Why this season’s Leicester aren’t last season’s Leicester
1. Two months is a long time to regain footing
It wasn’t supposed to be like this: six defeats from their first 12 Premier League games of the campaign, with only three wins to their name
The summer is prime time for torso-bronzing and well-earned relaxation where footballers are concerned – and nobody could forgive Leicester’s stars for doing just that after last season’s magical campaign.
And while the gen pop were fully expecting the Foxes to slide gently back down the table to a place more befitting of their stature, it wasn’t supposed to be like this: six defeats from their first 12 Premier League games of the campaign, with only three wins to their name.
Momentum, though, really is more than a tired cliché for robotic footballers to spout: it’s a prize commodity sought by all but found by few. Last term, Leicester’s motley crew ground out wins on a game-by-game basis thanks to their gritty grafting and one-eyed mentality with the country’s biggest prize on the line. Once you take out players here and there, beef up the schedule, and introduce new faces – all while competing with your improving rivals – it’s almost impossible for natural order not to restore itself. Simply: the drop-off was inevitable.
2. N’Golo Kante really was that good
Kante was energetic, exceptional in his positioning and the perfect pivot around which Claudio Ranieri’s side could launch counter-attacks
Everyone knew it last year, but absence has made hearts grow even fonder for the French enforcer who left to join Chelsea in the summer.
It’s not like the former Caen man was inconspicuous with quietly excellent performances for Leicester last season: he was energetic, exceptional in his positioning and the perfect pivot around which Claudio Ranieri’s side could launch counter-attacks. As such, his departure left a gaping hole that was impossible to fill and Leicester have been punctured through the middle too often without him.
The signing of Nampalys Mendy from Nice was supposed to alleviate the burden on Leicester’s central midfield, but persistent injury has kept him out of contention since August 20. As a result, Danny Drinkwater – who to make matters worse begins a three-match ban this weekend – is trying to do Kante’s work of two men alongside weaker partners in Daniel Amartey and Andy King.
3. Everyone else is a lot better
This season’s table-toppers Chelsea finished 30 points behind Leicester last season, yet are revitalised under Antonio Conte
… because it was almost impossible for them not to be. This season’s table-toppers Chelsea finished 30 points behind Leicester last season, yet are revitalised under a manager who's carefully repaired the rotten core left behind by Jose Mourinho.
Manchester City, Manchester United and Everton have new managers, Jurgen Klopp has clearly made good use of his first full summer in charge at Liverpool, while Mauricio Pochettino was already building an excellent team for the long haul at Tottenham. Leicester finished 10 points above next-best Arsenal, who weren’t in the title race for the final few months of the season anyway – so it was inconceivable that England’s elite would be that bad again.
4. The team dynamics have changed
Jamie Vardy's struggled to get anywhere last season’s dizzy heights, but a large part of that can be apportioned to the system around him changing
Jamie Vardy's struggled to get anywhere last season’s dizzy heights, but a large part of that can be apportioned to the system around him changing.
For starters there’s the added competition from record signing Islam Slimani, who's been in and out of the team through injury without being able to hit his stride. Yet even when the Algerian is in the team, he’s the focal point for a very direct style of play in which Vardy is no longer the main target.
00:25 for Vardy > Slimani > Mahrez vs Copenhagen
In practice it’s worked against teams who can’t handle Slimani’s brute force (see above against Copenhagen), but at other times Vardy has looked alienated and sidelined by the additional presence. To make matters worse, he’s even been benched completely – as was the case in Leicester’s home win over Crystal Palace, in which Shinji Okazaki was man of the match.
5. Champions League taking priority
The Foxes have lost four of the five matches that precede European games – and three of them heavily
And can you blame them? Leicester may never get this opportunity again. And while Ranieri putting every egg in his European basket may have paid off – Leicester are through to the knockouts as group winners having only conceded their first goal on matchday five – it’s aroused suspicion that they’ve always got one eye on forthcoming European games in favour of the domestic grind.
Put it this way: the Foxes have lost four of the five matches that precede European games – and three of them heavily (by three-goal margins at Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea; at Old Trafford, Vardy and Riyad Mahrez were taken off at half-time with Europe in mind, as confirmed by Ranieri).
It’s possibly just the extra football, too: last season Leicester’s players had a somewhat relaxed training structure in which they had two days off per week, with only another two reserved for intense work. This year that’s not been possible.
6. Individual errors indicative of bigger issue
It all comes back to the notion of focus and, by extension, organisation. Last season you’d have never caught Drinkwater playing a wayward backpass to let an opposition player in to score, as he did against West Brom; similarly, would Manchester United have been allowed to net three times in five first-half minutes, like they managed to at Old Trafford in September?
Liverpool struck four at Anfield, and Chelsea managed three without hint of a reply at Stamford Bridge. Defensive basics were found wanting on each occasion, which only exacerbated their improved opposition’s potency.