Lesser teams than Leicester City would have tumbled down the table by now, with excuses and recriminations soundtracking their fall. Brendan Rodgers could have gone into the festive season wailing about the merciless schedule, players could have howled about being deployed out of position and fans could have decried regular formation changes as evidence of a team with no identity or plan.
Listen. There is nothing like that to be heard, at least not from anyone worth hearing. And look. Leicester go into the Boxing Day match with Manchester United sitting second, the same position that City were in this time last year. Such consistency does not quite amount to a miracle but is mighty impressive considering that Leicester have had to cope with more upheaval than most this year.
Their defensive record has been particularly admirable. At times during a season in which, unlike in 2019-20, they have had Europa League exertions on top of domestic duties, they have been missing their entire first-choice defence. Yet they go into the match against United having conceded four goals fewer than Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team in the league despite having played a game more.
Two reasons stand out. First, Rodgers has adapted cleverly. When the casualties were piling up in the second half of last season, he switched to a back three. If that move was practically forced on him, he coached the team in it so well that he can now use it when he pleases, such as in the 5-2 victory at Manchester City in September. Leicester still tend to be at their best with a back four but have demonstrated a versatility that enables them to switch depending on opponents and circumstances.
The second reason is that certain players have filled gaps so well that it is no longer clear who will be first-choice when everyone is available. While veterans such as Christian Fuchs (age 34), Wes Morgan (36) and Marc Albrighton (31) have stepped in to show they can still be counted upon, the most heartening surprises have come from young defenders, especially Wesley Fofana (20) and James Justin (22).
It has become so common to praise Fofana that one could grow blase about the young Frenchman arriving in a new league and country at the age of 19 and performing like the wiliest of Premier League campaigners. He has not missed a minute of league action, and barely erred, since his debut against Aston Villa in mid-October two weeks after being sent on as a substitute in a 3-0 defeat by Rennes in his last appearance for Saint-Étienne.
Thanks to Caglar Soyuncu, Leicester got over the loss of Harry Maguire almost as soon as they sold him in August 2019 but it is interesting, nevertheless, to compare Fofana’s statistics this season with those of the United captain. Not only has Fofana made more clearances and interceptions on average per league match, he has averaged twice as many tackles and – showcasing his nimble footwork and his ability to do what Rodgers describes as “defending forwards” – has completed more passes than Maguire and three times as many dribbles. He plays with such a rare combination of efficiency and audacity that one has to congratulate Leicester for luring him to the Premier League before anyone else, and helping him to flourish.
Justin’s improvement this season has been just as pleasing. He has filled in so well in a variety of positions that there have been few reasons to grumble about the sale of Ben Chilwell or, even more improbably, about the injuries to first Ricardo Pereira and then Timothy Castagne. Justin, signed last year from Luton, seems to get better in every game regardless of whether he plays on the right or left or in a back four or five. “From a manager’s perspective he’s just a dream,” Rodgers has said.
In last Sunday’s win at Tottenham the Leicester defence benefited from the protection of one of the league’s best midfield screeners, Wilfred Ndidi, who was able to complete 90 minutes for only the fourth time in a season interrupted by injury and complicated by the occasional need for him to slot in at centre-back owing to absences.
The Nigerian will almost certainly start in midfield on Boxing Day, when his intelligence and dynamism will be critical in attempting to neutralise Bruno Fernandes. “His reading of the game, his agility, all the numbers show how good he is at covering the space,” Rodgers said. “It’s also about the confidence he gives other players. It’s great to have him back and getting his fitness up.”
While Ndidi’s place is guaranteed, fitness permitting, it is difficult for Solskjær to predict how Leicester will line up in defence, especially as Castagne and Daniel Amartey made long-awaited returns against Tottenham and Soyuncu is due for a fitness check to see whether he can make his first league appearance since October. United won at the King Power Stadium on the final day of last season to wrench Champions League qualification from Leicester’s grasp. But the. home side are stronger and have more options now, despite their problems.