Is Leicester’s Promotion Push Collapsing?

How quickly things can change in football. Barely a month ago, Leicester City looked like shoe-ins for the Championship title and a return to the Premier League at the first time of asking. Everything was rosy in the Maresca garden, with the Foxes playing beautiful, free-flowing football, firing in the goals, keeping things tight at the other end, and generally appearing a notch above the competition.

However, moving into March – and hurtling towards the business end of the campaign – sections of the King Power crowd were beginning to feel a twitch or two. Have Leicester peaked too soon? Will the wheels come off and force the Foxes faithful to endure the unbearable tension of the Playoffs? Do the pessimists have good reason to worry? Or are Leicester merely suffering an inevitable blip?

Why the Worry?

A quick look at the Championship table begs the question of what all the fuss is about. Leicester City do, after all, still sit top at the time of writing. However, if we compare how things were earlier in the campaign, it becomes a little more understandable why alarm bells are ringing.

At the end of the Tuesday evening of 13 February 2024, Maresca was settling down at home, having just watched his troops despatch Sheffield Wednesday in what was becoming trademark comfortable fashion. A look at the league table made happy reading: 32 games played, 25 wins, only four defeats, and an impressive +44 Goal Difference. Second-placed Leeds United were 12 points adrift, whilst the gap back to third-placed Southampton stood at 14 points. What could possibly go wrong?

February Fumbles

Middlesbrough FCQuite a lot, as it happens. Hot on the heels of that 2-0 success over Sheffield Wednesday, Leicester saw their latest five-match unbeaten run end at home to Middlesborough. 2-0 down inside 37 minutes, Jamie Vardy’s 85th-minute strike proved no more than a consolation. It was a disappointing result but hardly enough to start searching for the panic button.

Next up, a trip to Yorkshire for a titanic tussle with rivals Leeds United. The game began well, with Wout Faes handing Leicester the lead inside 15 minutes, and continued to look promising with ten minutes to go – and then Leicester suffered a spectacular collapse. Three goals for the home side later, Elland Road erupted, and the battered Foxes headed home with their tails between their legs. No matter, Leicester had lost back-to-back games against Boro and Leeds in the reverse fixtures and responded by embarking on a 10-match unbeaten run in the league. With relegation threatened QPR visiting the King Power for their next game, Maresca’s men had the perfect opportunity to get back on track.

Except, they blew it. In a game reminiscent of the Middlesbrough match, Leicester were two down by the 57th minute despite dominating the stats. Ben Nelson’s strike on the hour mark gave them time to rectify matters, but the hoops held on.

Form of Rivals Twists the Knife

Ipswich Town FCGiven the significant cushion which Leicester enjoyed over their rivals, all of the above wouldn’t have mattered too much, so long as two of the sides in the chasing pack didn’t go on a remarkable winning streak. Unfortunately for Leicester, that is exactly what happened.

Early season pacesetters, Ipswich Town, recovered from a slight dip to win six on the trot between the 14 February and 5 March, whilst Leeds United enjoyed the hottest streak of any Championship side this season, winning 10 of 11 in 2024, including nine in a row between 1 January and 5 March.

Unsurprisingly, the above events have all but obliterated Leicester’s commanding lead at the top. Having stopped the rot with a narrow victory at Sunderland, they remain top but are now only three points clear of Ipswich in second and five ahead of third-placed Leeds United.

Variance or a Dip in Performance Levels?

No matter how well a side is playing, they can expect to experience spells of adversity over the course of the long Championship season – those runs of games where nothing seems to go right, chances are squandered, and everything the opposition fires at goal seems to go in. So long as the overall level of performance remains high, the results will almost inevitably return to their previous pattern. So, have Leicester been playing any worse during this dry spell?

xG Encouragement

One way to attempt to answer this question is by looking at the Expected Goals (xG) metric, i.e. how many goals a side would be expected to score and concede given the quality of the chances they create and give up. Over the first 32 games of the season, Leicester boasted xG per game figures of 1.95 for and 0.88 against, equating to a points per game expectation of close to 2 – good enough for a 96-point haul if extrapolated across a full season and almost certain promotion in most seasons.

In the four games since that win over Sheffield Wednesday, the xG numbers stand at 1.58 for and 0.91 against, equating to an expected points per game tally of, again, around 2. All of which suggests that Leicester haven’t been too far off their pre-slump levels. Whilst there has been a drop in the attacking numbers, this would only become a concern if extending beyond a larger sample size than four games, and the defensive figures have remained largely as they were.

Will Leicester Be Promoted?

Whilst impossible to predict with any certainty – and certainly not the formality it appeared to be at the beginning of February – the overall performance figures for the season as a whole suggest the current table toppers should do enough, but only just.

We will again turn to the xG numbers to gain some idea of how the final table is likely to look – should the sides involved in the race continue to perform close to their current levels – combining the current points tallies of the sides with their expected points over the remaining games to produce a final table.

Position Team Predicted Final Points
1 Leicester City 99
2 Ipswich Town 96
3 Leeds United 96
4 Southampton 89

As things stand, Leicester remain favourites to be playing Premier League football next season. However, Foxes fans are probably justified in being a little wary. The predicted final table shows that a one-result swing with Ipswich and Leeds would be enough to see Leicester down in the playoff positions – which should be enough to have the Leicester faithful waking up in a cold sweat, given the spectacular recent form of their two main rivals.

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