Every team in every league that decided to return to play after the pandemic shutdown was going to struggle to hold onto their form from before the break. Three months without playing, and weeks and weeks of not even training, made everything a crapshoot. For teams that seemingly had something magical going on, it has proven even harder.
Leicester City and Sheffield United looked poised to crash the Champions League party in England when things shut down. Leicester were comfortably in third and looking, odds-on, to bring Champions League football back to Leicester for only the second time in the club’s history. Sheffield United was tied for fifth, which could yet be a Champions League place depending on the outcome of Manchester City’s European ban appeal, and just two points behind Chelsea for fourth and automatic qualification. Both teams were playing some of the more surprising and fun soccer in the league. Certainly their presence made for a more interesting product, which can seem like a closed club at the top a lot of the time.
And now both need to be told that the league has in fact restarted.
Neither has won any of the four games they’ve played since returning, with each having crashed out of the FA Cup as well as not finding the win column in the league. Sheffield United has scored one goal in those, Leicester two. And neither have had the most daunting of schedules to welcome them back to play, with only Sheffield’s game against Manchester United being against a top-six contender.
For Leicester, the spiral downward started a while ago. Since getting absolutely fustigated at home on Boxing Day by Liverpool to end any hope of a title chase. It’s only won four games in the league out of 12. The hope was that the break would actually do it some good, as it doesn’t have nearly as large of a squad as some of its competitors.
That hasn’t been the case, and what’s really worrisome is that it isn’t creating a lot of chances either. Before the enforced break, Leicester routinely created around 2.0 expected-goals per match, i.e. the chances and shots it got would be expected to produce two goals based on the areas and types of shots. In the 24 matches before the shutdown, it had only failed to create more than one expected goal five times, and three of those were against Liverpool or Manchester City, when teams can expect to barely have the ball.
It has failed to create over an expected goal in any of its matches since returning until Wednesday against Everton, and that was the result of being down 2-0 early and having to throw everything forward for the last hour of the match. It only scored when a clearance simply rebounded off of a prone Kelechi Iheanacho. However they go in of course, but you’d hope your team can create more than simply being in the way.
Leicester also isn’t getting anything from Jamie Vardy, who has just two goals in his last 13 games (both against decidedly batting-practice caliber Aston Villa). He’s suffering from the lack of chances being created, as he’s only had more than two shots in a match once since December. The team clearly misses Ricardo Pereira who hasn’t played since the league returned, and Youri Tielemans’ contributions have dropped. Which means it’s more and more dependent on what Ben Chillwell can create from left-back. As dangerous of a crosser as he can be, that’s hardly the most efficient way to create chances and goals.
Leicester finds itself only three points ahead of a suddenly sexy-looking Manchester United and the fine-tuned machine that is Wolves, and they could lose out on Europe altogether if they can’t level out soon.
At least it’s not looking up at them disappearing into the distance, as Sheffield United are. It’s slipped down to ninth, passed by Burnley and Spurs, and now eight points off Wolves and United. Whereas Leicester has just lost some of their teeth, Sheffield has been utterly insipid since returning. It’s managed one shot on target in each of its three league games since the return. It seemingly returned to consciousness against Arsenal on Sunday in the FA Cup, only to biff away a last-minute winner to an Arsenal side that’s been practically begging to be booted in the ass all season.
While getting mauled by United at Old Trafford can be excused, even without fans, being rolled over by a Newcastle team that generally has mittens pinned to its jacket at all times to the tune of 3-0 is decidedly worse. Sheffield managed that.
Both of these teams felt like they were playing at least slightly over their heads for most of the season, and it feels like those bills have come due. Sheffield can start to put it right with a game against Spurs on Thursday, but it would seem their chance of even a European place has been frittered away.
Leicester can still pull itself out of this spin, with a gentle slate between now and the last two games of the season, which are against Tottenham and Manchester United. Those could be vital, or it could be the dirt shoveled onto their burial plot if it can’t find chances and goals again. Spectacular crashes after glimpsing unforeseen glory are something of a finishing move for manager Brendan Rodgers, though.