I don’t know about you, but I’m so ready for the Year of the Fox. The Leicester City Foxes play their home matches at the modest 32,262-seat King Power Stadium. They were in the third division of English football (confusingly called League One) just six years ago. They finished 14th in the Premier League last season, just six points above relegation. Now, five games into this season, Leicester have taken off like a rocket, scoring 11 goals and sitting alone in second place. What, exactly, has gotten into the Foxes?
We’ll start with the new manager, Claudio Ranieri. The 63-year-old Italian has coached everywhere, Napoli, Valencia, Chelsea, Juventus, Roma, Inter, Monaco, you name it. Ranieri has some experience, to say the least, but he’s so often written off due to his lack of sustained success and low-key personality. Many predicted Leicester as an easy relegation candidate this season, so the Ranieri hire wasn’t seen as a particularly inspiring choice. However, with basement expectations come a freedom to try new things and go for broke.
Ranieri has certainly done this with his winger, Riyad Mahrez, by giving the Algerian youngster the space to create some magic. In return, Mahrez has been a revelation to start the season. In January 2014, Leicester brought him in from Ligue 2 French club Le Havre for less than one million pounds. Through five matches, Mahrez has lit up the scoreboard with four goals and two assists. Those probably aren’t super sustainable numbers, but if you watch Leicester, Mahrez is always involved in the attack. At only 5’10”, 136 pounds, the agile left-footed winger devastates defenses with pace, clever ball skills, and immaculately accurate shooting. Undersized and shrewd, he’s the picture perfect embodiment of the Foxes, the animal and the club.
Mahrez isn’t the only attacking option for Leicester, though. Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki already have a combined four goals. Between the three of them, they’re firing off over 7 shots per game. Ranieri has these guys playing free-flowing football. It’s a joy to watch a team without a true international superstar tear up the Premier League.
Unfortunately, we’ve come to the point where I have to douse these flames of Leicester excitement a bit. This is still an unlikely offensive juggernaut – they’re 19th among EPL teams in possession percentage and just 8th in shots/game. Also, the sample size is still small enough that this could mostly be a factor of luck, schedule and otherwise.
So far, the Foxes haven’t played any of the historically successful clubs. Two of their wins have come against possible relegation candidates, Sunderland and Aston Villa. Next weekend, Arsenal comes to town in what will be the first real test of the 2015-16 campaign.
Even without playing high-power offenses, Leicester has shown a propensity for defensive lapses. Yet to record a clean sheet, they have let up multiple goals to anemic attacks like the previously mentioned Sunderland and Villa. There is some potential stability in the back. Captain Wes Morgan has the experience to hold down central defense. Keeper Kasper Schmeichel played well down the stretch last season, when Leicester rode the elevator up from the relegation floor by winning four of their final six. However, nothing in their past gives me any hope that this defense can stand up to the onslaught that the big boys will bring.
But let’s just forget all of that for now. The way things presently look, Leicester won’t have to worry about any relegation battles this season. The question now is, how crazy can this get? A top half finish is surely realistic; is a top six? It’s exhilarating to have small fish challenge at the top of the table, even if just for a while. It’s why I was rooting on Southampton to finish in the top four last season.
Leicester is tied for the most English second division titles of all-time with, funny enough, the team just above them in the EPL table, Manchester City. Still, Leicester has never won a first division. They don’t have much of a shot to hang with Man City this season, but it will be fascinating to watch the Foxes give it a go.