In recent years, Leicester City have shown a proficiency in signing youthful players, exponentially building on their talents and selling stars for profit. There are a few high-profile cases: N’golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez, Danny Drinkwater, and Ben Chilwell — all of whom moved to “greener pastures” in the Premier League for big fees. The underlying theme being that they were all signed for cheap and then progressed, with only one of these coming from the Leicester City academy — Ben Chilwell.
Since Brendan Rodgers’ appointment, Leicester City have started to place more importance on the academy, and, consequently, he’s fielded four graduates during his reign to date: Ben Chilwell, Luke Thomas, Hamza Choudhury, and Harvey Barnes. The Foxes are no longer reliant on signing youth talents from inside of Europe, although they’ve still shown assurance in doing that.
Capable of competing with the best in England
It’s quite apparent that Rodgers’ arrival has improved squad, as Leicester City are now a well-rounded, tactically strong side, capable of competing with the very best in England. But within this, I feel the player that’s thrived the most under the new management is Harvey Barnes, whose raw talent and pace has culminated into an all-action winger. In turn, he was rewarded with his first England-international call-up — a comfortable 3-0 victory versus Wales in October 2020.
This meteoric rise has been well documented by the media, especially during the latter stages of his development. But most Leicester City fans would argue this growth was somewhat expected, particularly when you delve deeper into his impressive loan spells, as well as his profile. There’s also his data, which did point towards an upwards trajectory – especially when combined with the elite level coaching of Brendan Rodgers.
The first breakthrough Barnes had in his career was on loan at MK Dons in the English League One. At 18 years old, Barnes featured 21 times, accumulating seven contributions (six goals and one assist) in one season with the club. Evidently, he was still too young to contend for a spot in the Premier League and was sent on two further loans – Barnsley and West Bromwich Albion. It was within these spells that Barnes became recognised as a top-level player.
Left-wing, striker, right-wing, and makeshift central-midfielder
Upon returning to Leicester City, Barnes quickly found his way into the starting XI under Brendan Rodgers, and it wasn’t long before he made the left-midfield spot as his own. This season, the Countesthorpe-born midfielder has played in a multitude of positions, as Rodgers showcases the requirements of them all. Barnes has played; left-wing, striker, right-wing, and as a makeshift central-midfielder. That’s quite the selection of positions, and these have all aided his understanding of how to operate as the left-midfield/winger in Rodgers’ 4-2-3-1 formation.
Now, the wider footballing world is starting to recognise his potential and that’s a by-product of all these features. In a recent article with The Athletic, Rob Tanner explained that many one-to-one sessions with Rodgers has helped to develop his game sense, awareness, and understanding of when to force a run inside or hold his position. So, what is so special about Barnes? But, more importantly – what traits has he progressed that have allowed him to flourish so far this campaign?
I’ve alluded to it already, but positionally Barnes has developed immeasurably. Previously, he struggled to perceive when to move internally and help support play from inside or when to hold his width and allow players to progress inside of him and utilise him as a wide-player. It sounds fairly straightforward, but when your role requires you to fluctuate between the two positions, understanding when to commit to either one takes a lot of know-how and experience.
As a fan, it felt like Barnes would always choose the wrong option positionally – not a fault of his, just a lack of experience – whereas this season, he often drifts into the correct area and has benefited tremendously.
Above is an image of Harvey Barnes’ goals and assists locations from last season. I’ve utilised this style of visualisation over a heat-map for location-based events, as his array of positions makes his heat-map unbalanced. The highlighted area is designed to demonstrate the general location where Barnes impacts the game (looking purely at goals and assists), and it evidently shows a preference for operating wide on the left. Only a couple assists appear on the right-side, during his stints on the opposing wing.
With Barnes only managing a single assist this campaign — along with a much higher goal-scoring percentage — it’s difficult to cross-compare with this season. However, his only assist came from a more central location (around the top-of-the-box versus Burnley).
I’d suggest the 23-year-old is more frequently imposing himself on the game by utilising the half-spaces (image is shown below) as his combination play isn’t defined by his starting positioning this season. He’s no longer just a “wide-player”, instead, he’s much more of a multifaceted attacking forward, who understands when to place himself in the half-spaces – allowing his full-back to overlap him, and when to provide an option on the wing. It’s this understanding that’s allowed him to score five goals this season (or a goal every 238 minutes – compared to a goal every 347 minutes last year) and look an exceptionally difficult player to deal with.
Intriguingly, Barnes was averaging a goal contribution every 149 minutes in the Premier League last season, which has actually dropped to 198 minutes during this campaign. But this is a by-product of him becoming a goal-scoring threat and less of a “provider”.
A hot streak in front of goal
Ultimately, Rodgers will want him to become a blend of the two, as only one assist this season is subpar for a winger starting most games (13 of Leicester City’s 17 matches this season). Across the league, there are only two “starting wingers” who have played similar minutes to Barnes (1,190) with fewer assists, and that’s Adama Traoré and Grady Diangana. The Spaniard has played 1,036 minutes this season and is yet to manage a goal or assist. Diangana found the net versus Everton in matchweek 2 but has played an additional 909 minutes (1,069 total) without contributing.
Irrespective of others playing in the league – this is about Barnes after all – his assisting numbers are very poor. Leicester City’s lack of chance creation, but an absurdly high conversion rate, could definitely be a factor. The Foxes are the league leaders for converting their chances (15.7% of their shots have resulted in a goal), whilst being on the lower end of chance creation (only creating 15 big chances this season) – but that’s a by-product of the attacking players struggling to create, rather than the other way round.
Compared with last season, Barnes is creating around 2.19 shots per 90 minutes of football – which is considerably lower than the 3.33 shots per 90 he was averaging last season. That’s a lot of numbers I’ve just thrown at you, but essentially, the 23-year-old is enduring a hot streak in front of goal while struggling to provide chances for the other Leicester City forwards.
These trends could definitely be due to sample size, as we’re less than halfway through the 2020/21 Premier League season – leaving ample room for Barnes to add assists into his contributions. The real question is, would Leicester City fans sacrifice the youngster’s additional goals for a few more assists?
I’d argue goals are much harder to come by and definitely provide an extra confidence boost when compared with assists. Barnes’ performances have rewarded him with an increased market value (£48.11 million) which was published in CIES Football Observatory (a Swiss Sports Studies organisation) list of the “Top 100 valued players inside the big-five leagues” on January 4th, 2021. Barnes bookended the list in 100th spot, and was only the second Leicester City player mentioned, alongside Youri Tielemans.
Ultimately, Barnes just needs to be a threat for the opposition, and he’s already proving to be that.
Image credit: Leicestershire County Council
Rob Tanner, The Athletic article – https://theathletic.co.uk/2298769/2021/01/04/harvey-barnes-improvement-leicester/
CIES Football Observatory – https://football-observatory.com/IMG/sites/b5wp/2020/wp319/en/