This preview appears in the August 2021 edition of FourFourTwo.
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So, here we are again. A year on, the same curious paradox afflicts Leicester (opens in new tab); one where finishing 5th (again) and winning the first FA Cup in club history is considered suboptimal. Chuck in a rather testing season of Europa League football en route, plus an injury list that sometimes read more like a squad page, and you have a strange conclusion indeed.
Yet the facts remain: two years in a row, Brendan Rodgers’ side have had Champions League football in their own hands on the final day, only to let it slip.
In reality, though, 2020/21 wasn’t like its uglier predecessor. Whereas, in 2019/20, Leicester died a slow death by blowing a 14-point lead over their only rivals in Manchester United (opens in new tab), last year’s fall was less pronounced, in the face of stronger competition and much worse luck. The outstanding James Justin was cruelly chopped down in his prime, ditto Harvey Barnes, and almost every other first-team player except Youri Tielemans missed a notable chunk of the campaign at some point. It was brutal.
It wasn’t all hard luck woe, of course. Leicester rode out their misfortune brilliantly, but stumbled with five matches remaining. Eight points clear of Liverpool (opens in new tab) at that point, the Foxes drew with a Southampton (opens in new tab) side reduced to 10 men after as many minutes, then went 4-0 down at home to Newcastle (opens in new tab) before a futile late revival. Three points from a tricky final three fixtures, combined with Alisson’s implausible goalscoring heroics for Liverpool, made for an unsavoury ending.
But it’d be wrong to look back at 2020/21 without great positivity. Cracking the top four is supposed to be tough, and trophies are reserved for a select few – English football’s 24 elite domestic competitions since 2013 have been won by only five teams… and Leicester. Twice. Beating Chelsea (opens in new tab) at Wembley brought more silverware that still eludes other teams (hello, Spurs (opens in new tab)). And on that topic of the so-called ‘Big Six’, the Foxes defeated each of them in the league last term.
So, have they blown their shot at the top four? No. They were in it for 36 of last season’s 38 gameweeks, after all. And while Rodgers’ exciting side will never be favourites, their squad is improving, not weakening. Snaring Boubakary Soumaré (a title-winning central midfielder with Lille) and Patson Daka (61 goals in his last two Red Bull Salzburg seasons), both 22, firms up two soft spots. Barnes and Justin will soon return from long-term injuries. As much as their rivals would prefer otherwise, these pesky Foxes are here to stay.
The five-point plan
1 Protect Tielemans
Amid the injury chaos, Youri Tielemans played 500 more minutes than any other Foxes outfielder, probing them through sticky patches with typical grace and style. The club’s player of the season has since been busy at the European Championship, too, so giving him a rest now and then would be sensible – Soumaré’s arrival should make that possible.
2 Shore up set-pieces
Every fan thinks their side are rubbish from dead-ball situations – but Leicester really have been. Only two sides scored less often from set-pieces, and 12 conceded at the other end made for grim viewing. In fact, opponents often threatened from the Foxes’ own set-plays: no one leaked more goals (six) from counter-attacking situations.
That man again... 👏Kelechi Iheanacho looks to have won it for Leicester 📺 Watch on Sky Sports PL📱 Follow #LEICRY here: https://t.co/rwKVs4aHKb📲 Download the @SkySports app! pic.twitter.com/YVj3tP8LBdApril 26, 2021
3 Plan post-Vardy
More than half of his 2020/21 league goals were penalties, but Jamie Vardy is still the Foxes’ most potent weapon. He’s also 34. Although Vardy served as a fine support act for a resurgent Kelechi Iheanacho in the second half of last season, the two-man attack necessitates fresh blood. The £23m new boy Daka represents the future alongside 24-year-old Iheanacho – this may mean fewer minutes for Vardy in 2021/22.
4 Be fearless on the continent
Leicester cruised through their Europa League group, but two wet-fart displays against Slavia Prague in the last 32 ended the odyssey early. Their energetic style was nowhere to be seen in either leg. With a bolstered squad and – one would hope – fewer injuries, can Rodgers & Co take the game to European opponents?
5 Aid the injured
…which means not rushing their players back too early. A threadbare squad forced Rodgers into some hard calls last term, but at times it felt as if he would have played Jonny Evans on half a leg if he could. This happened in the FA Cup final, where Evans was replaced after just 34 minutes, but it wasn’t limited to the influential defender. Short-term patience could be longer-term gain for Leicester.
FFT verdict: 5th
An impressive summer offers hope, but top four may still be a step too far. Plus ça change, indeed.
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