palace game. After the Palace game, that number fell to .91 xG. Over the next 28 games, they would keep another 14 clean sheets. In other words, after not keeping a clean sheet once in their first ten games, they would do it in every other match in their remaining 28.
Another way of putting this into perspective, with the help of expected goals, is to say that the Foxes have conceded more than 1 expected goal six times in 17 matches played in 2016. Of the lot, they have only conceded more than 2 expected goals once and that was when playing with ten men for much of the game against Arsenal. In the five remaining cases, their worst performance is when they conceded 1.4 xG at the Etihad against Manchester City in a match they won 2-1 and in which they managed 2.5 xG.
One of the main ways Leicester City were able to improve so dramatically is that they began to tighten down defensively and, in many ways, mimic Simeone’s Atletico. They sat deep, played narrow, and denied teams passing opportunities into advanced central positions. Caley has the numbers on this in his fine piece about this shift for the Washington Post. But this move to sit deeper didn’t just improve the Foxes defense, though it did. A more organized structure also helped the attack as their xG scored jumped from 1.24 per game through the Palace game to 1.44 per game after.
Leicester Establishes Themselves as Top 4 Challenger and a Dark Horse Title Contender: Week 21 (Tottenham Hotspur 0-1 Leicester City)
To reduce this point to a single game is perhaps too simplistic as the win at White Hart Lane was the culmination of a remarkable month for Leicester City in which they beat Chelsea and Everton and drew with Manchester City. But this particular game is pivotal for a couple reasons. First, it amounted to a six pointer in the title race. Second, from this point onward the Foxes would not lose on xG by a significant margin in any match where they played with 11 the whole game. In fact, the only loss by any margin on xG came last weekend when they drew 1-1 with Manchester United but finished just behind them on xG.
What was interesting about this match is that Tottenham pretty well stifled the Leicester attack, as they did in their first meeting as well. Spurs did a fine job of controlling Vardy and, unlike the first match, also managed to keep Riyad Mahrez contained.
But, much like another shock domestic champion of recent years, Leicester City also boast an impressive ability to score from set pieces. Though they have only scored 11 set piece goals this season, the duo of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth are a formidable pairing on corner kicks or free kicks drilled into the box. Against Spurs, Huth was able to strike after a clash between Eric Dier and Toby Alderweireld left him in plenty of space as the ball came to him off the corner.
This highlights another key for the Leicester attack this season, which is that they have been able to manufacture goals when needed. This team does not need the ball or even control of the run of play to score goals. The wizardry of Riyad Mahrez and set piece threat posed by Huth and Morgan means that the Foxes can snatch goals from nothing. That ability when combined with their stellar defensive record makes them a very difficult team to beat.
Leicester Grinds Out Wins: Week 27 (Leicester City 1-0 Norwich City)
After their late defeat to Arsenal, the Foxes position suddenly seemed more precarious. The Gunners looked primed to end their title draught, but Spurs and City were also lurking. Meanwhile, Leicester City was facing a tricky fixture list as they faced a bunch of teams that wouldn’t attack them as aggressively as the Premier League elites, which would have the effect of limiting Leicester’s chances to counter.
The run began with a clash with relegation candidate Norwich City at the King Power Stadium. For 89 minutes, the Canaries kept Leicester at bay, limiting them to one good chance and occasionally creating a bit themselves, although Cameron Jerome squandered most of their best attacking opportunities.
But then in the 89th minute substitute Leonardo Ulloa came on to score a winner off a tap in at the far post off an inch-perfect cross from Vardy. It was their third 1-0 win of the season after their previous victories against Palace and Spurs by the same margin. They would win four more by that margin in the coming months and in similar fashion, doing just enough to get a single goal and frustrating any opposition attempts to crack their increasingly air-tight defense.
Though Spurs fans will, reasonably, feel a sense of disbelief that they’ve missed out on their first title in 55 years to a team that could easily have been relegated last season, the truth is Leicester City are deserving champions. They have become one of England’s best defensive teams and, thanks to Mahrez and Vardy, are a genuinely exciting offensive team as well. It will be very interesting to see what the Foxes do over the summer and how they handle the Champions League next season. The stats suggest that this is a genuinely elite team capable of holding their own in Europe, assuming they don’t tire out in the first half of next season. But regardless of what happens next season, this has been a marvelous campaign for Leicester and their fans should simply enjoy these final weeks as they get to cheer their Premier League champions for a couple more weeks.