The Season Just Gone
For a team which have spent the entirety of the 2018-19 campaign in midtable obscurity, Leicester City have had a remarkable season, full of brilliant highs and miserable lows, and with a genuine, bigger-than-football tragedy sadly thrown in for good measure. The shocking death of owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha will dominate the memory of this year for the Foxes, and it will be a long time before those who witnessed it will fully recover. All the success enjoyed at the at the King Power Stadium has been down to his investment, and any future glory will surely be dedicated to him.
There is good reason to think that some kind of glory is on its way. Jamie Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel may be entering the twilight of their careers, but the rest of their 2015-16 Premier League-winning squad has either gone or been upgraded, and this is now a fast, attacking young team of technical ball-players. In terms of regenerations, this has to be among the most seamless and promising in recent Premier League history.
Harry Maguire and Ben Chilwell have already moved up from ‘promising’ to ‘productive’ and gained international experience with England, while James Maddison, Harvey Barnes and Hamza Choudhury won’t be far behind them. Internationals like Ricardo Pereira, Wilfred Ndidi and Çağlar Söyüncü are coming into their primes, with Pereira and Ndidi particularly impressing on a consistent basis. Youri Tielemans’ loan spell has been a roaring success – so much so that he’s been linked with moves to Champions League clubs more than he has a permanent deal with Leicester.
Meanwhile Vardy has kept doing what Vardy does. Only four players have scored more Premier League goals than Vardy this season, and they all play for Manchester City, Liverpool or Arsenal. If the youngsters need an example to follow, they have a more than adequate one in their talismanic striker.
While things may look rosy now, this season has been far from easy: former manager Claude Puel was under pressure before a ball was kicked in anger, with reports of a difficult and abrasive demeanour adding to fans’ concerns about drab, unadventurous football, particularly at home. Puel teetered on the brink for what seemed like a lifetime, earning reprieves with big victories over Chelsea and Man City before finally being sacked at the end of February.
New boss Brendan Rodgers brings an avalanche of media baggage with him but he’s not the same blundering Guardiola-lite as he was at Liverpool, puffed up on his own mythology and spewing out soundbites with no regard for their absurdity. This Brendan is more mature and more measured and, crucially, more flexible tactically. Still only 46, Rodgers is young enough to inspire his new squad but also hardened enough not to commit the errors he made a few years ago.
The Summer Ahead
With Rodgers having been secured in March and the squad already well-stocked across the board with young, hungry players entering the peak of their careers, there doesn’t seem to be much more to do going into the summer. Rodgers has spoken of his desire to keep Tielemans at the club beyond this weekend, but it would be unrealistic to expect Leicester to be able to outbid bigger clubs for his signature.
After Monday’s match at the Etihad, in which Leicester held firm until Vincent Kompany scored the most unexpected rocket since William Gallas did for Tottenham in 2005, Pep Guardiola said that he expects Leicester to be “up there” next season. It’s hard to argue – with the likes of Man Utd and Chelsea bickering over existential questions of identity and looking like losing their best players, Leicester could steal a march on them next time around. All the ingredients are already there.
Rodgers set up to play a containing, counter-attacking 4-3-3 against Man City on Monday night and we should expect the same formation here. There’s obviously a chance that Rodgers, to use a Brendanism, ‘flips the triangle’ and plays 4-2-3-1 so as to man-mark Jorginho, but besides that we should know exactly what Chelsea will be up against: a flexible, dangerous team equally capable of scoring from quick transitions, spells of possession play and set pieces.
They’ll pack the middle, aim to suck the Blues out and then play through them, sending Vardy through one-on-one. If they can’t do that, Pereira or Chilwell will overlap on the flanks and fizz balls across the face of the goal. If that doesn’t work, Maddison and Tielemans are more than happy to shoot from distance, and every time the ball is dead Harry ‘Slabhead’ Maguire will come forward to attack any ball that is hung up.
As you may have noticed, this is a team on the up. Every player is at the right club at the right moment and playing the right style of football with the right teammates. Now, they have the right manager, and it will be a huge surprise if they don’t go from strength to strength. They’ve already put Arsenal to the sword and were it not for Kompany’s screamer and a shocking miss from Kelechi Iheanacho, they could well have beaten Man City – again.
As ever, their big strength is counter-attacking. Only Bournemouth have scored more goals on the break this season and it doesn’t take a three-eyed raven to foresee Chelsea’s exhausted defenders being sent out in a high line and getting suckered on the break by Vardy. That’s not their only strength, however: only four teams have created more chances from open play and no side has created more chances from corners.
At the moment, their biggest weakness is their youth: so many of these players will be absolute stars, but they’re still young enough to lack consistency and, while they’ve beaten Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal this season, they’ve also lost to Newcastle, Southampton and Cardiff. They’re not quite a Jekyll and Hyde team, but they have had big problems when prising open packed defences and they’ve wilted under pressure from the fans.
Also, they don’t have Eden Hazard and Chelsea do, and that might be enough.
Brendan Rodgers has no fresh injury worries so we should expect an unchanged line-up.
Maurizio Sarri, on the other hand, has an increasingly depressing injury list and after Thursday night’s 120-minute slog at Stamford Bridge, he’ll be struggling to find eleven players who can go out and complete the 90 minutes. Could Gary Cahill be in for a shock start and a farewell appearance?
Chelsea are tired and have their eyes on bigger prizes. Leicester 2-1 Chelsea.