It is not usual for a Premier League champion side to finish in the lower half of the table in the following season. But then Leicester’s triumph in the 2015-16 season was also not a usual occurrence. That title win was built on the solid midfield performance of N’Golo Kante. But since the Frenchman was lured away by Chelsea last season, Leicester struggled a bit in the midfield, which along with several other reasons can explain why the Champions from the previous season ended up twelfth in the very next season.
Even though Claudio Ranieri tried to plug the midfield gap with Ndidi and Nampalys Mendy, but Leicester were not able to plug the gap left open by Kante’s exit. Now it is Craig Shakespeare’s turn to get his midfield into a solid shape, even if he cannot get it to be as good as the midfield that had Kante in it. His first acquisition towards this goal is the signing of Vicente Iborra from Sevilla on a four-year contract at a reported price of £12 – 15 million.
The 29-year old midfielder, who was a part of Sevilla when they won three back-to-back Europa Leagues, was not fancied by Sampaoli last season but prior to that he was a regular starter for Sevilla, and prior to that for Levante. So, Leicester City must have seen some ability in the player to have signed him. Let us try to understand what those abilities could be.
According to Luis Garcia Plaza, who converted the struggling striker to a hardworking midfielder at Levante, “He is very humble, receptive, can play in different positions, is very powerful in the tackle and very good in the air. He had improved tactically, can use both feet, and possesses a good shot. He can score goals. There is a bright future ahead of him.”
This article from ESPN also adds that not only is Iborra a good box-to-box, as well as defensive, midfielder, but he is also an understated team man, who always puts his team before personal glory. Apparently, even after becoming the first La Liga midfielder to score a hat-trick after coming on as a sub (last season vs Celta), Iborra was more worried about his injured teammate whom he had replaced.
He also is experienced in getting underdog teams to outperform themselves – in 2011-12 he was a part of the Levante team that led the La Liga table for a few months at the start of the season, and that ended up participating in the 2012-13 Europa League. He understands and perhaps identifies with the passionate fans of a smallish club and one can say that hence he is a great fit for Leicester.
But qualitative details aside, do his stats suggest that he can be successful in the Premier League? Maybe not exactly replace Kante – because that is extremely difficult – but still make enough contribution to push the Foxes back up into the top half of the table. Let us take a look.
In the quote above, Plaza is describing a player who can play multiple positions and multiple roles. For Sevilla, he mostly played in the central midfield as a box-to-box or a ball-winning midfielder. But he was also deployed in the hole behind the striker for a few games.
He is also an extremely busy player on the pitch, as would be expected from a Sevilla midfielder. He was involved in 98.2 events per 90 minutes and his pitch-map suggests that he covered every blade of grass on the pitch. Plaza also mentions Iborra’s aerial capabilities. This is one area where he beats even Kante hands down. His strong build and height mean that he is far more effective in aerial duels than the Frenchman. He was involved in 6.8 aerials per 90 minutes last season and won 71% of them (4.8). This is far better than 1.8 aerial duels for Kante.
He is also good at interceptions (4.8 per 90 minutes) and ball recoveries (1.8 per 90). This means that he is able to grab the ball for his team close to 7 times every game. These numbers are not Kante-esque but they are still quite good and are even more suited to the Premier League game.
But perhaps the biggest asset for Iborra – and now Leicester – is his instinct to score. As a youngster at Levante, he was a striker and the instinct seems to be still alive inside him – as he showed in that hat-trick against Celta Vigo. That was followed by a brace against Osasuna. In all, he scored 7 La Liga and one Copa Del Rey goals for Sevilla last season, compared to a league xG (expected goals) of only 4.47.
His instinctive late runs into the opponent’s box make him extremely dangerous. This video compilation of all his eight goals highlights his goal scoring instinct as he proved himself dangerous in all situations – free play, set pieces, and from the spot. This is another area where he beats Kante.
Perhaps replacing N’Golo Kante is going to be impossible for Leicester. But they are trying hard and in Vicente Iborra, they have a fast box-to-box, defensive in nature midfielder who can also score a handful of goals in a season. He is extremely fit and hasn’t missed a game due to injury since October 2014. He is also fairly aggressive as indicated by his career tally of yellow and red cards – but that too should be useful in the Premier League.
All said and done, Vicente Iborra’s attributes and style suggest that he should be able to thrive in England. Leicester will be hoping he does.