Having passed the halfway point of the season in the Premier League, I think it’s more than fair to say − Leicester City, last season’s incredible, unlikeliest of champions, a team that took on the leading role in a phenomenal footballing story that captured the imagination of the entire world, are deep, oh so deep in trouble. In relegation trouble in fact.
This has now gone way beyond Chelsea’s predicament after its own championship- winning 2014/2015 season under Jose Mourinho. True, there are common elements. Just like the Leicester City we are seeing now, Chelsea too looked rudderless back then, unable to get going, unable to extract match-winning displays from its game-changing players. Eden Hazard and Diego Costa looked devastatingly out of sorts and Nemanja Matic, their midfield destroyer, was way too busy running around, aimlessly trying to plug the gaps that kept sprouting around the Chelsea backline. It was almost inexplicable. Nevertheless, Mourinho was eventually shown the door and Chelsea slowly steadied the ship. By this point in the season, it was unspectacularly paddling around the mid-table pool, but at least it wasn’t sweatingly looking over its shoulder, tensing at every creak, in fear of the dreaded trapdoor to the championship opening and dropping it to the tier below.
Fast forward a few seasons and Leicester City is nowhere near mid-table safety. Its latest loss, a 3-0 drubbing at home to Manchester United, combined with a flurry of results that has seen bottom sides Sunderland and Hull City fire past Crystal Palace and Liverpool respectively, have dropped the reigning champion into a six-team battle for Premier League survival. All that separates current bottom side Sunderland from 15th- placed Middlesbrough are two points, and between those teams one can find Hull City, Crystal Palace, Swansea City and of course, the team Ranieri built. Make no mistake about it, this isn’t just a case of unlucky results or a cramped set of fixtures. This is a Leicester team in relegation form, unable to find anything that even vaguely resembles the ruthless, lung-bustingly fearsome counter-attacking side that Claudio Ranieri steered to Premier League glory.
But where has it all gone wrong exactly? This is a mostly unchanged side. In fact, some would argue that this Leicester City side has even more options than the team that raced to the Premier League crown. In Ahmed Musa they seemingly bought a speed merchant who could rocket past defenders and provide a suitable alternate focus to Jamie Vardy, in big money signing Islam Slimani they now had a more physical attacking option, that could re-invigorate the fading role played by Leonardo Ulloa, and the board thought it had bought wisely to replace Chelsea-bound N’golo Kante by investing in Nampalys Mendy. Sure, another shot at the league title seemed a dream too far, but a relegation scrap? Surely not.
And yet that’s exactly what it got. A lot of people have been quick to vigorously point at the Kante-shaped gap in midfield, and while it is true that the Frenchman has proved to be irreplaceable – just look at the effect he has instantly had at Chelsea – it would be rather simplistic to try and explain Leicester’s collapse through that alone.
In truth, it’s a combination of factors. For one, Leicester City’s first half of last season was one of smash-and-grab brilliance. No one saw them coming, no one took them seriously and before anyone had twigged as to what exactly was going down, Ranieri’s men had raced to the top and had the entire league chasing after them. This season, no one took the team lightly. It was, after all, the Premier League champion, a team that if given the space and the time, would punish you. A lot of the teams it faced last season have now adopted a different approach, allowing Leicester City more time on the ball, something that nullifies the effectiveness of its pace-heavy reactive football, starving it of much-needed space to express its counter-attacking stylings.
It’s also a matter of its star players not showing up for a sizeable chunk of the season so far. Riyad Mahrez, the Algerian playmaking wizard who mesmerised and bamboozled opposition defenders for the majority of last season, grabbing the PFA Players’ Player of the Year Award in the process, has been hugely disappointing, seemingly unable to galvanise himself and his team in the league and saving his few flashes of brilliance for Leicester City’s Champions League adventure. The team’s top marksman, Jamie Vardy, has also been a shadow of his high-scoring self from last season. The stats say it loud and clear: having plundered 24 goals in 38 appearances last season, the England international is still struggling to break into double figures for this campaign, having scored just six times in 28 appearances.
With no midfield flair and creation, no go-to marksman and with no defensive midfield shield to cover the back line, it’s ultimately no real surprise that Leicester City has struggled so. Add to that a niggling list of injuries that were all but absent during last season’s title run and you have a combination of factors, choking the life out of the Premier League’s unlikeliest of champions.
It all leaves the ever-likeable Claudio Ranieri in dark and uncharted waters, trying to survive the dreaded vote of confidence he recently received from the Leicester City board and fighting against the combined muscle of a player revolt, as rumours swirl concerning some of his star performers going above his head and pleading with the board to show him the door.
He, too, will of course need to shoulder a sizeable portion of the blame for his team’s current predicament, as he has gone back to his tactic-tinkering ways that were strangely absent last season and that have confused and unsettled his 4-4-2 loving side, but it would be nothing short of a footballing tragedy if Leicester City drops into the Championship at the end of the current campaign.
It still has time of course. More importantly, it still has the quality to save its season and surely something must still remain from the verve and magic that left everyone in the Premier League marvelling at the Foxes.
But it needs to find it fast, or last season’s champions will be crying into their beer in next season’s Championship campaign.
Better hurry, Claudio.