Leicester’s Early-Season Form Makes Them Good Value for Premier League Top Six
Four matches in and the title race – apologies for using that expression in September – already seems to be confirming most people’s predictions. Liverpool and Manchester City will once again be clear front-runners, one or the other will end up with close to 100 points and the only scope for variation is the extent Aymeric Laporte’s long-term injury will unbalance the defending champions as they seek to prevent their rivals getting any further ahead.
Even at this early stage it is being assumed that matches between the top two will decide the eventual outcome, on the basis that the other 18 teams in the Premier League are too far behind the standards being set at Anfield and the Etihad to make any significant inroads on points totals. That, however, is simply not the way football works.
Manchester City were beaten by Crystal Palace and Newcastle last season, two wholly unexpected results in the middle of a campaign that also brought defeats at Chelsea and Leicester. Liverpool missed out on the title through drawing too often, the list of clubs able to hold them including Arsenal, West Ham, Everton and, again, Leicester.
Reviewing those statistics it is perhaps not all that surprising to see Leicester in third place at the moment, especially with a capable manager in Brendan Rodgers and a couple of adventurous signings in Ayoze Pérez and Youri Tielemans added to the mix.
No one is yet saying another title challenge is on the cards, though Jamie Vardy certainly appears to have rediscovered his 2016 form, but with players of the quality of James Maddison and Ben Chilwell now established regulars Leicester look capable of finishing a lot higher than last season’s ninth.
Their results include a draw at Chelsea that could easily have been a win and word has spread that this is a side not only likely to take points from top-six opponents over the course of the season but one with a decent chance of disrupting the top four. Odds of around 25-1 could be obtained on Leicester claiming a Champions League place at the start of the season, yet after four games the bookies have seen enough to trim to a less generous 8-1.
While a long way from the fantasy-land 5,000-1 famously offered on them winning the title in 2015-16, it might still be worth backing Leicester for the same reason that helped them prevail four seasons ago. Leicester are seventh favourites to finish in the top four but unlike all six teams ahead of them they have no European distractions lying in wait. Playing one game a week most weeks was an enormous advantage to Claudio Ranieri and his squad, just as it was to Antonio Conte’s runaway Chelsea a year later. The title may be out of Leicester’s reach, with Liverpool and City going so strongly, but below the top two everyone else has looked vulnerable in the league with the draining effects of European competition still to kick in.
Though it might be argued that the global names near the top of the Premier League have a squad depth designed to cope with the demands of extra fixtures in Europe, this was not a line being peddled by many top-six managers when Leicester and Chelsea were winning their titles.
A streamlined schedule seems to be more of a blessing to an ambitious team than extra names on the roster and though no one accused Leicester and Chelsea of cheating by flying below Uefa’s radar, rivals with European commitments generally felt the ability to concentrate solely on the league conferred an almost unfair advantage.
It should not be imagined that the disruptive effect of playing in Uefa competitions is limited to the inconvenience of Sunday kick-offs or tiring late-night flights from remote parts of eastern Europe. Training and preparation is compromised for the whole week and there is psychological pressure, too. It was noticeable last season that Manchester City’s blip took place between qualifying from the group stage and beginning the knockout phase, a period around Christmas when one might have thought the players would have been more relaxed.
While Europe will not be a complication when the Premier League returns after the international break on Saturday, Leicester’s visit to Manchester United should test the theory that Rodgers’s players have the potential to stay ahead of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s. Everything looked promising for Solskjær after the opening weekend but United have not managed a win since then, Crystal Palace took the points in the last home game and it turns out Chelsea, beaten 4-0 in that first match, may not have everything sorted under Frank Lampard in any case.
Rodgers is the more experienced manager in the Old Trafford contest, Leicester have confidence and even though it is the fifth game of the season, United already have everything to prove.
The Guardian Sport