Leicester City struggling to find golden form
“We are fighting in a relegation battle.” That, coming from the manager of a team two points off the bottom three, would seem a statement of the obvious. But when it comes from Claudio Ranieri, manager of defending champions Leicester City, who have just qualified for the knockout rounds of the Champions League with a game to spare, it looks slightly more alarming.
Were it not for a last-minute penalty in a 2-2 draw against Middlesbrough on Saturday, Leicester would have lost their third straight Premier League game. Frustration in the crowd was evident and, although the outward vocal dissatisfaction had not reached that point yet, one sensed that boos would have greeted the final whistle if they had lost. For a team who achieved such miraculous things last season, that is extraordinary.
Leicester’s title win was probably the biggest over-performance in English — perhaps all — football history, but that doesn’t necessarily explain why they have dropped so far this season. The Foxes could be the first defending champions to be relegated since Manchester City in 1938. In some ways that would be fitting, emphasising even further what an utterly magnificent freak event last term was. But there are reasons for it beyond the obvious.
“It’s back to reality now, that’s for sure…”
— club captain Wes Morgan tells ESPN FC
So why are things going so wrong?
Leicester’s dangermen being kept quiet
Morgan points to a number of factors, the clearest being the stifling of their primary attacking threats, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. “They were our key dangermen,” says Morgan. “Perhaps other teams are looking at ‘how can we keep them quiet, because if we can we’ve got a good chance of getting a result against Leicester.’ I think obviously those players haven’t found it as easy as they have last season, and it could be they’ve found extra focus on them this season.”
Ranieri certainly agrees, commenting on a number of occasions that teams now double up on Mahrez in particular. “When Mahrez gets the ball, there are minimum two players close to him,” he said before the weekend. “If he keeps possession, arrives a third.”
Teams did that in the second half of last season too, but Leicester managed to find a way around it, relying on others to make an impact. Yet, this season, others have not stepped up and Vardy has now gone 15 club games without a goal.
Against Middlesbrough, one moment summed up the plight of Leicester (and last season’s player of the year) rather nicely. Vardy stood in acres of space inside the penalty area as Shinji Okazaki wiggled his way into some room on the left; Okazaki briefly considered the merits of passing or shooting, electing for the former, but his ball was weak and slightly misdirected, giving a Boro defender a chance to slide it away. Vardy grinned grimly, quietly lamenting the fates that were conspiring against him. With Leicester desperate for a goal, he was taken off midway through the second half, head bowed in frustration.
Teammates say Vardy is the same character as he was when scoring plenty of goals last term — although Ranieri revealed that he hadn’t even been scoring much in training — but it’s clear that he’s far less potent. Part of this is due to opposition tactics, with teams dropping much deeper and not allowing him space to run in behind defences, but it’s also clearly a confidence issue. There have been slightly more subtle changes, too.
Teams are playing against them differently
“Teams are happy to let City have the ball this season,” James Sharpe, correspondent for the Leicester Mercury, tells ESPN FC. “Leicester had 55 percent possession against Watford [a game they lost 2-1] but ended up having to lump balls into the box as they had 11 men behind the ball.”
This is in stark contrast to last term when they listed 18th in the Premier League possession statistics, averaging 44.8 percent over the campaign. Statistics can be misleading, but this was a significant part of Leicester’s gameplan: allow teams to have the ball, then hit them on the break.
This also fits with how opponents have been playing against them in the Champions League. “The top teams in Europe like to play a more possession-based style, whereas we’re more of a counter-attack style,” says Morgan. Leicester seems much happier there and have won four of their five games in the competition — only having the majority of the ball in one.
This doesn’t happen in every game, but it’s a clear tactic that opponents have adopted against them. Again, Leicester faced elements of this last season but found a way to punch through, including that extraordinary run in which they won five games in a row 1-0. In some of those games they relied on luck and, if you listen to some of the angrier corners of the internet, refereeing decisions going their way. It seems simplistic to say it, but sometimes things like this happen in a sport as chaotic as football.
And yet, despite their struggles at home, they are performing brilliantly in the Champions League. Could it be that it’s just easier to take teams by surprise in Europe?