It was only last year that the English Premier League had a Cinderella story playing out in real life. Instead of the usual teams jockeying for the top spot, newly-promoted Leicester City was in first place and showed little inclination in ceding their lead. Led by veteran manager Claudio Ranieri, the upstarts continued their successful run of play throughout the season and was lifting the EPL trophy in May, 2016. Suddenly this team of untested youngsters and previous cast-offs was media darlings and the players themselves were sought after by other top-flight teams in Europe when the season ended. Although a couple of players ultimately left the Foxes, the core of the teams remained intact. With the manager and his core squad remaining with Leicester, expectations were high for another successful season.
Fast-forward to the current EPL season, and the Foxes find themselves one point out of the relegation zone. To put this into perspective, the last time a turnaround like this occurred in England was 80 years ago, when Manchester City was relegated from to Division 2 after taking the top spot in Division 1 in 1936. While such an event would not be unprecedented, it would certainly be an eye-opener in the modern era of English football as well as a case study in a reversal of fortune. But what’s caused this tightly-knit band of brothers to spiral downward as rapidly as Leicester City has this season?
One of the key members of the squad, midfielder N’Golo Kante, arrived from Caen (Ligue 1) and provided stability defensively as well as support for the offense. When he left to join rivals Chelsea, his achievements were underestimated by management at the time. But his initiation of the many counter-attacks the Foxes were so successful at last season has all but dried up during the current campaign. Players such as Danny Drinkwater, Wes Morgan, Robert Huth, Danny Simpson and Marc Albrighton all performed way beyond expectations in the prior campaign. Now it appears that Robert Huth and Wes Morgan might not even be activated when Leicester faces League One opponent Millwall in an FA Cup competition this weekend.
After receiving a vote of confidence last week, it appears that manager Ranieri might be making further changes to his starting 11, putting Drinkwater as well as star forward Jamie Vardy and winger Riyad Mahrez on notice that they might not be made available for a crucial EPL match against Liverpool the following weekend. While Vardy was a goal-scoring machine last season, the opposing teams have figured out that the striker’s strength is in making runs behind defenses to scores goals. When he is denied space, his counter-attack abilities are neutralized. At 30 years of age, it is unlikely that Vardy will develop much beyond his current skill set in what is commonly known in England as “hoofball”. As for Mahrez, he has been too predictable. Defenders know to keep the ball off his left foot, and he hasn’t shown much else this season to differentiate himself offensively and allow separation between himself and the opposing defenders.
The news for Leicester is not all bad, however. There are still 13 league matches left in the season for the Foxes, and only three of them are against top five teams. And while the bottom five teams are only separated by three points, the other four teams other than the Foxes have not shown any reason to believe that they will avoid relegation. With the continuity of a seasoned manager and the core of a winning team intact from last season, it might just be enough to stave off a trip to the Championship Division next season. But for that to happen, Ranieri and his team need to show more of a sense of urgency if they are to avoid football history and join Manchester City’s decades fall from grace 80 years ago. With so much quality in the EPL, it’s not that difficult to descend down to a lower division via relegation. As any Leicester City fans will tell you, though, promotion back up to the EPL is a major struggle.