Are Rodgers, Vardy and Maddison building something special at Leicester City?
Beating a struggling 10-man Newcastle United 5-0 may be no sign of a team's quality but Leicester City can send the Premier League a message when Brendan Rodgers returns to Anfield this weekend.
The Foxes are third in the league, having taken 14 points from their seven matches, with last month's 1-0 loss away to Manchester United their only defeat in the 2019-20 season so far.
That trip to Old Trafford was supposed to act as a marker for Leicester, a chance to show they are ready to challenge the established elite, but Marcus Rashford's early penalty was enough to settle the contest.
Liverpool have yet to drop a point in the league this season and are on a 16-game winning run that dates back to last term, though Rodgers and Leicester could give the Reds' perfect record a serious test.
IN BETTER SHAPE THAN 2015-16?
No football fan will ever forget Claudio Ranieri leading Leicester to the Premier League title, but Rodgers' side have started the season in stronger form than the Foxes did four years ago.
At this stage of their title-winning campaign, Leicester were yet to keep a clean sheet having gone down 5-2 at home to Arsenal, while they had 12 points on the board compared to this term's tally.
Of course, this does not mean Leicester are going to repeat their 5,000/1 heroics, as Pep Guardiola's two-time champions Manchester City and - to a slightly lesser extent Liverpool - have completely changed the game since then.
Leicester capitalised on the traditional 'big six' - City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United - all having poor seasons to secure an improbable triumph, topping the table with 81 points, having drawn 12 games and lost three. Teams need to target 100 points to win the title now.
Leicester City. Champions of England. pic.twitter.com/WRwfysTn2N— Leicester City (@LCFC) May 2, 2016
That is not to say Leicester did not deserve their season in the sun - they won the league by a comfortable margin of 10 points after all - but the set of circumstances that led to their triumph are highly unlikely to be repeated in 2019-20, as Liverpool's winning streak shows.
But Rodgers' Leicester are in a serious position of strength, with quality running deep through their squad. Could the same be said for Ranieri's squad? They were more reliant on a small group of players who featured in most matches.
VARDY STILL LEADS THE WAY
Jamie Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel are the two main stars left at Leicester from 15-16, providing stability and reliable quality at each end of the pitch, with Wes Morgan now a back-up option.
Vardy has hit five goals in seven Premier League games, while Schmeichel has helped Rodgers' men concede only five times. They are level with leaders Liverpool as the tightest defence in the league despite the club-record sale of star defender Harry Maguire to Manchester United.
10 - Jamie Vardy has scored 10 Premier League goals at the King Power Stadium in 2019 - the only players with more at a specific venue in this period are Sadio Mané (14 at Anfield) and Sergio Agüero (12 at the Etihad). Constant. pic.twitter.com/wI7JtVK4FJ— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 29, 2019
The importance of Vardy to Leicester cannot be understated. Nonplussed with his role under Claude Puel, when Leicester played a style completely ill-suited to his abilities, but the striker is now back to his best.
Since Rodgers' first match in charge in March, Vardy has scored 14 times in 17 Premier League appearances, which is more than any other player in the competition in that time. That Vardy gave up England duty also suits Leicester, as the 32-year-old can rest up during international breaks.
Vardy is providing a goal or an assist every 95 minutes during the Rodgers era, compared to every 105 minutes on average when Leicester became champions.
SQUAD STRENGTH KEY FOR FOXES
Leicester are not a one-man team, though. James Maddison has forced his way into England reckoning by virtue of eight Premier League goals since he signed from Norwich City last year, while his 111 chances created is more than anyone in the Premier League since the start of the 2018-19 season.
There is an argument Leicester are a better unit now than in their title-winning season when Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kante were Ranieri's undoubted star trio, while there are more options in forward positions after investment in the squad.
Wilfred Ndidi, who scored the last goal in Leicester's 5-0 rout of Newcastle, is performing a passable Kante impression in midfield, while full-backs Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira are attacking upgrades on Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs from the title-winning XI.
Ayoze Perez and Youri Tielemans - a reported transfer target for Manchester United earlier this year - would be strong options get into that team as well, perhaps replacing Shinji Okazaki and Danny Drinkwater respectively, although Rodgers' system is different to Ranieri's more traditional 4-4-2.
On paper at least, this current Leicester vintage is arguably stronger than the 15-16 heroes.
Youri Tielemans on his return to Leicester pic.twitter.com/VOyxvuDiDN— Leicester City (@LCFC) July 8, 2019
DATA DIVE HINTS AT IMMINENT DOWNTURN
An examination of Opta data indicates Leicester are over-performing right now and could therefore drop down the table in the coming weeks - although after going to Anfield their next three league games are all eminently winnable: Burnley (H), Southampton (A), Crystal Palace (A).
Perceived wisdom tends to claim Leicester were lucky in 15-16, but their tally of 68 goals was slightly under their season xG (expected goals - a metric that explains quality of chances created) score of 69.3, suggesting results were around what was to be expected from their performances.
This season, though, Leicester's xG stands at just 7.84 - above only Crystal Palace and Newcastle. They have scored 13 goals for an xG difference of 5.2, meaning they are vastly overperforming. Typically, xG figures stabilise as the season progresses, but this is not always the case. The Foxes' xG difference in 2017-18 was also 5.2.
Leicester have one of the highest xG differences in the league, which means they have been clinical but may also hint a correction is on the cards. Since ex-Celtic boss Rodgers took over, Leicester have converted 46 per cent of their big chances, compared to 40.2 per cent in 15-16.
Rodgers has also tweaked the Foxes' style after they played on the break to great effect under Ranieri. Possession stands at 55.5 per cent for Leicester under their current manager, while it was down at 42.4 per cent in their title season. Passing accuracy is up from 70.5 per cent to 82.3 per cent, too.
The xG data may indicate Leicester's status as top-six - or even top-four contenders - is in doubt despite issues for Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and United. No team has broken the dominance of the 'big six' since Leicester.
If Rodgers can inspire a positive result against the team he almost led to a maiden Premier League title in 2013-14, the numbers might just be proved wrong.