Unlikely league leaders Leicester City will be hoping to extend their advantage at the top of the Premier League table when they host second-placed Manchester United at the King Power Stadium on Saturday (17:30 GMT, live on Sky Sports).
It has been an incredible start to the season for The Foxes, who have already secured over two-thirds of last season’s points total with barely over a third of the new campaign completed. They currently enjoy a one-point advantage over United at the top of the table having won eight and lost just one of their first 13 fixtures.
Claudio Ranieri has ramped up the bold and energetic style of play that brought about Leicester’s rise from bottom of the table to 14th, six points clear of the relegation zone, during the second half of last season under previous head coach Nigel Pearson. Their approach has won them plenty of admirers and also paid off handsomely in terms of results.
Not only do they top the table but Leicester are also the Premier League’s top scorers, and have, in Jamie Vardy (pictured) and Riyad Mahrez, two of the league’s form attacking players. Between them, they have been directly involved – scoring or assisting, sometimes both – in 23 of the club’s 28 league goals to date. Vardy is on a 10-match scoring streak and will beat Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s Premier League record if he scores again on Saturday.
There is little in Leicester’s underlying numbers to suggest that their current run of form is unsustainable. Ranieri is simply drawing the best out of his players with a daring and stiflingly relentless style of play that opponents are struggling to deal with. Yet they now face a real test of their top-four credentials with a series of six consecutive matches against sides who finished in last season’s top eight in the run up to the New Year.
It will, indeed, be intriguing to see how Leicester’s open and attacking approach will stand up against a United side whose defensive and control-based style has seen their matches feature 20 less goals so far this season. There were 12 goals in the two matches between these sides last season, including eight in a 5-3 victory for Leicester at the King Power Stadium, but one would imagine that United will be keen to keep things tighter on Saturday.
Louis Van Gaal’s side have kept clean sheets in six of their last seven matches in all competitions, including in Wednesday’s 0-0 draw at home to PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League, and have the best defensive record in the Premier League. A solid structure and cautious use of possession make them a very hard side to break down.
The problem has come in marrying that defensive solidity to attacking invention. No other side in the current Premier League top eight has scored less goals than United’s 19 this season. The signing of Anthony Martial at the end of the summer transfer window injected a bit more pace and urgency into an attack that had scored just three times in their first four league fixtures. That impetus has been somewhat lost in recent outings.
Indeed, there is a certain amount of supporter frustration bubbling away under the surface at Old Trafford. Van Gaal can point to his side’s current league position and their top-four finish last season as justification for his methods – not that he would see a reason to justify them – but a failure to progress in the Champions League or a few defeats in domestic action could see this growing unrest manifest itself more clearly.
Leicester could even strike the first such blow this weekend. They have already scored against teams with a comparable defensive record to Man Utd’s in Arsenal (twice) and Tottenham Hotspur and should again be able to find a way through on Saturday. United, too, can be expected to score against a Leicester defence that has kept just two clean sheets so far this season. But if there is a winning third goal, this match preview fancies Leicester to get it.