Few clubs in world football have operated more efficiently in the transfer market than Leicester City over the past few years.
Continuing with the ethos of data driven recruitment implemented by Nigel Pearson and Steve Walsh, Leicester have consistently sold players for well above their value, and signed replacements, if not improvements, for the fraction of the price.
When Chelsea triggered N’Golo Kante’s release clause in 2016, Wilfred Ndidi was snapped up a few months later to fill the void. A year later, they (somehow) got the Blues to pay £35m for Danny Drinkwater, money they reinvested in Hull City’s Harry Maguire, who would go on to become the most expensive defender in history.
Similarly, when Riyad Mahrez was finally allowed the depart for £60m in 2018, the fee was spent on James Maddison, Caglar Soyuncu and Ricardo Pereira, three players who are now among the Premier League’s best.
The following summer, half of the £80m spent on Maguire was used to bring in Youri Tielemans, while James Justin, Ayoze Perez and Dennis Praet were also recruited with the rest of the funds.
This season, further evidence of Leicester’s midas touch in the transfer market has kept on coming. After selling academy prospect Ben Chilwell to Chelsea for £45m, the club moved quickly to sign the versatile Timothy Castagne, before turning their attentions towards an additional centre-back.
The saga that eventually saw Wesley Fofana sign from Saint-Etienne in October was laborious, with former Foxes boss Claude Puel using it to enact some sweet revenge on his former employers. In the end, a fee in excess of £30m was agreed, considerably less than the obscene £50m they were quoted for James Tarkowski, but still hefty for a fairly unproven 19-year-old.
Any concerns about Fofana not being fit for the Premier League were soon put to bed in his first few appearances. Thrown in at the deep end due to an injury to Caglar Soyuncu — who appeared in last season’s PFA Team of the Year — he made his debut in a narrow 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa, with his first touch being a picture perfect Cruyff turn. Since making his debut, Fofana has missed just one game in all competitions, turning heads with his attractive style of defending.
Despite his lack of experience, Fofana’s most potent weapon is excellent positioning, combined with good judgement of when to break free from the defensive line to win the ball. This season, Harry Maguire — who has played four more games — is the only defender to register more interceptions than him, which is testament to both of these attributes.
In all the other traditional attributes required of a top quality centre-back, Fofana also excels. His 3.3 aerials won per game is the 21st best record in the league and it is superior to the likes of Eric Dier, Tyrone Mings and Michael Keane.
Tackles and blocks are another part of his game, and unlike others, he manages to make both of these gritty pursuits look effortless and graceful. This elegance is also present whenever he is on the ball. Much like Maguire and Soyuncu before him, Fofana loves to gallop forward through the lines and start counter attacks.
This season he ranks in the top 10 for progressive distance among Premier League centre-back and currently, he is travelling further per 90 minutes than Liverpool’s Andy Robertson. A quite remarkable stat. He is also a classy passer of the ball, and often completes progressive balls for Tielemans to take on the half turn.
As well as possessing limitless, raw ability, what has been even more impressive about Fofana this season is his mental strength. Despite not speaking English to a particularly high level, he has immediately blended in to his surroundings, always looking composed.
HIs tactical flexibility should be noted as well. During his Saint-Etienne career, Fofana gained experience as part of a back three and back four, and this has helped facilitate Leicester’s increased tactical flexibility this season. Whether featuring on the right side of a trio or in a central defensive pair, the youngster has approach the task with minimal fuss, consistently ranking as one of his side’s very best performers.
In what has been a pretty remarkable season to date, unearthing yet another hidden gem in Fofana has to rank as one of the highlights for Leicester. The Foxes can expect many more seasons of service from the Frenchman, or, perhaps more likely, another record breaking transfer fee from one of the biggest clubs in Europe. He really is that good.