The Season Just Gone
To the untrained eye it may seem like Leicester City spent their 2018-19 campaign comfortable in midtable obscurity, but in reality their season was an emotional rollercoaster, full of twists and turns and, unfortunately, marked by tragedy. The death of owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was the most important event of the Foxes’ season, and he will cast a long shadow for years to come. 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.
In terms of football, it was all about evolution and regeneration. Former manager Claude Puel was never a good fit for this project, lacking the tactical ambition to create eye-catching fare for the fans and the charisma to win over the media. He teetered on the brink for what seemed like a lifetime, earning reprieves with big victories over Chelsea and Manchester City before finally being sacked at the end of February.
New boss Brendan Rodgers arrived with an avalanche of media baggage in tow, 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. Now much more Rodgers than Brendan, he is more mature and more measured and, crucially, more flexible tactically. Still a youngster by managerial standards, Rodgers is young enough to inspire his new squad but also hardened enough not to commit the errors he made a few years ago. In terms of tactical ambition and charisma, he’s everything Puel isn’t.
The Transfer Window
Leicester’s summer was dominated by Harry Maguire’s exit, with his £85m departure to Manchester United a certainty from May onwards but somehow not finalised until deadline day. With the Foxes expected to spend big on a replacement, they have instead banked the money and promoted Çağlar Söyüncü to regular starter. Last week’s clean sheet against Wolves seemed to vindicate their decision, and as any Moneyball aficionado knows, replacing your big players before they go is the smart way to go.
Importantly, Youri Tielemans made his loan spell permanent, giving Leicester genuine class in midfield, and Ayoze Pérez arrived from Newcastle, lessening the goalscoring burden on Jamie Vardy and seemingly spelling the end for the persistent but unspectacular Mark Albrighton and the talented but inconsistent Kelechi Iheanacho.
The Summer Ahead
There is good reason to think that Leicester can make a serious assault on the top six this season. 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.
From top to bottom, this is a squad with the class to play Champions League football again and to do so on their own terms. There are several players — Ricardo Pereira, Wilfred Ndidi, as well as Tielemans — who wouldn’t look out of place at one of the Premier League’s best sides, while the likes of Ben Chilwell, James Maddison and Hamza Choudhury will surely become established England internationals if they maintain their levels of performance.
Crucially, unlike the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United, Leicester have a manager who has been there and done it all before, and who has the coaching credentials to go along with name recognition. Where Frank Lampard and Ole Gunnar Solskjær are undeniably gambles in their current positions, Brendan Rodgers is a pretty sure bet.
Rodgers usually sets up to play a containing, counter-attacking 4-3-3 against bigger sides and with Chelsea looking wide open against Manchester United last weekend and only slightly more solid against Liverpool’s attacks on Wednesday, we should expect the same system here.
They’ll congest the centre and aim to win the ball back quickly, or else send the Blues’ advances out wide and wait for them to cross. When Leicester come forward, we should expect fast attacks, sending Vardy through one-on-one. If they can’t skewer Chelsea in two or three passes, Pereira or Chilwell will overlap on the flanks and fizz balls across the face of the goal.
If that doesn’t work, Ndidi, Maddison and Tielemans are all more than happy to shoot from distance, and while they’ve lost Harry Maguire’s presence from dead balls, they have plenty of quality deliverers and Chelsea will still have to be alert.
As long as the evergreen Vardy is leading the line, Leicester’s big strength will be counter-attacking. Only Bournemouth scored more goals on the break last season and now that Ayoze Pérez has been incorporated that only means the threat in behind has magnified.
That said, this is now a team that can do it just about any way they want. With the class and creativity of Maddison, Tielemans, Pereira and Chilwell, anything is possible and clean sheets like Wolves’ last weekend will be the exception rather than the norm this season. Chelsea will probably have to score two or three to get anything from this game.
Their only weakness may be that so few of their players have experienced genuine success, and so many of them may take convincing of their potential. As Harry Maguire showed, the temptations of more established clubs are hard to resist, and the remaining talents at Leicester may consider it easier to follow Maguire’s lead than to make the most of their talent and establish Leicester as a genuine force.
Brendan Rodgers has no personnel issues so we should expect an unchanged line-up.
Extra time against Liverpool was hardly ideal preparation for Frank Lampard’s players, however, and with confidence looking somewhat dented his selection will have to be very carefully made.
It would have been nice if Lampard’s Stamford Bridge debut had been against more obliging opposition. He may have to settle for a score draw.