The fairy tale of last season was real. Leicester City—such a preposterously unlikely underdog that even the instinctive Cinderella comparison feels like a woefully insufficient metaphor for the sheer absurdity of a small, recently promoted club beating Manchester United and Chelsea and Arsenal and Liverpool and everyone else to become champions of England—somehow saw their pumpkin remain a chariot and their rags a gown well past midnight as they danced their way to the Premier League title. By typical fairy tale rules, this season would be the start of the happily ever after period, with Leicester basking in the glow of their amazing feat for the duration of their cheery and comfortable future. In reality, the Foxes’ fairy tale has turned into something of a nightmare. The team has struggled mightily in the league, and faces the very real possibility that they might follow up their title season with relegation.
Two-thirds of the way through the season—usually long enough for fluky slumps to end or unsustainable hot streaks to cool, thus revealing most clubs’ true level—Leicester sit in 17th in the table, one place and one point away from the relegation zone and two points from rock bottom. In league play, they’ve lost their last five matches, most embarrassingly the 2-0 L fellow potential relegation candidates Swansea handed them this weekend. This has been a comprehensive disaster, and while the talent that is on this team—including many of the stars who won the damn Premier League only a year ago—would seem to indicate that relegation shouldn’t be a real threat even now, unless there is a drastic turnaround soon, Leicester must seriously reckon with the fact that they might go down this season.
There’s no one single thing that’s caused this precipitous drop from one season to the next. (No, losing the indefatigable defensive midfielder N’Golo Kanté to Chelsea isn’t by itself sufficient to explain the difference between Leicester of last year and the current team.) Leicester’s title was secured primarily through the talents of winger Riyad Mahrez, striker Jamie Vardy, midfielders Kanté and Danny Drinkwater, and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. Of that group, the Foxes only lost Kanté in the offseason. To compensate for that and to inject more talent into the squad, the club has spent a whole lot of money on midfielders and attackers. And while none of the players Leicester brought in have wowed in their own right, it’s been the inability of the team’s existing stars to recapture the form of last year that’s been more detrimental to the team’s fortunes.
Last season, Vardy and Mahrez were two of the very best players in the entire league. Vardy racked up 24 goals and 6 assists in his 36 EPL appearances, while Mahrez hit for 17 and set up 11. These are world-class numbers, and while neither player had reached heights anywhere close to that before in their careers, there was good reason to believe that under the right framework, both Vardy and Mahrez could put together at least a couple more seasons nearer that world-class level than not.
That hasn’t happened this year. Vardy has scored or set up only seven goals in 22 matches so far (while seeing his shots per game number plummet from 3.2 to 1.4), and Mahrez a paltry five in 23 matches. These stats are nowhere near what could’ve been reasonably expected of these guys coming off last year, and it’s Leicester’s failure to consistently create and score chances (the club has the fourth-fewest goals in the league) that has most affected them.
To some degree, this attacking ineffectiveness isn’t exactly a shocker. While Vardy and Mahrez did play out of their minds last year, their undeniable talents were facilitated by nearly every single team playing right into their hands. It was incredibly obvious that Leicester’s title-winning game plan consisted of the less than revolutionary strategy of sitting in a deep block, pressuring opponents when the ball got close to the final third, and, when Leicester could create a turnover, banging an immediate pass high and wide to either Mahrez or Vardy, allowing them to streak down the pitch and take a high-quality shot using their speed and dribbling abilities.
The solution, as we noted at the time, was for teams playing Leicester to force the Foxes to have more of the ball, to sit deeper in response to Leicester’s deep block, and to resist the urge to play a wide-open game by sending tons of numbers forward in attack to break down Leicester’s defense only to continually get burned going the other way. Nobody seemed to learn that lesson last year, but this season is different. This year, teams aren’t helping in their own destruction.
Even with a broken attacking structure, you’d think that Leicester—so defensively solid last year—would still be hard enough to beat on that end to avoid getting sucked into a relegation battle. After all, it was their defense that was the foundation of everything during the title run, as keeping teams out of their penalty box and breaking at speed on the counter after doing so was what made both their defense and their attack so deadly. On that front, Leicester have also failed.
Though Leicester’s defending prowess was the key to their success last season, the individual defensive players were clearly the team’s overall weak links. Danny Simpson didn’t really offer much in attack or defense from his right back position. Center backs Robert Huth and Wes Morgan, both in their 30s, were considered barely Premier League-quality a season ago, yet somehow anchored one of the best defenses in the league. Left back Christian Fuchs was solid but unspectacular and also getting up there in age (he’ll soon turn 31). Each of these players have retained their starting spots this year, and that has been a problem.
The way Kanté and Drinkwater shielded their shaky defenders with their energy and willingness to run all around the pitch for 90 minutes, and the way manager Claudio Ranieri organized the entire team to sit so deep and compact as to suffocate any attack that did manage to break into the line between midfield and defense, compensated for the lack of quickness and quality of Leicester’s defenders. Deep in their own territory, heels on the line at the top of the box, Huth and Morgan could focus on their only real strength: clearing loose balls and incoming crosses, usually with their heads. The entire team, from the hard-working strikers right on down, played in a manner that made it as simple as possible for Leicester’s defenders to prevent goals.
The most striking difference between Leicester of yore and Leicester of today is just how much space they allow between their lines. During last weekend’s match, Swansea breached the first lines of Leicester’s defense at will, and after doing so, often had acres of space behind the midfielders and in front of the defenders to combine and create in. And if there’s one thing big, old, immobile defenders aren’t good at, it’s defending against fast attacks in space without any cover.
Whether it’s the forward and midfield lines inching too far forward to defend higher up the pitch and leaving the defensive line stranded, or the defenders being unable to push up along with the midfield, perhaps out of fear of getting exposed since they are so slow and old, either way the team is not on the same page. This lack of structural coherence is maybe the most surprising thing of all, since Ranieri last year was so good at implementing a comprehensive strategy that played to the strengths of his limited squad and ultimately led to one of the greatest sporting upsets any of us will ever see.
Even with all of these things working against Leicester, though, a team that convincingly and deservedly won the league a season ago and has players as good as Mahrez and Vardy and Drinkwater and Islam Slimani, a manager as smart as Ranieri, and a well-moneyed owner who has proven his willingness to spend to improve the team should not be relegation candidates. It’s still hard believe that that’s now the case, in fact, and there’s really no reason that Leicester can’t wake up and put together a run of victories before it’s too late and maintain their spot in the league next season. Plus, Leicester have, oddly enough, played well in the Champions League, and have a winnable draw in the first knockout round coming up against Sevilla. There is still glory for this group to attain.
Put on a good show against Sevilla and finish the league campaign in 14th place—two eminently attainable goals—and this season won’t go down as the abject failure it might otherwise be. The fairy tale part of Leicester’s story is certainly over, but the opportunity to realize their happily ever after remains right there for the taking.