As the rest of us live in unprecedented times, Leicester City have returned to the good old days.
Eight games gone and Brendan Rodgers’ side sit top of the Premier League, a point ahead of Tottenham and reigning champions Liverpool, rekindling memories of four years ago.
It’s different this time, though, and not just because Leicester have reached the summit five games faster than in 2015-16 or that their 18 points at this stage is their best-ever start to a top-flight season. They’re top of their Europa League group too.
Leicester City are flying high and are enjoying their best-ever start to a top-flight campaign
Their form is rekindling memories from their famous title-winning season in 2015-16 campaign
The two ends remain the same, Kasper Schmeichel in goal at one and Jamie Vardy banging them in at the other. What’s packed in between, bar a few injury-induced cameos from Wes Morgan, Christian Fuchs and Marc Albrighton, has changed.
This, too, after a disastrous Project Restart when Leicester chucked away their Champions League place, having been 14 points clear of Manchester United at the start of the year.
Now, the Foxes’ next test comes in the form of Liverpool where they will play in a top of the table clash at Anfield on Sunday, with only a point separating the two teams.
Rodgers has since got the better of Pep Guardiola, Mikel Arteta and Marcelo Bielsa. How has he done it and can he add Jurgen Klopp to that list?
A GAME FOR ALL OCCASIONS
Leicester have more ways to play. Ranieri’s side won the title with a blistering counter-attack but they needed more.
They wanted Claude Puel to make them better on the ball but possession for the sake of it drove fans away quicker than a pandemic.
Rodgers has found a balance. They have won with the ball and without it. Leicester had nearly 68 per cent of possession when they beat Burnley. They had 28 per cent of it when they put five past Man City. Not bad for a team that Rodri claimed ‘did nothing’.
That’s because of how Rodgers has changed how Leicester press.
The Foxes only had 28 per cent of possession when they put five past Manchester City
But they can also win with the ball when they had nearly 68 per cent of possession vs Burnley
Last season, Leicester were the press kings. According to Understat, Leicester allowed their opponents the fewest passes in the opposition half before they tried to win it back. Just under eight.
This season they are down in 13th at a shade under 14.8. Behind Fulham and famous gegenpressers Burnley. Rodgers sets up differently depending on opponent.
They allowed Man City 25 passes in their own half. They sat deep, soaked up pressure, hit on the break. Against Burnley they let them have fewer than eight.
Leicester have more ways to beat you. Even though Rodgers has tinkered — he’s played four different formations in his eight games — every player knows their role. Each continues to improve. That is testament to his coaching.
BEST PLAYERS GETTING BETTER
Jamie Vardy, eh. Top scorer last season, joint top of the pile this time around. He’s deadly. And he’s 33.
He’s had the fewest touches per goal of any player to score more than twice this season, the best conversion rate of anyone to have more than 10 shots.
He’s scored with half of his shots, though that figure is boosted by his five scored penalties.
What has gone under-appreciated is how Vardy has improved the other parts of his game. He drops deeper now, brings others into play.
Jamie Vardy has improved his game in other areas while continuing to be a lethal goalscorer
He set up Leicester’s first two goals against Leeds before scoring the third.
For the first, when others would have put their head down and whacked it, he sensed Harvey Barnes making a run over his shoulder. He held the ball, waited, and played in his team-mate.
Barnes, too, has been excellent. Rapid and direct. He’s had more shots than Vardy this season, more touches in the opposition box. It’s earned him his first England call-up. His finishing and composure need improvement but he has the potential to be prolific.
Kasper Schmeichel continues to lead in voice and performance. His save percentage this season of 71 per cent is bettered only by Karl Darlow and Edouard Mendy.
Kasper Schmeichel continues to lead in voice and performance as captain of the team
Youri Tielemans has been masterful in central midfield. Rodgers has pushed him slightly deeper and the Belgium international has bossed games with his vision and range of passing.
He has played the most passes into Leicester’s final third this season and leads the way for Premier League ‘secondary assists’ — the assist for the assister. It’s easy to forget he’s only 23.
Papy Mendy alongside him, who thought his Leicester career was done, has enjoyed a renaissance in the absence of Wilfred Ndidi.
That’s what makes Leicester’s achievement so far even more impressive.
Much of their capitulation last season was down to injuries in key areas. Yet they have churned out results while missing five of their best defensive players.
Ricardo Pereira, one of the finest right backs in the division, has not kicked a ball. Jonny Evans and Caglar Soyuncu, the first-choice centre back pairing, are both out.
Castagne has missed the last two games while Ndidi, who has won more tackles than any other player since his debut, only managed the first two before injury stuck.
Ricardo Pereira, one of the finest right backs in the division, has not featured at all this season
James Maddison has also endured a injury-hit start to the new campaign with a calf injury
James Maddison, too, has endured a tempestuous start to the campaign with a calf injury following hip surgery in the summer.
As Maddison said recently, Rodgers ‘will need a few paracetamol’ when they all return.
Leicester’s opponents, starting with champions Liverpool at Anfield next weekend, may need a few too.
When you are not one of the big boys, sometimes you have no choice but to sell your best players. That does not always mean you will be worse off.
Leicester have sold a key player in every summer since winning the title: N’Golo Kante, Danny Drinkwater, Riyad Mahrez, Harry Maguire and, this summer, Ben Chilwell. Bought for £25m, sold for £250m.
How they have invested it has kept them improving and pushing for a seat at the top table. This summer was no different.
What looked a quiet window has proved an effective one. The three signings have had an immediate impact. Rodgers could not have asked for more.
Timothy Castagne replaced Chilwell and has looked as if he were always destined to be a Premier League full-back: quick, strong, direct. No one has created more chances or provided more assists in the league for Leicester this season — and he’s missed the last two games with injury. No wonder Rodgers tried to sign him for Celtic.
Ever since Mahrez joined Man City, Leicester have longed for a winger with the ability to unlock deep defences, with the craft and guile to unpick locks instead of battering them down with pace and power.
Cengiz Under arrived on loan from Roma and in less than 70 minutes of Premier League football, all off the bench, has two assists, both showing a sublime touch to set up Vardy.
Wesley Fofana (right) has been a revelation since arriving this summer – and he’s still only 19
Then there’s Wesley Fofana. Good heavens.
Injuries have given him no time to bed in. Four Premier League starts already and not one has gone by without your brain struggling to comprehend how a player this good is still only 19. Ridiculous.
Puel, the former Leicester manager now in charge of Saint-Etienne, said Fofana could become one of the best defenders in the world.
There’s a reason why Leicester paid them £32m for a player with only 30 first-team appearances.
CAN THEY KEEP IT UP?
That’s the big question. Is this Leicester showing their true worth or are they riding a magic carpet over a crazy campaign? Or is it both? It already looks as though this could be another ‘Leicester’ season. Can it be them again?
Leicester have earned eight penalties so far, double that of any other team. They cannot rely on that.
Rodgers side have created 5.63 chances per game this season. Last season, they created 10.79. Then, they had 14.21 shots per game. Now, they are having 9.38. Their 25.97 touches in the box has dropped to 20.5.
Without penalties, Leicester’s Expected Goals per game stand at 0.97. That ranks 13th in the division. Even Crystal Palace average more.
Foxes are struggling to replicate the same attacking form from last season but are still flying
That is not to say Leicester are riding their luck. Their penalties have come from their attacking players drawing mistakes in dangerous areas. They just need a little more.
Leicester’s attacking width comes from their full-backs. The return of Pereira and Castagne will help that. As will Maddison’s return to full fitness.
A trip to Anfield will put it all into sharper perspective. In the meantime, excitement grows.
As Ranieri put it all those years ago: ‘Keep dreaming, why wake up?’