Something very unique could happen at Manchester United on Saturday. An away win at Leicester? Maybe. They won there last season, but it was only their second win at Old Trafford since 1973.
Against United, Brendan Rodgers might have a luxury he hasn’t been able to call on all season – a full complement of fit centre-backs.
It’s the area of his team that has suffered the most from a string of crippling injuries and COVID-19 absentees that have plagued the entire campaign but, on Saturday, Rodgers treats himself to the luxury of a headache Selection.
Where there was little or no choice before, there is now a plethora of options and a riddle to ponder about the pastoral surroundings of Seagrave before the journey north.
For too long his decisions have been based on three players – Caglar Soyuncu, Jannik Vestergaard and Daniel Amartey. It was far from ideal.
Soyuncu, who Rodgers said was fourth choice when he arrived, was out of form and Vestergaard, who Rodgers said had a specific back-up role when he signed him from Southampton in August 2021, had struggling to settle into the defensive style required of the manager. .
Meanwhile, Amartey was considered an emergency centre-back at best. Of the Ghana international’s 12 appearances last season, he only played twice as a centre-back in a back four, partnering Jonny Evans at Crystal Palace and replacing Evans at home to Arsenal . The rest of his appearances have come at the right of a back three or at right back.
And yet, it was Amartey who became arguably Leicester’s most consistent performer of the three available.
Statistics need to be taken in context and can be misleading when judging the merits of a defense. For example, a central defender with a high tackle rate may be considered a high performing defender, but this could be an indication of desperate, last-ditch defending rather than a controlled reading of the game. Low in tackling stats are teams that dominate possession. Currently, in the Premier League, it’s Manchester City and Liverpool.
However, looking at some basic stats for this season, Amartey has been the least frequently beaten defender for Leicester by an opponent, just 0.36 per 90 minutes in his 18 league appearances. He is also the defender with the fewest individual errors that led to opposition shots on goal, at 0.24 for 90.
Vestergaard’s 10 appearances and just 563 minutes of action, compared to Amartey’s 1,505 or Soyuncu’s 2,138, gives a smaller sample to study, but statistically, over 90 minutes, he’s above his two rivals in passing accuracy in own half and opposition half, headed clearances, hit rate of tackles and tackles won, blocks, clearances and double hits – but bottom in recoveries and has been the past most dribbled by opponents.
Soyuncu, by his own earlier standards, hasn’t had a good campaign, despite often being the most reliable in terms of uptime. He missed just 45 minutes of football in all competitions for Leicester until Christmas.
He gave up the most possession in both halves, although he played more passes in the final third, indicating a more direct but riskier approach to distribution. He is also ranked bottom in tackle success rate and double success rate. He trembled.
Using smarterscout’s duel ratings, which give an absolute score to each player throughout their Leicester career, their individual strengths and weaknesses can be assessed.
Fofana and Evans are by far the strongest at defending from set pieces, and their absence could factor into the high number of goals from set pieces Leicester have conceded all season.
Amartey is by far the best tackler and Evans the strongest in open-headed duels. Surprisingly, Fofana doesn’t score for the dribble, considering his ability to get the ball out of defense and into midfield. Soyuncu gets the highest score in this category.
Leicester have kept just five clean sheets and conceded 46 Premier League goals this season, although there has been improvement in recent weeks. It’s teamwork, sure, but none of their defenders have been helped by the constant upheaval at the back this season.
When his team’s defensive record was awarded to Rodgers, he rightly pointed out that he was missing his two key centre-backs – Evans and Fofana – for the lion’s share of 2021-22. Now he got them back.
Fofana was a revelation when he arrived from Saint-Etienne last season. He was still just a teenager and the plan was to relieve him, but the onset of the injury crisis that bled into this campaign forced Rodgers to throw him in the deep end. Not only did he not drown, but he swam like a shark.
He started 27 games in his 28 league appearances, in a back two with Evans and in a back three with Soyuncu and Evans, until Amartey stepped in for the injured Evans at the end of the campaign.
Rodgers boldly declared Fofana to be one of the best young players he’s ever worked with and predicted that “he can go on and become one of the best centre-backs in the world”.
Then there’s Evans. There are no influencing stats on others or to illustrate how other defenders produced their best performances for Leicester alongside the Northern Irishman. Fofana’s immediate impact and Soyuncu’s sudden emergence as a fourth-choice defender upon Rodgers’ arrival is proof of that.
As Leicester head to Old Trafford, Evans’ former home ground, Rodgers can call on both his wily old fox and his young cub, but they’ve both had limited minutes after long absences . Evans had 30 minutes in a Leicester shirt and 60 in a Northern Ireland shirt. Fofana only had 78 – his goal return at Rennes.
Rodgers has confirmed Evans is out of form and may not be able to play the full 90 minutes against his former club on Saturday. Fofana has spent the international break working on his fitness but will need games to get back to full speed.
The last time they started a game together was the FA Cup final against Chelsea, but they form a tantalizing partnership when they get to know each other.
“You probably have the perfect balance,” says Rodgers. “You have an experienced player (Evans) who knows the game, has been there and done it, who can play any arena with composure, who can pass it and defend, and can read the game, alongside the young suitor (Fofana) who needs to be nurtured in the game, but he has so many natural qualities of the highest level.
“He’s competitive, he can defend forward, he’s fast, he can jump and run. Then the combination of the two obviously gives you a really, really strong combination.
It might be too risky to throw them together, but Rodgers will want that combination of Fofana’s aggression and athleticism, and Evans’ dominating presence in the long run. Last season, Rodgers went for a back three 27 times. This season, he’s only done it 10 times, mostly opting for a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 system.
Although Rodgers seems to prefer a back four, his hand has been forced in many ways due to a lack of personnel, but with James Justin and Timothy Castagne also returning from long spells on the sidelines, Rodgers now has that option. As well as thriving as full-backs, the two have shown they can also play as part of a back three.
He also has other things to weigh. Amartey returns from international duty with his tail after Ghana qualified for the World Cup at the expense of Nigeria. On the other hand, Soyuncu and Turkey missed Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.
It will be fascinating to see which direction Rodgers goes and who he throws to chain Ronaldo and United on Saturday.
(Other contributor: Maram AlBaharna)
(Top photos: Getty Images)