Norwich City travel to the King Power Stadium this weekend to take on Leicester City in the Premier League.
Brendan Rodgers' Foxes are on excellent form this season. To explain the secrets to their success, we caught up with Jordan Blackwell, Leicester City correspondent for the Leicester Mercury.
canaries.co.uk: It goes without saying that it’s been a great season so far for Leicester. Do you think they will keep that up or will it tail off?
JB: Being realistic, top four is certainly achievable. A title challenge is probably slightly out of the question. They’re three points ahead of where they were when they won the league, but that season all of the big boys were off the boil a bit, which isn’t the case this season. There are fans dreaming that they can do it again, but realistically you have to say that Liverpool are in such tremendous form and the eight-point gap is probably too big to overcome.
It’s not a fluke and Leicester are genuinely an extremely good team; very well organised; defensively really solid; have a really settled team and are becoming more creative. It’s sustainable and, I don’t think they would admit this publicly, but privately I think they’d be disappointed if they finished outside the top four.
canaries.co.uk: You mention them being a settled team. Does that surprise you given that they’ve lost N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez and Harry Maguire in recent years?
JB: They’ve been very good recruitment-wise. They bought Çağlar Söyüncü the season before Maguire left, so he had almost a year to settle before becoming a key first-team player. It’s been a lot smoother than it would have been had they brought someone with the Maguire money.
Before the last couple of games, they’d fielded the same starting eleven six games in a row. Chilwell got injured and then he missed a game and so they went for a different formation against Aston Villa. It’s a very settled team. Probably nine players in the side are guaranteed to be in the side each week.
When Leicester won the league, it was the consistency of the team that helped them because there were no selection dilemmas – you knew the eleven that were going to play. That does aid a team and help them become better.
canaries.co.uk: James Maddison has played for both Norwich and Leicester. How important is his creativity to what Brendan Rodgers is doing there?
JB: He’s really important because he’s responded to the coaching Rodgers has focused on. When Maddison first arrived at Leicester, he was very much a number ten behind Jamie Vardy and Leicester played with two sitting midfielders, so he didn’t really have any defensive duties. He was just there to be the creator.
This season, he’s playing in a midfield three with Youri Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi and there’s a bigger emphasis on him doing his share of defensive work. He’s really responded to that and is getting stuck in all the time, making tackles, interceptions and chasing down the opposition.
He’s still managing to retain that creativity. He’s such a lovely player to watch. Some of the body feints, the way he turns players and his movement off the ball is very good. His set-pieces are some of the best around. It makes such a difference when you’ve got dangerous balls being whipped in from corners and free kicks.
He’s certainly a key player and if he’s fit and available, he’ll always be in the starting eleven.
canaries.co.uk: On the end of a lot of those deliveries is Jamie Vardy, who’s in terrific form. He retired from international duty, but do you think he could be convinced to play for England again?
JB: He stepped down after the World Cup in 2018 and that has had a big effect. The summer just gone was the first time he’s had a full break, and therefore a full pre-season since 2014. There had always been some kind of England commitment.
They recorded his running stats in pre-season in 2019 and he was faster than he was in 2014. Having those breaks really allows him to recuperate. Although he’s getting on – he turns 33 next month, which is normally a player on the decline – because he’s not had so many minutes in his legs compared to someone like Wayne Rooney, who played regular Premier League football from a young age, he’s got a lot more to give.
That’s why he’s defying his age a bit. If he wins the Golden Boot this year, he would be the oldest ever winner in the Premier League era. Tactically, Rodgers has helped him as well, which is why he’s got such a good record this season.
Gareth Southgate always says the door is open and I think Vardy would reconsider it if there was to be a massive injury crisis. If, before next summer’s Euros, all of a sudden Harry Kane, Tammy Abraham and Callum Wilson all got injured, I think Vardy would be open to playing for England.
I think he thought it was a bit of a waste to be going away on international duty to be sat on the bench. He’s never going to replace Kane because he’s the captain and Southgate’s main man. With his age as well, he probably considered those two factors and thought he’d be better off prolonging his Leicester career. It seems unlikely that England would have three main strikers injured in one go, so I suspect he’s played his last game for them.
canaries.co.uk: Leicester aren’t just defying expectations of critics this season, but metrics too, in terms of expected goals. How has that happened?
JB: It’s a tricky one to explain. It’s not that they’re finishing from outside the box. It’s that they do seem to finish every good chance they have. It doesn’t seem like there have been too many goalkeepers pulling off really good saves against them. Vardy has taken nearly every good chance he’s had.
They’ve been really efficient in front of goal. Defensively, they’re still overachieving slightly but not much. Last season, it felt like there were so many unfortunate goals, whether its goals going in off player’s backsides or something like that. It ebbs and flows whether you’re overperforming or underperforming.
They are very good defensively and have conceded the fewest goals for a reason. Jonny Evans is a terrific organiser of a defence. Kasper Schmeichel’s save percentage is a lot higher than it was last season. When Claude Puel was sacked, he was ranked 19th for save percentage. Last time I checked this season, he was first with 80 percent. He’s done a lot of work and is a lot slimmer. He lost one and a half stone over the course of about six months.
They’re expecting a regression in terms of efficiency up front, but at the minute they’re creating a lot more chances than they were at the start of the season, so I don’t think you’ll see too much of a downturn in goalscoring.
canaries.co.uk: After this weekend’s game, Leicester play Manchester City and Liverpool. With the unbeaten run that they’re on, will they go into those games confident of taking points? They put Liverpool close to the wire at Anfield.
JB: Liverpool won that game with a 96th minute penalty that a lot of Leicester fans disputed. To be honest, I thought it was a penalty and if it had been the other way around, I’d have wanted Leicester to have a penalty.
They will be confident, particularly because last season they had tough fixtures either side of Christmas with Chelsea away and Manchester City at home. They won both. It’s a tiring period and maybe they can use their stamina to exploit that.
Manchester City have got a few problems in defence since Aymeric Laporte got injured. I think Leicester will look at that and think they can get at them. Liverpool are a much more well-rounded team but they’re going to Qatar and back before Leicester play them on Boxing Day, so if there’s some tiredness there I think Leicester could take advantage of that.
They go into every game confident they can win with how well they’re playing. Those outside factors will help them feel more confident.
canaries.co.uk: This weekend’s game is a chance for Leicester to get over that fabled 40-point mark and allay any fears of being relegated from the Premier League. How do you think it will go against Norwich?
JB: A lot of Leicester fans would say that they still get a bit nervous for games that they know they should win, but Rodgers has kind of dispelled those doubts. That did happen from time to time. After they beat Chelsea and Man City, they lost at home to Cardiff City.
They’re unbeaten at home this season and have won every home game bar the first one when they drew to Wolverhampton Wanderers. They don’t seem to struggle against lower bottom-half teams anymore.
I assume Norwich will approach the game with an attacking outlook as they have done whenever I’ve watched them this season, and I think that plays into Leicester’s hands. I think it will be a comfortable home win.
canaries.co.uk: Hopefully not, Jordan!
You can follow Jordan on Twitter @JrdnBlackwell.