It is the age of data and yet it is also the age of impatience. It is an age when Match of the Day provides the xG and yet a manager can come under pressure after three defeats. It is the age when most people understand the phrase “regression to the mean”, yet it is also an age when mayflies have begun using “Watford head coach” to denote something with a short lifespan. There is something deeply paradoxical about the present era of football.
Which brings us to Brendan Rodgers. Leicester will qualify for the Champions League for the second time if they beat Manchester United on Sunday or if they draw and Chelsea lose to Wolves. If they do miss out there would be understandable disappointment given they were eight points clear of fifth when the Premier League was suspended.
Their recent form has been dismal: two wins in eight games since the restart. But it is not as simple as them having been disrupted by the break and struggling to rediscover their rhythm: the downturn had already begun.
Although they beat Aston Villa 4-0 in the last game before lockdown, they had won one in seven before that. Since Rodgers signed a new five-year contract at the beginning of December, Leicester have taken 27 points from 22 league games, while losing to Aston Villa in the EFL Cup semi-finals and Chelsea in the FA Cup quarter-finals. This season is founded on a run of 14 matches between late August and December when Leicester won 12, losing only to Liverpool and Manchester United.
Which, then, is the true Leicester, the side that sliced apart mid‑table opponents, putting nine past Southampton and five past Newcastle, and was good enough to stand toe-to-toe with Arsenal and Tottenham in that run or the insipid side that barely mustered a chance against Norwich and Brighton, or even the self-destructive shambles who contrived to lose 4-1 at Bournemouth?
In the fable, six blind men approach an elephant one by one. The first insists it is like a wall, the next like a spear, then a snake, a tree, a fan and a rope. Though each was partly in the right, all were in the wrong. And so it is with Leicester. You can take individual parts of this season and make almost any case you like about the level of the club, but they all comprise the true Leicester, the good and the bad.
Leaving aside the tendency highlighted by Pep Guardiola’s new assistant, Juanma Lillo, to venerate what ends well rather than what has been done well, and looking at the season as a whole, it is hard to regard it as anything other than a success. Leicester have the eighth-highest wage bill in the Premier League; at worst they will finish three places above that. Only Sheffield United, Wolves and Burnley are likely to outperform their wage bill by more.
But Leicester’s achievement is greater even than that. While it is true Arsenal and Tottenham have had unusually poor campaigns, and Chelsea and United have had their problems – this will be the first time since 2006-07 that the team finishing third has not reached 70 points – it is also true that for two decades breaking into the elite bubble, whether the Big Four or the more recent Big Six, has seemed an insurmountable leap.
The question then becomes a matter of focus. Does it matter that Leicester accrued most of their points in the first half of the season, when their actual goals-per-game output outstripped their xG by 2.2 to 1.7? The answer to that really depends on whether you regard the collapse in form since Christmas as a trend that is likely to be continued. There is, though, an obvious explanation for it beyond simple regression to the mean, although that clearly played its part, and that is injuries.
Leicester have been without Ricardo Pereira since March and lost Ben Chilwell in the win over Crystal Palace at the beginning of this month. Because of his hip injury, James Maddison was able to play only a half in the final seven league games of the season. Wilfred Ndidi has not been back to his best since missing five games with a knee problem in January. Those are four key positions for Leicester: the full-backs give them attacking thrust and create space for the wide forwards; Maddison is their main source of creativity and Ndidi’s energy and reading of the game are essential to Rodgers’s favoured 4-1‑4-1.
There is also an issue of opponents adapting. Leicester are at their best winning the ball high up the pitch or breaking rapidly so Jamie Vardy has space to run into. Opponents – notably Brighton and Watford – have begun to sit deep and allow them the ball. That, to a large extent, negates Vardy, and they have begun to do it just as Leicester’s other creative options have become unavailable.
It is possible Rodgers has lost the dressing room. It is possible there has been a catastrophic loss of faith in his methods. It is possible those methods were at best incidental to a freakish run of form through the autumn. It may be that the trend continues downwards. But it seems far more likely that a pair of defeats at Christmas, away at City and then at home to Liverpool in what was probably the champions’ best performance of the season, shook confidence and that it has been impossible to regain the earlier form as a relatively slim squad has been exposed by injury.
Leicester will finish at least four places higher than last season and with at least 10 more points. They have broken into the Big Six – or at least have been there as the Big Six have collapsed around them – and have reached cup quarter and semi‑finals. And they have qualified for Europe. They may end up missing out on the Champions League, but a year ago this outcome would have seemed a triumph for Rodgers. A point in the autumn is worth no less than a point in the spring.