Photo source: Independent.co.uk/Getty Images
By Graham Gillespie
“Last season everything was right for us. This season everything is wrong for us” commented Claudio Ranieri forlornly in his post-match interview after Leicester got their February off to a stuttering start with a dismal 3-0 defeat to Manchester United. A simple comparison of the League table now and this time last season backs up the Italian’s suggestion.
On the 8th February in 2016 Leicester were in the middle of their fairy-tale five points clear at the top of the league having just outplayed Manchester City in a season defining 3-1 victory. Fast forward a year, the foxes are just a solitary point off the drop zone, and now they will be hoping that this season’s February clash with Mancunian opposition doesn’t also epitomise their campaign come May.
With this change in fortune, the FIFA coach of the year now finds himself under pressure with the Leicester board having to give a vote of confidence which in modern football parlance equates to a kiss of death. Whilst it is true that Leicester have been poor this season, it seems harsh that the veteran could lose his job after leading a team who had odds of 5000-1 at the start of last season to the title.
A sense of perspective is often absent in football and the extent of the Yorkshire club’s heroics last season should not be understated. The freakish nature of their league run also needs to be noted, Leicester capitalised upon a perfect confluence of circumstances. All other title challengers stumbled and Ranieri was able to play the same group of players all the time with several of them having the season of their careers. To use another league table from the past, Leicester were dead last in February 2015 which is further evidence of the anomalous nature of the 2015/16 season.
So what has gone wrong this year then? Ranieri is not far off in stating “everything” and at times it almost feels as if his team is being cruelly repaid for the fortune they enjoyed last season. The loss of N’Golo Kante an obvious starting point. The inexhaustible French midfielder has made more tackles than any player in the Premier League during the past three seasons despite having only played in two of those campaigns .
The players that did stay have almost all had drastic dips in form. Jamie Vardy has not looked as menacing as he did a year ago when his pace terrorised defences, and as Guardian correspondent Stuart James pointed out in an episode of the Second Captains podcast Riyad Mahrez has not scored a league goal from open play since he picked up his PFA player of the year award last April. The totemic centre back pairing of Robert Huth and Wes Morgan have also been mistake-ridden shadows of themselves which is something that has permeated throughout the squad.
Ranieri is also not completely blameless in Leicester’s decline. After spending all last year playing 4-4-2, there has been numerous formation changes. Recently he deployed a disjointed diamond midfield against Southampton which resulted in a 3-0 loss.
Despite these issues Leicester are still in the Champions League having topped their group with a challenging tie against surprise Spanish title challengers Sevilla up next. Their FA Cup hopes are also still alive with Millwall awaiting in the fifth round.
Whilst last season was a perfect storm that propelled Leicester to the title, this year could again be a perfect storm plunging the foxes to the depths of the Championship. However as Gary Lineker tweeted “if it were a choice I’d prefer Leicester to drop three divisions than take away last season’s miracle”.