Window Shopping: Leicester City

Despite a promising start, Claude Puel’s Leicester ended the season on a somewhat flat note. At one point in the season it looked as though Leicester may challenge Burnley for the ‘best of the rest’ 7th spot, but some disappointing form – particularly at home – between February and May meant Leicester finished 7 points behind the Lancashire club.

This is similar to Puel’s season in charge of Southampton. While the final league finish is respectable, both seasons ended with disappointing home form.

Southampton failed to score in their final 5 home games under Puel, while Leicester’s 3-1 victory against Arsenal was their first home win for 6 matches. What makes matters worse is that all 6 of these matches would be deemed winnable. They drew to Swansea, Stoke, Bournemouth and Southampton, and lost to Newcastle and West Ham. Better fortunes during that run of home games could have resulted in Europa League football next season.

This leaves Leicester in an interesting position. As @jair1970 talked about in his piece for InvestoBet, Leciester have changed manager but find themselves in pretty much the same position. With this in mind, I thought it’d be interesting to assess Leicester current squad and see where they could improve. Having wrote about the hiring of Puel back in December, it’s also a good chance to check back in and see if certain aspects of their play was addressed and if not, how that could be addressed over the summer.

A few housekeeping notes before starting. Sorry for the hiatus, I’ve been busy with uni work for the past few months, but now that’s out the way I can try and produce semi-regular content. On the data front, my data that isn’t from StrataBet is out of date. This data is scraped and the site in which I scrape it from hasn’t updated the game stats for around a month (since the 24th of April) now and I’m not too sure if it will be updated. To add to this, there’s another 9 games missing from the top five leagues. These 9 games have been removed so the values are true for the games involved, which I realise isn’t ideal but I thought it’d be better to have slightly incomplete data for passes/take-ons/defensive actions than none whatsoever.

What do Leicester need?

As touched on above, Leicester’s home form is something that needs to be improved should they want to close the gap on the big six. The below table from TransferMarkt shows the club’s record this season.

Leicester only won 3 out of 11 home games against the teams that finished below them this season, while failing to beat the bottom four at home.

Removing the big six from the league also helps show that Leicester can improve next season by beating those teams around or below them, rather than needing to pick up extra points against the top clubs. In this ‘best of the rest’ league, Leicester took 39 points from 26 games, putting them in 4th place. Top of the league was Burnley with 47 points.

Interestingly, however, while Leicester’s home results may not have been ideal their underlying numbers were mostly good. Separating xGD into home and away, they had the 9th best home xGD in the Premier League and 7th best away xGD.

Going a step further and eliminating the big six again see’s Leicester have the 2nd highest home xGD, behind only Crystal Palace, but the 5th highest away xGD.

Overall, Leicester had the 8th highest xG in the league, and didn’t significantly over or under perform either in xG for or against, while only marginally behind 7th placed Crystal Palace (-0.09 vs -0.07). So what they should be looking for to try and secure the ‘best of the rest’ spot for next season?

As pointed out by @jair1970, one problem that Leicester do have is a lack of peak age players. The majority of their minutes are made up by players either under 23-years-old or above 29-years-old. What’s encouraging is only Manchester City gave more minutes to u23’s last year, but less encouraging is that no other club gave more minutes to those over 29-years-old. To reinforce the above point though, Leicester have a good base to build on and should only require around 3 quality, peak age signings – although this depends on the futures of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy.

What’s also interesting is that in my piece from December looking at the hiring of Puel, one problem was that they conceded a disproportionate amount of their xG from their right hand side. This is something that hasn’t changed at the end of the season. Only Crystal Palace and Swansea have a higher percentage than Leicester’s 27.5% from the right hand side this season, with the league average being 22.8%. Then, using StrataBet’s key entry data, Leicester had both the most key entries and highest proportion of key entries from their right than any other Premier League club this season.

It seems Leicester may have already looked to address this by bringing in 24-year-old Ricardo Pereira from Porto, who should offer a big improvement at right-back for next season, but this isn’t the only defensive signing they should be looking to make.

A big portion of the minutes for over 29’s most likely belong to the aging back line. Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and defenders Wes Morgan, Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs all played significant minutes this season. However, Leicester seem to be doing a good job of rebuilding their title winning defence. Harry Maguire joined last summer from Hull and has played every minute of the Premier League season, 21-year-old Ben Chilwell and Christain Fuchs have almost equal minutes this season, while also signing the aforementioned Pereira to replace 31-year-old Danny Simpson.

This means Wes Morgan and Kaspar Schmeichel are the only two of the title winning back five left to be replaced.

A new ‘keeper probably isn’t a necessity at the minute, but it’s something they should keep an eye on. While using StrataBet data with a regular xG model has Leicester concede marginally less than expected, StatsBomb new data launch had a presentation about ‘keepers which saw Schmeichel concede the 6th most goals above expected with just under 2 goals more than expected conceded. Adding to this, Schmeichel also performed worse than expected in @FinerMargins look at Premier League goalkeepers this season – as can be seen in the embedded tweet below.

With small margins and only one season, there’s a chance it’s just a blip or variance, but it’s worth keeping an eye to make sure it isn’t the start of a decline.

While a ‘keeper may not be required just yet, with Wes Morgan now 34-years-old a peak age centre-back to partner Harry Maguire could be a good investment this summer. The only other centre-backs to play for Leicester this season were 31-year-old Yohan Benalouane (90 minutes) and on-loan Aleksandar Dragović (766 minutes).

Moving further up the pitch a new central midfielder to partner Wilfred Ndidi may also be a good investment. New signings Vicente Iborra and Adrien Silva are 30-years-old and 29-years-old, respectively, and Ndidi was the only central midfielder to play over 50% of the available minutes (Adrien Silva joined in January, but still only played 762 minutes).

Finally, in attack, Leicester had the 8th highest xG in the Premier League and have players such as Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, plus younger players like Kelechi Iheanacho and Demarai Gray to call upon – meaning a big signing doesn’t seem necessary. With that being said, both Vardy and Mahrez have been subject to transfer speculation this summer, so it’s worth exploring whether or not Leicester could sell them and then if they were to sell them, who the ideal replacements could be.

So this piece will firstly look at possible replacements for Wes Morgan, before looking for a partner for Ndidi and then exploring what Leicester should do regarding Vardy and Mahrez this summer.

Replacing Wes Morgan

Using numbers from Understat, since the turn of the year Leicester had the 5th lowest PPDA in the Premier League, while Puel’s 2016/17 Southampton side had the 6th lowest PPDA in the league. If Puel wants to have a side that’s active off the ball and looks to regain possession quickly, a younger, more mobile centre-back should be brought in to be Wes Morgan’s successor.

There is some room for leeway, with Leicester not having as extreme a press as the most active pressing sides, but a player who has played for a team with a similar amount of activity off the ball would be preferable.

Using ‘front foot’ percentage can be an interesting way to assess centre-backs. In this article by @EveryTeam_Mark on StatsBomb, front foot is described as a players tackles and interceptions versus their ball recoveries and blocks.

I’ve implemented this, but have had to modify it slightly as my data labels things in a funny way. My front foot actions are successful tackles, interceptions and blocked passes. While my other actions are clearances and blocked crosses and shots. Having looked at a few ‘blocked passes’ they seemed to have more in common with interceptions and tackles hence why I’ve included them in the front foot actions, rather than back foot with the other blocks.

The percentage is then the front foot actions divided by all the actions mentioned. Of course, much of this will depend on team performance and style rather than the individual, but it can help show what is expected of a defender within a team and see if players would be a good match.

Plotting this against the percentage of a players passes that are long-balls can be seen on the graph below. Given full-backs and centre-backs are lumped together as defenders, it’s not hugely helpful, as full-backs tend to dominate the higher front foot values, but it can help highlight what’s expected of Leicester’s defenders.

Click to Enlarge

As can be seen, Leicester’s centre-backs aren’t expected to defend on the front foot that often, while Morgan attempts less than average percentage of long-balls and Maguire more (average is 15.6%).  Using these numbers as guide, who are some possibilities for a new Leicester centre-back?

Alfie Mawson – 24 – Swansea City

Alfie Mawson feels a bit like a lazy suggestion after Leicester had success signing another 24-year-old English centre-back from a relegated club last season, but Mawson could be a good option for the Foxes.

On the above graph Mawson is less front footed than the other Leicester defenders, but it’s not a hugely significant difference and Mawson seems capable of being more front footed. Mawson seems like he can be a similar player to Maguire, in the sense that they’re both capable of doing the typical centre-back work such as blocks/winning headers, but they’re also both adept at bringing the ball out from the back and starting attacks. Some clips of Mawson’s passing can be seen below, displaying an impressive passing range with both feet.

 

While it’s only a single figure, and doesn’t take into account the situation of the duels, Mawson has an aerial success rate of 61.5%, pretty much the same as Morgan’s 61.7%. However, Mawson’s ability on the ball is better than that of Morgan’s.

While Morgan has the marginally higher xP Rating (1.04 vs 1.02, although I’m still not happy with my xP Model, so take the values with a pinch of salt), Mawson attempts a lot more long balls than Morgan, with a higher accuracy. Mawson attempts 8.68 long balls p90 with 56% accuracy, while Morgan attempts 3.26 with 43% accuracy. Mawson also attempts more vertical passes than Morgan, as well as more long (over ~20 yards) vertical passes.

While I haven’t seen as much of Mawson as others and I’m not very good at judging defenders, one minor criticism from watching clips of him is that he seems to either get too close to his man, meaning they can have a change of direction to get around him, or not close enough, leading to a cross under little pressure. This may be because he was on the left side of a back three, so found himself isolated out wide, which wouldn’t happen so often in a back four, it may just be something that only occurs in this small sample or I might not know what I’m talking about, but I thought it was worth pointing out after seeing it happen a few times.

Nothing particularly dangerous comes from these examples, but it just seems as though it’s possible for players to get past him with a slight change of direction. See Saloman Rondon turn him in the box, Mohamed Salah turn inside, Anthony Knockaert deliver a cross and Joshua King turn him before putting a low cross in.

I’m really not great at assessing centre-backs, but with Mawson turning 24-years-old and coming into his peak he seems a good choice to step up and replace Morgan at Leicester. He seems as though he can be just as effective defensively, while also offering a wider range of passing than Morgan. Given Swansea have been relegated and Mawson has 2 years remaining on his contract, it may not take a huge fee to land him. While there may be more value out there, for a defender entering their peak years who should have no problem adapting to the side, I’d say anything under £15m would be worthwhile.

Pedro Mendes – 27 – Montpellier

At 27-years-old, turning 28 this October, Pedro Mendes is an older target than Mawson, but given Leicester’s lack of peak age players this may be a good thing.

While I can’t claim to have seen much of Pedro Mendes, his Montpellier side have very impressive defensive numbers this season. Montpellier conceded the 6th least xG per game in Europe’s top five leagues this season, while their PPDA of 12.65 isn’t too far away from Leicester’s.

Looking at Mendes’ stats, they’re around the same level as Morgan and Mawson. Mendes has an xP Rating of 1.02 like Mawson, while completing 52% of his 7.75 attempted long balls p90. His vertical pass numbers are also similar to that of Mawson’s, attempting 2.9 p90 with 1.33 p90 being long compared to Mawson’s 3.06, with 1.35 being long. He is more front footed than Mawson and Morgan though, but at 36.2% compared to Mawson’s 27.4%, it doesn’t seem like a significant difference. Not to mention, if Puel does want to start to implement a more pro-active defence, it may be preferable to sign a more front footed defender.

At 56.7% his aerial duel rate is lower than Morgan’s, but not by a worrying amount.

I’d have to watch a lot more of Mendes before making any bold claims, but his passing numbers and the fact he plays for a defensively strong team are both encouraging. He’s probably slightly older than what would be ideal, meaning Leicester would be banking on him hitting the ground running, but he’d most likely cost less than Mawson. He could represent a low risk option, while also allowing the club to sign a 20 to 22-year-old option who can spend a couple years as his understudy before becoming first choice.

Conclusion

I find it really difficult to find and assess centre-backs, so I’m only going to leave the suggestions at these two.

Another interesting option which I didn’t include could be Jonny Evans from West Brom. While he may be older than what would be ideal, the relegation release clause would make him good value and he’d provide a good stop gap between Morgan and a long-term replacement  – like mentioned above with Pedro Mendes. Evans could be seen as a better option than Mendes, just due to the fact that the risk of adapting to a new league is removed, but Mendes still looks like he represents good value.

Then, while he’d be more expensive, Mawson offers both an immediate impact and more longevity than Mendes or Evans. With both Mawson and Maguire entering their peak years they could be build a good partnership together, with them both being competent defensively and on the ball.  If I had to make a decision, I’d lean towards bringing in Mawson, but if the fee was deemed too much one of Evans or Mendes would represent a good option while also bringing in a younger option to be their understudy and eventual successor.

A Midfield Partner for Ndidi

Despite spending big on Adrien Silva and Vicente Iborra last season, Leicester seem like they could use a new midfield signing to build a long-term partnership with Wilfred Ndidi. Ndidi is hugely impressive for a 21-year-old and Leicester should be doing all they can to ensure he stays.

An effective ball winner, the Nigerian midfielder has attempted the 8th most tackles + interceptions p90 in Europe’s top five leagues this season. Then, while his xP Rating of 0.951 isn’t great (again, don’t put too much importance into this), his long passing numbers are above average. It seems if Leicester could get either another player in a similar mold to Ndidi (capable of both winning the ball and progressing it) or just a player who could efficiently progress the ball their midfield would be in great shape.

So, who’s available?

Two names that represent interesting options are two players I’ve talked about before – so I won’t go into much detail about them here.

The first of the two is Yves Bissouma from Lille. I talked about Bissouma in ‘Trying to Find Midfielders‘. Bissouma represented a player with impressive ball winning numbers, as well as impressive numbers when it came to vertical passing and dribbling. These impressive numbers remained consistent until the end of the season. His 4.21 successful tackles and interceptions p90 was the 5th highest of all midfielders in Ligue 1, while for those who attempt more than 3 tackles he has the 7th best tackle success rate in the league.

On the ball Bissouma also has some impressive numbers. In Ligue 1 he had the 4th most attempted take-ons in deeper central areas with the 2nd highest accuracy for those in the top 10 attempted. His xP Rating is 1.019, while he seems to be somewhat progressive with his passing. He attempts the 12th most vertical passes for midfielders in Ligue 1, which equates to around 9% of his total attempted passes.

While at 21-years-old he doesn’t represent a solution to the peak age problem, he could be a good investment. A midfield of Bissouma and Ndidi seems as though it’d be difficult to play against, with both having strong defensive numbers, while Bissouma also seems to offer more on the ball.

The next name that could be an interesting option is Jean-Philippe Gbamin from Mainz. I talked about Gbamin in my ‘Window Shopping: Liverpool‘ piece. Like Bissouma, Gbamin is a player with both strong defensive numbers as well as showing good numbers for vertical or longer passes – although it’s worth pointing out Gbamin has spent time in both defence and midfield this season, which could skew the numbers.

Gbamin completed slightly more tackles and interceptions than Bissouma last season with 4.38 p90, while also successfully winning his tackles 54.2% of the time compared to Bissouma’s 43.2%. Interestingly, Gbamin attempted slightly less vertical passes per game than Bissouma with 4.15 p90, but these accounted for 11.4% of his total passes. Suggesting when he has the ball he looks to be more progressive, although this could be due to the difference in team style.

However, there are also some critiques to be made about Gbamin’s numbers. His attempted take ons in deeper areas is around the same as Bissouma’s, but with half the completion rate. Now these numbers are only small – just over one attempt a game – but it’s not encouraging that he only completed his take-ons 44% of the time in central areas of the first 60% of the pitch.

Gbamin also signed a new contract in November 2017, but with Mainz having a disappointing season a move could be a possibility. Like Bissouma, he is a bit on the young side at 22-years-old (23 in September) but that isn’t a huge issue.

Conclusion

With Ndidi, Silva, Iborra and Matty James a midfielder isn’t essential, but could be a useful addition – particularly if Leicester want to build a long-term partnership in their midfield. There doesn’t seem like a huge amount of peak age talent that would be a significant upgrade, while if a peak age player and a 21 to 23-year-old has similar numbers the younger players always seem like the more tempting option.

From the above two names, Bissouma seems like he could be a better option and represent more value, however, signing a younger midfielder may also impede the development of youngtser Hamza Choudhury – if the club view him as long-term option in midfield.

Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez

Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have been hugely important to Leicester in recent years, costing less than £2m combined and going on to help deliver them a Premier League title. Needless to say, they’ve been the subject of much speculation since Leicester’s title win. Vardy has been linked with Atletico Madrid, with Antoine Griezmann possibly leaving the club this summer, while Mahrez handed in a transfer request last season and has been the subject of Manchester City’s interest.

While this piece was originally going to be looking at if they could they sell these two, with reports claiming a £75m deal to City is close, I’ve decided to try and find a Mahrez replacement while just speculating about who could replace Vardy should he also go.

While I think Leicester should try and make sure at least one of the pair stays, just because two going would be a huge blow, you could argue the club already has their long-term replacements in Kelechi Iheanacho and Demarai Gray. While it may be too early for the two 21-year-olds to step up and replace the pair, they do have encouraging numbers – albeit from limited minutes.

Iheanacho gets a lot of praise online due to his good expected goal figures and these impressive figures have followed him to Leicester. While he only played 823 minutes, with a lot of these coming from the bench, he had an impressive xG + xA of 0.69 p90. Gray meanwhile has gone from an xG + xA 0.234 p90 in 1035 minutes in 2016/17 to 0.435 p90 from 1690 minutes in 2017/18. Again, it’s probably too early for them to takeover from Mahrez and Vardy, but should Leicester remain mid-table for the next couple of seasons they could have a bright future if they can keep the likes of Iheanacho, Gray, Ndidi and Chilwell together while also adding more players at a good age such as Ricardo Pereira.

Replacing Mahrez

So, what are Leicester looking to replace in Mahrez? The graph below shows Mahrez’s xG + xA contribution and his attempted take-ons in advanced areas.

You can see that while Mahrez’s output is good, although not off charts, in both categories if you move diagonally right to see players who achieved better in both metrics none are really attainable for Leicester. While this isn’t a definitive test or anything, it does show that Leicester have a hard task on their hands to replace Mahrez. However, Leicester don’t necessarily need a player that’s of a similar style to Mahrez, just one who can produce the same output as him and fits within the rest of the team.

With that in mind, here’s some players who could be interesting options.

Thorgan Hazard – 25 – Gladbach

Thorgan Hazard had a strong season for Borrusia Monchengladbach this season, contributing 5 non-penalty goals and 8 assists – or 0.397 G + A p90. However, he heavily under-performed his expected goals value of 9.61, making his xG + xA an impressive 0.546 p90.

He tends to spend most of his time operating on the left, but has spent time in pretty much every attacking position. This could give Leicester some room to maneuver with their ‘3’ behind their striker. Hazard could operate from the left switching Albrighton/Gray to the right hand side, alternatively if Leicester wanted something different, Hazard could play just behind the striker and be flanked by Albrighton and Gray.  This may be an option particularly as Okazaki, who often plays behind the striker, is now 32-years-old.

Hazard doesn’t tend to attempt dribbles as often as Mahrez, attempting 3.53 p90 with 1.42 p90 in advanced areas with a worse completion rate than the Algerian’s, but these numbers are still respectable.  Adding to this, he definitely seems comfortable carrying the ball and running at players. Not to mention, a slight decrease in dribbling is a small price to pay for a player who has had a higher xG + xA p90 than Mahrez in the previous two seasons. A few clips of Hazard dribbling can be seen below.

 

Hazard also has a higher xA from set pieces than Mahrez this season, creating 0.076 xG from set pieces this season, compared to Mahrez’s 0.052 as well as slightly more passes attempted into the box (2.32 p90 vs 2.15 p90).

The shot map below shows Hazard’s and Mahrez’s chances this season. Hazard’s 0.150 xG per chance is slightly superior to Mahrez’s 0.125 and this can be seen in the map below. Mahrez has a good map for wide player, cutting in from the right and getting shots in the 6 to 18-yard area, but tends to lack high quality chances. Hazard’s shot seem to come from either side, as opposed to centrally, but there seems to be a cluster around each corner of the 6-yard box.

Overall, Hazard seems to be a great option to replace Mahrez. His expected contribution in the last two seasons is higher than that of Mahrez’s, he can play anywhere across the front, is a good age at 25-years-old and could potentially be available for around 30 million euros. It’s not surprising that Leicester have already been linked with Hazard as a potential replacement for Mahrez.

Matteo Politano – 24 – Sassuolo

Matteo Politano had opposite fortunes than Thorgan Hazard in 2017/18. While Hazard performed on track with his xA but had poor finishing himself, Politano outperformed his xG but seriously under performed his xA – he finished the season with 4 assists from an xA of 9.25. Despite the over performance in front of goal, Politano’s underlying numbers were still impressive, attaining an xG + xA of 0.523 p90.

Like Hazard, Politano has played all across the attack this season and seems confident with either foot. It’s also worth pointing out a big portion of his goals came late in the season playing centrally in a 3-5-2, as opposed to from the wing, but he seems more than capable of playing a Mahrez type role.

His dribbling numbers are closer to Hazard’s than Mahrez’s, attempting 3.99 take-ons p90 with 1.58 in advanced areas, but again he looks very comfortable collecting the ball out wide or around the corner of the box and running at players, looking to cut inside and shoot or cross. A handful of clips showing this can be seen below:

Politano is also capable of taking set pieces, with his 0.050 xA p90 being around the same level as Mahrez’s. One criticism, however, would be his shot selection. His xG per chance was 0.103 and you can see on the below shot map he fancies his chances from both distance and tight angles. He still has some central, higher quality shots, and shot selection is something that can be coached, but it’s worth pointing out.

Politano seems like another interesting choice for a Mahrez replacement, being able to score, create, dribble as well as having a nice bonus of seeming to be somewhat ambidextrous. Leicester may face some competition, with both Milan clubs reportedly being interested, but he’s definitely an option worth exploring.

Xherdan Shaqiri – 26 – Stoke City

Another recommendation from a relegated club, and this time one that’s classed as a rival, but Xherdan Shaqiri allegedly has a clause in his contract that he can be sold for £12m following Stoke’s relegation. If this is true, Shaqiri could provide great value for a club this summer. Despite Stoke being disappointing this season, Shaqiri had some good individual numbers with 7 goals and 9 assists. His xG + xA was 0.477 p90, almost identical to Mahrez’s 0.478 p90.

Shaqiri should be able to fit straight in, whereas the previous two players may take some time to adjust, while also being a perfect fit for the right-wing slot. With that being said, his dribbling numbers were disappointing this past season. Now, this could be a by-product of either Stoke’s style or poor performance, with Stoke having the 2nd lowest possession in the Premier League Shaqiri probably didn’t have many opportunities to get on the ball.

Shaqiri only attempted 1.85 take-ons p90, with just 0.49 coming in advanced areas. But this a chance to emphasise that Leicester don’t necessarily need another Mahrez, just a player who can produce the same contribution as Mahrez.  With that being said, one criticism of Shaqiri this season is his shot selection, with his xG per chance of 0.097 being the lowest of the mentioned names.

Overall, Shaqiri represents an interesting option. He’s a good age, has produced a good output for a struggling side and would fit immediately onto the Leicester’s right. With that being said, there are some aspects of his numbers that don’t seem too impressive, and it’s a case of whether this is due to the team he was playing on or him as a player. It’s also worth noting that Stoke may not want to sell to someone who’s deemed as a rival, but, if the £12m clause is true it’s definitely worth investigating.

Conclusion

While it’ll be hard for Leicester to lose Mahrez they’ll be receiving a very good fee for him if the £75m reports are true. If Leicester also sell Ahmed Musa and Islam Slimani, who have a combined value of ~£30m on TransferMarkt – they’ll have a lot of money to invest in Mahrez’s replacement. Should they raise around £100m from Mahrez, Musa and Slimani, spending ~£25m on Hazard doesn’t seem too bad of a deal. I feel like if I had to pick, I’d lean towards Hazard, but Politano looks very impressive and Shaqiri at £12m seems good value.

Honestly, if Leicester do raise the ~£100m from the three sales I think they could sign two names from the above three mentioned. Investing ~£50m into Politano and Hazard would give them two players who have had a higher xG + xA p90 than Mahrez in the past two seasons and £50m pocketed. They’ll both be 25-years-old by the time the season starts and could line up with one centrally, one wide and Gray/Albrighton on the other flank. Politano scored most of his goals playing centrally, so could do well playing in the hole behind Jamie Vardy, while Hazard could start from the left, leaving Gray/Albrighton to play on the right. That is, however, if Jamie Vardy is to stay.

Replacing Vardy

With it looking as though Leicester are set to lose Mahrez, I think they should make sure they don’t lose Vardy as well. On the one hand, Vardy is 31-years-old coming off the back of a great season and this could be the perfect time to sell him before a potential decline. On the other hand, however, if the club lost both they’d have to patch together a new attack in time for the new season in a World Cup summer. The interest in Vardy doesn’t seem to be as intense as the City interest in Mahrez, with just a few reports linking him to Atletico Madrid, but it’s still interesting to see who the Foxes could bring in should Vardy move on.

As already mentioned, Iheanacho is a great option to be Vardy’s long-term successor so a younger player wouldn’t be required, a 24 to 28-year-old would be a better choice, providing a stop gap between Vardy and Iheanacho. So, who could be a good replacement?

Karl Toko Ekambi – 25 – Angers

I previously talked about Toko Ekambi when looking at strikers who could be a good choice for West Ham, so won’t go into too much detail here as much is the same.

Toko Ekambi’s goal scoring numbers were very similar to Vardy’s last season. Toko Ekambi managed 14 goals from 12.74 xG, while Vardy managed 15 goals from 12.89 xG. Both run slightly hot, but still have very impressive underlying numbers. Having played slightly less minutes, Ekambi’s p90 numbers were slightly more impressive with an xG p90 of 0.377, compared to Vardy’s 0.356 p90, while Toko Ekambi also had ~1 more chance than Vardy p90.

Vardy didn’t have many chances last season, with 1.57 p90, but they tended to be of higher quality. Toko Ekambi generated more shots, but on average they were of lower quality (0.226 xG per chance vs 0.153 xG per chance). This can be seen in the shot map below, with most of Vardy’s shots coming centrally, leaning to the left, while Ekambi has less mid-range central shots but more from wider areas.

Both forwards had respectable creativity numbers too, as Vardy contributed 0.163 xA p90 and Ekambi 0.220 p90. This gives Ekambi an xG + xA of 0.597 p90 and Vardy 0.519 p90. Ekambi, however, was much more involved in other aspects of play than Vardy.

Vardy attempted a minimal 9.5 passes p90, compared to Ekambi’s 24.4 p90. This may be helped by the fact Ekambi has spent some time on the wing this season, with his scoring coming after being moved to a central position, but it does seem like quite a stark difference.

Ekambi definitely seems like he could be a good replacement and represent good value. A minor negative is that this is his first season with this kind of output and while that can be explained with the position change, there’s always the chance that this was just a hot streak rather than a new life as a striker. This concern isn’t too bad, due to the good underlying numbers, but I’d probably want to do a lot of work to try and make sure he can repeat this kind of season in a central role.

Other Options

As I don’t think Leicester should sell Vardy this season and the links don’t appear to be too intense, with Atletico being linked to many strikers, I won’t go into much detail about other options. Two other names that could be worth looking into however are:

Alassane Plea – 25 – Nice: Plea has bounced back incredibly from the knee injuries he’s had and put up some impressive numbers for Nice. This season his xG + xA p90 was 0.445, while last season it was 0.515. There’ll always be concerns about his knees, but Plea is a good age, has worked with Puel and is allegedly open to a move away from Nice. He could definitely be a good name to look into.

Gerard Moreno – 26 – Espanyol: I talked about Moreno in the same piece as Ekambi and again what was said remains true. Moreno’s xG + xA of 0.522 p90 is extremely impressive for a side that only managed 36 goals this season. He seems a different mold to Vardy but has good numbers in both goal scoring and creativity. Apparently he could be close to move back to Villareal, but if the reports that he could be available for 20 million euros are true, he would be good value.

Conclusion

I think Leicester should keep Vardy and if signs of decline do start to show, more game time can be given to Iheanacho. If the club do decide to sell, or Vardy wants a move, then Ekambi would probably be my favoured pick, but both Plea and Moreno would be good too. Interestingly, Villareal are allegedly interested in all three of the above players, so Leicester will face some competition should they want any of them.

Another name that would have been good is Florin Andone. The Romanian forward recent joined Brighton for ~£6m which looks set to be a bargain. Andone had an xG + xA of 0.629 for a relegated Deportivo side last season and 0.421 in 2016/17. At 25-years-old he also is a great age and it’ll be interesting to see how he gets on at Brighton this season.

Conclusion

Leicester have a good base to build from. Following the signing of Ricardo Pereira, if it wasn’t for the possible sale of Mahrez the Foxes would probably only need 2 to 3 additional players this summer. Leicester could probably spend quite a lot this summer, given they could raise around £100m from player sales, so should be aiming for quality peak age players.

I find centre-backs hard to find and assess, but Mawson seems like he could be a good fit along side Maguire and is a good age for the Foxes.

Moving into midfield it was much harder to a peak age option for Leicester, my favourite option was probably that of Yves Bissouma. While he may be 21-years-old he does already have 55 appearances for Lille and 13 caps for Mali. Ndidi and Bissouma seems as though they could be a good partnership in the middle for Leicester, with both having strong defensive numbers, good passing numbers and Bissouma also has impressive dribbling numbers. Ndidi, Bissouma, Silva and Iborra seem like a good batch of players to choose from for the two deeper places in midfield.

In attack, should Mahrez leave, I think I’d favour going all out and signing both Politano and Hazard. Both have outperformed Mahrez for their expected goal contribution in the last two seasons, they’re both a good age being 25-years-old when the season starts and Hazard could allegedly be available, albeit for 30 million euros.

Centrally, I think they should keep Vardy and Iheanacho as their two striking options, but should Vardy want to leave Ekambi, Plea or Moreno would be good peak age options. Stylistically, I’d probably lean towards Toko Ekambi or Plea, but Moreno’s numbers for a low scoring side are impressive.

I hate listing signings and potential fees, but just using TransferMarkt values  and any reports as a guide I think this could be achievable without a huge net spend for Leicester. If the rumoured deal for Mahrez is true then it’s allegedly £60m up front and £15m in add-ons. If Leicester could also raise £25m from the sales of Musa and Slimani (their TransferMarkt values add up to around £30m) that’d give them £85m plus the possible £15m. If they could get Mawson for ~£15m, Hazard for ~£25m, Politano for around ~£20m, Bissouma for ~£15m plus the ~£17m on Pereira this adds up to ~£92m. While this is a big spend for Leicester, it’s only ~£7m net spend, while giving them two new peak age defenders, two new peak age attacking midfielders and a promising 21-year-old midfielder.

It would mean their squad going into next season would be something along the lines of this:

Some of the players can be moved around, Hazard could be central, Politano right, Albrighton starting left etc, but I’d feel optimistic as a fan of a mid-table club with a squad situation like that.

This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.

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