The Season So Far
No-one expected anything other than total mediocrity in the league and a return to the lower half of the table, and this belief was well-founded. It’s been a thoroughly underwhelming campaign so far – the inevitable low after the dizzying, once-in-a-lifetime high. Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and Claudio Ranieri will always be loved in Leicester after the miracle of 2015-16, but all have looked average at best so far this time around, failing to produce the goods just as often as they pulled rabbits out of hats last year.
Of course, the caveat here is that Leicester’s season is all about their Champions League adventure, and they’re certainly playing up to last season’s levels in Europe. The Foxes qualified from their group with ease, although a sixth-game thrashing against Porto may have hinted what lies ahead in the knockout rounds.
The Season Ahead
Perilously close to the relegation zone in terms of position and points, most Leicester fans will be praying that they avoid the embarrassment of being the first defending champions to be relegated since Manchester City in 1938. With Hull seemingly long gone and Swansea, Sunderland, Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough all varying degrees of disastrous, the Foxes appear safe, but based on their performances alone, Leicester are far from safe. This would be the perfect time for Mahrez and Vardy to start playing to their potential again, or for players like Ahmed Musa and Islam Slimani to explode.
As well as the small matter of domestic salvation, Leicester have the small matter of a Champions League Round of 16 ties against Sevilla to contend with. Still well over a month away, the games loom large in the minds of every Leicester fan – arguably the biggest matches, or at least the proudest occasions, in the club’s history. It’s a damn shame Sevilla are so good – it would be a massive shame if the Foxes got embarrassed on a global stage so soon after pulling off a title win that won them so many admirers.
Previously seen as a welcome throwback to a simpler time, Leicester’s uncompromising, unpretentious style of play has gone back to looking outmoded and ineffective at the top level. While millions welcomed the success of a direct, boxy, committed 4-4-2, the prevailing orthodoxy these days is that football has to be a bit more complicated than that, and with reason. With no miracles or other unexplained, potentially Biblical forces aiding them, Ranieri’s Foxes once again look one-dimensional and easy to play against.
A large part of Leicester’s success was, of course, down to N’Golo Kanté’s ability to be in at least two places at once for an entire season, and now that Chelsea have prised him away, the Foxes’ midfield is considerably less effective. For ‘considerably less effective’, read ‘basically useless’. New signing Wilfred Ndidi has big shoes to fill alongside Danny Drinkwater, while in the absence of Riyad Mahrez, Marc Albrighton and Ahmed Musa have to produce more.
The building blocks of last season’s success were a mean defence, unbelievable midfield tenacity and the raw pace and unerring finishing of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. Some things are yet to change: the defence still wins an awful lot in the air - 19.2 aerial duels won per game is among the Premier League’s highest figures – and the midfield still works hard, and they still have Vardy and Mahrez, but… well, it’s just not the same.
These days Leicester’s biggest strength is that the goodwill earned by their title win hasn’t worn off, and no-one wishes them ill.
The house of cards has collapsed.
Without Kanté, Leicester’s midfield is woefully open and their entire style of play is undermined as a result. 16.6 tackles per game is a low figure, 14.2 interceptions is low for what it needs to be, and only four teams commit more fouls. Leicester players are now dribbled past 12.4 times per game, the Premier League’s second highest figure.
Hopelessly overworked, Leicester’s defence have allowed 14.2 shots per game and 4.7 have ended up on target. Just as the dead-eye finishing of Vardy and Mahrez spearheaded the title challenge last year, the smart stops of Kasper Schmeichel at the other end propelled Leicester to glory. This time, their save percentage is bang on the league average. They need it to be better.
With the midfield underperforming so badly and the defence and goalkeeper so overworked, only spectacular efficiency in attack can make up for this. Unfortunately, Leicester have been miserable. Their average of 3.5 shots on target per game puts them below goal-shy Watford and Hull, and their 34.3% conversion rate is hovering around the league average. Vardy’s recent goal drought shouldn’t have come as any surprise, while one could be forgiven for thinking that if Mahrez stops taking penalties he may never score again.
No-one takes pleasure in seeing such an irresistible fairy tale come to an end, but end it most certainly has. Leicester are almost as abject now as they were unstoppable a year ago.
There shouldn’t be any surprises in the Leicester line-up, with much of their strongest eleven available. Wilfred Ndidi is expected to partner Drinkwater in the middle and will have a very harsh start to Premier League life against the returning hero Kanté and Nemanja Matić. The hardworking Shinji Okazaki should partner Jamie Vardy up front, while Ahmed Musa will be expected to follow up his recent FA Cup heroics with a positive display against compatriot Victor Moses.
Diego Costa has annoyed Antonio Conte a bit too much and so won’t feature, which means Chelsea’s front three should be as it was in his absence against Bournemouth.
The last time Chelsea visited Leicester things went rather badly for them. Times are different, however, and anything other than a Chelsea win will be a surprise. I’m saying 2-1.