The Dramatic Fall of The Champions

As Leicester City look to take on Sevilla in the Champions League, the question is, what has happened to last seasons Champions of England? Could the fairytale really turn into a nightmare?

It was only nine months ago that Leicester were being crowned Premier League champions. A truly spectacular and amazing feat for a club who could never have dreamed of this being a possibility. It was a fairytale for Leicester, defying the odds and the doubters to win the title. This blog wrote an article in praise for Ranieri last season, before the title was secured. There were still doubts even then in February that they could do it. The article ended with this line; “What will next season bring? Well, that’s a conversation for another day.” 

A year on from that article and the story of Leicester City has taken a very different path. As this article will discuss, there are several reasons for the teams poor performances and results, all of which have culminated in the very real possibility that the Champions of last season, could very well be relegated the season after.

The elite got better

Not many people gave Leicester much chance of replicating what they did last season this time around. With Guardiola, Mourinho and Conte arriving at the three biggest clubs in the league it was inevitable the big clubs would spend big and be significantly better than they were last season. Let’s face it, last season was disappointing for the so called ‘best’ in the league. Leicester capitalised where Spurs and Arsenal couldn’t.

Add in Liverpool who would be stronger after Klopp had his first pre-season and another transfer window to build his side, as well as Spurs who have looked to be on the continual progression path. And Arsenal who would have felt that after finishing 2nd they had a good chance to go one further. Add in Koeman going to Everton and the quality of coaches at the big 6/7 clubs in the league was significantly raised from last season.

Leicester’s success the year previous was down to what they did of course, yet it was also dependent on the opposition around them. Many had them finishing in the top 10. A rather mediocre assessment of the Champions, but perhaps a realistic one. Not many thought relegation would be a possibility.

The increased schedule

There was no denying that last season Leicester benefitted from the minimal schedule which a lack of European football provided them. Like Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers in 2013/14 and Conte at Chelsea this season, the extra time to train and rest during the week and the work on the training ground focusing on the tactical set-up and strategy, is of course a major benefit. The schedule with European football requires travel and the need for extra rest between games often limits the amount of time for the coaches to work with their players on the training ground. It is an art of the top coaches to plan their schedules to make sure the team gets the balance between training and rest through the season, to ‘peak’ at the right time and to make sure the players understand their roles effectively.

Leicester without question benefitted from the extended rest during the week. Now of course this argument can be made for the majority of the teams in the Premier League, they are afforded with the same rest time and lack of travel, so why did Leicester profit from this compared to others?

The truth is that Leicester benefitted from excellent recruitment of certain key players and the appointment of one of Europe’s best coaches (a very under-valued one) in Ranieri was a master-stroke. It all clicked in to place for Leicester; Mahrez’s emerging quality, Vardy’s goalscoring and the limited injury issues. They started the season positively and kept the momentum going. They had games where they turned around 2-0 deficits to win. The momentum brought an increase in confidence, belief and an element of luck helped them also.

This season started with a loss versus Hull and never really caught fire. The problem has been that whereas last season they seemed to have the ability and confidence to win games in adversity and difficulty, this season the opposite seems to have happened. This season, particularly since the start of 2017, the team look to be in a bad way. The momentum this time is negative, they haven’t scored a goal in the league since the 1-0 win versus West Ham on New Years Eve. The team look lacking in belief, particularly when they concede the first goal. They look as though they don’t believe they can get back into the game. Five defeats in a row highlights a big issue.

When watching Leicester they appear to lose any intensity they began the game with and almost go into some kind of passive approach. It is the sign of a team who don’t believe in themselves anymore. A big difference to last season when they looked unbeatable at times, determined, focused and committed to grinding out results and fighting till the end. So is it simply the schedule demands, or something else?

Priorities

If you’re Leicester City and you’ve just won the league there’s a decision to make in terms of the following season. You may ask yourself, “Have we got a realistic chance of winning the title again? Or shall we aim for something else, something even bigger?” 

Champions League football, the European Cup, is the biggest trophy in the world. It is a statement that you are the best club in Europe (world football). Clubs put stars on their shirts to represent their success in Europe’s top competition. Leicester could well argue that this may be their only chance to get into the Champions League. Therefore, they have to give it all they’ve got.

It seemed quite evident to me that this season Raneiri and his players have prioritised the Champions League over the Premier League. It makes sense. And after their rather generous group stage draw, progression in the competition has almost been plain sailing. But it has been this way because Leicester have approached and played these games in the same manner that they approached matches last season in the league. There’s a commitment, desire, togetherness and organisation which was the hallmark of their success last year. Players like Mahrez and Vardy have done a lot more in these games than they have in the league.

Therefore it doesn’t so much highlight there’s a problem necessarily, more a case of priorities affecting performance levels. But if this idea of prioritising a competition is the case, then there is major pressure on them to overcome a very impressive Sevilla side in this knockout stage tie. If they were to exit at this stage, could the season well and truly derail?

I highly doubt they imagined they would be pulled into a relegation battle this season, assuming that they were ‘good enough’ to get the points required, without perhaps understanding that they needed to do what they did last season (and in the final stages of Pearson’s reign the season before) to get the points.

What’s happened is that Leicester have got into a very bad run of form and results, which makes it hard to imagine they can simply ‘turn it on’ for Sevilla or get the results needed in the league for the remainder of the season. The possibility may well be that Leicester could win the Champions League yet get relegated at the same time. And I’m believing this could be a very real possibility.

It’s about the players, stupid!

There’s no doubt that last season’s success came from the collective quality of the players in the team. A relatively settled XI who all surpassed their perceived/actual level of ability and who as a collective unit went beyond what anyone thought they could achieve. It was a great example of the idea of teamover individual. Everyone did their bit, there were no luxury players.

The additions of leaders and experienced heads in Huth and Fuchs brought stability to the defence. Okazaki, criminally under-rated in his what he offered the team last season in terms of his pressing, tactical role and intelligence and overall energy was a fantastic acquisition. And of course that man N’Golo Kante.

Let’s just discuss this lad. Kante played at a small town club JS Suresnes outside Paris as a youngster of 8 up to the age of 19 years. He then joined Boulogne and in 2012/13 was playing in the 3rd division of France. Moving to Caen he helped them get promoted to Ligue 1, dominating the stats across Europe in his ability to intercept and tackle. His stats prompted Leicester to sign him and the rest they say is history.

Kante is a fantastic story of what can happen to a young player regardless of where they’ve come from or being developed at. Watching him at Leicester was almost like something I’d never seen before. We’re used to seeing speed in the game today, but he seemed ever quicker, he looked as though he graced the top of the surface, not running but just gliding across to intercept and tackle. His runs forward with the ball took out 5 or 6 players at a time. This was something special.

And in just 2013 he was playing in the 3rd tier of French football. Not too dissimilar to Mahrez and the potential he showed as a player in Ligue 2 for Le Havre. Leicester’s recruitment department should be praised very highly. They really did find some gems. And Leicester profited from these players. And while Mahrez received the Player of the Season award, the actual best player was Kante.

They say you only find out a players worth when he isn’t there. Makelele was the prime example of this at Real Madrid. And it’s fitting that this French player, who looks like Makelele in size and look, is as influential and important to his teams as Makelele was to his. In truth I would actually argue that Kante has more to his game than Makelele did. Kante moves into higher positions and as mentioned, runs with the ball fantastically.

For Leicester to have accepted an offer of £30 million from Chelsea appeared to be terribly short of what the current market was spending on top players. And make no mistake, Kante is a top player! It’s the typical lack of appreciation for defenders, goalkeepers and ‘defensive midfielders’. They aren’t worth the same as the goalscorers who go for £60m+ now. Are you telling me Kante doesn’t as much or more than Pogba? Or is being a social media presence worth a difference of £60m in transfer value? Kante is a revelation for what he offers his team. And Leicester sold themselves short.

And they sold him to Chelsea? You’ve just won the league and you sell your most important player to a direct rival? Well that appeared to say it all about how Leicester viewed themselves. “The title success was a one-off, we aren’t up there with the elite of English football”. Or, and this can’t be the case, they didn’t appreciate just how important Kante was to the team. Surely not. So it must be the first one, they didn’t believe they were big enough.

And the problem for Leicester is that the replacements have proven that he really is not easy to replace. Mendy was seen as Kante’s replacement, with similar attributes to Kante and Makelele. Yet injury in August curtailed him this season up to now. This meant Daniel Amartey has been deputising for Mendy and well it’s been a big difference to Kante. What you appreciate with Kante is how well he reads the game, how well he anticipates and see’s threats and issues before they even happen and then has the speed to get to these threats. What a delight for a back four who lack speed and don’t really want to be getting dragged around. With Amartey in the team he doesn’t read the threat until it’s gone past him and it’s made Huth and Morgan look like the average defenders they’ve been all their career, getting pulled around and exposed.

Kante was making the team better. Without him the defence and midfield look very ordinary. And Leicester haven’t been able to replace him. Andy King isn’t nowhere good enough. Wilfred N’Didi is the newest arrival to attempt to fill the huge Kante void in midfield. It’s a massive problem and they can’t fix it. £30m seems a small amount to lose such influence.

And what about other additions? When I used to play Football Manager you’d get to the summer window and get in your signings and very often end up regretting your decisions, going back and re-doing it because you made an error or two. Leicester got the summer tragically wrong and yet don’t have that fortune to go back and re-do.  Perhaps they thought Vardy and Mahrez would actually leave in the summer, because to bring in Musa and Slimani and think they would fit in and add something to the team seemed rather naïve.

And it hasn’t worked. When Slimani plays with Vardy it doesn’t seem a good partnership and it leaves Leicester vulnerable tactically being in a 4-4-2. As mentioned before, when Okazaki plays in there the shape is a 4-4-1-1 and he allows for a three man midfield, a presser on the deep midfielder and a great option for the counter attack. Slimani doesn’t seem to fit in with the Leicester model, except for being a threat from crosses. Musa looked to be a direct Vardy replacement and yet hasn’t played in that role too much, more often he’s put out wide. Unfortunately the balance which the team had last season, the camaraderie and cohesion which the team showed, seems to have been lost. Additions can do that. But also so can loyalty.

Too much loyalty costing success

When you win the title the sense of being underdogs, the lowly team with players earning respective wages changes. Now they’re winners, now the players want to be rewarded for what they’ve achieved. Now perhaps they’ve got ahead of themselves. Now they think they’re special. And all the work they put in to get where they went filters away.

How often have we seen increased wages and lucrative contracts, take away the performance and hunger in players. Leicester as a collective have underperformed this season. Perhaps they prioritised the Champions League over the league, or perhaps they couldn’t deal with the pressure of being Champions, of no longer being the underdogs? Teams last season who perhaps were as in awe of their run and success as the fans this time around weren’t allowing anything. Opposition coaches would be making sure they planned and prepared for what Leicester offered. Effectively Leicester have been found out by other teams and they haven’t been able to come up with different alternatives or provide different tactical solutions. And mentally they’ve shown how weak they are. Yes Leicester have reverted back to their mean. Average. Which is a shame really.

It’s hard to be ruthless with a team who have just won the league. What do you do? Get rid of all those who just got you the title and bring in ‘proven’ players who can deal with that level. It’s the same with a team who are promoted. You have to give them a chance because they’ve got you in this position. But sometimes loyalty can lead to complacency. It must’ve been hard for these players, especially Morgan and Huth, to remain at the level they were at last season. They reached a peak, the pinnacle of their career, one they probably never expected. To remain at that level and continue doing what you did isn’t easy, and that’s why only a few can maintain levels of greatness. It’s not too dissimilar to Mourinho at Chelsea last year. He knew they weren’t focused enough and let them know it. And he suffered with his job. Will the same happen to Ranieri?

The Italian has been more accepting of the poor performances than Mourinho was, yet he’s realised that now enough is enough. It may be too late; for their Champions League ambitions, for their Premier League position and for Raneiri as Leicester’s manager. It would be fantastic if Leicester could achieve something special in Europe this year. Sevilla will be a massive task for them. And the way they’ve been playing you can’t see them progressing. This has the feeling of a beautiful dream turning into a very bad nightmare. In the real world fairytales don’t always end Happily Ever After

By The Whitehouse Address (@The_W_Address)