Leicester City were the toast of the soccer world just six months ago. Having entered the 2015/2016 English Premier League season as relegation battlers, they left as miracle champions, the most startling title winner in recent memory. While much of their success is rightfully attributed to smart tactical maneuvering by Claudio Ranieri, the Tinkerman relied on a core three players to dictate most of the action on the pitch in Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, and N’Golo Kante. This season’s version of Leicester may have retained Mahrez and Vardy, but they have far from retained their league position, slipping near the relegation zone with more than half the season already gone.
While much of this drop is attributable to defensive differences — Kante leaving for Chelsea and Robert Huth and Wes Morgan returning to mortality — there has been a significant drop off for the Foxes on the offensive end as well. They’ve lost 0.7 goals scored per game off of last season’s tally and have already been shut out eight times this season compared to three in the entire previous campaign. Comparing the two offenses is difficult, however, because even during last year’s success the Foxes did not rack up large shot tallies and largely relied on converting higher quality chances at higher than expected rates, so even this year slight decline in base shooting statistics appear similar enough to not raise alarm bells.
One statistic that does raise alarm bells is Leicester’s dribbling. Many of last season’s highlights were of Mahrez roasting a defender on the wing before whipping in a shot or Kante springing a break by skipping past a man into open space, but this year has been lacking those displays of skill. Raneri’s men are attempting six fewer dribbles per match this year, and the difference is almost entirely made up by the drop off of the Big Three.
In a league where dribbling success has risen 4% since last season, the Foxes have lost 2% and fallen from close to average to the least successful dribbling team in the league. The less fruitful offensive environment has seen Vardy and Mahrez lose both attempts and efficiency, a brutal combination, and Amartey simply does not glide past tackles like Kante.
I fully realize that dribbling alone is not the cause of their offensive ills, but there are quantifiable issues with losing dribbles from an attack. This chart from Michael Caley approximates how much a successful dribble can help the quality of a shooting chance.
Obviously the greatest changes are closest to goal, where beating a defender usually means a much wider target or possibly an open net, but even at distance a shot created by a dribble is a better shot than an average shot from that range. A similar idea goes for crossing, as dribbling past a defender allows for crosses from the high impact areas on this chart below and increases the quality of the chance.
The Foxes are losing nearly four completed dribbles per match, and these are the margins they’re losing out on. I looked at all 22 EPL matches Leicester have played this season and counted where they attempted dribbles, and nearly 60% of their attempts were in the attacking third. Even if we (wrongfully) say that dribbles have no value outside of the attacking third, that is over fifty opportunities this season to increase scoring chance just lost into the ether. Ghosting past a defender can get the cross from a 2% completion to 4%, or a 10% shot to 14%, and those fifty-plus chances add up to real losses on the scoring end, no small import for a team battling in the lower third of the table.
For sure, this is oversimplifying an exceedingly complex issue. Attacking possessions are not built to produce dribbling situations, they move via nearly infinite routes of varying weight and importance. Ranieri has clearly changed this team from where they were last year, especially with Kante gone, and they may be eyeing other areas to improve upon in lieu of this particular subset of events. A lack of dribbles is not a singular cause of Leicester’s failures this season, but it is instructive to look at how losing small margins can have real effects on positioning in the table, and it will be interesting to see how their attacks progress stylistically over the second half of the season. For now, we’ll just have to relive some of their glory days.