Leicester’s title defence missing a trick

Leicester City: time to start believing in the underdog

A good run in the Champions League apart, Leicester have acquitted themselves poorly as defending champions and a lack of ruthlessness from their manager is one of the reasons why.

It’s an old truism that there are few things more difficult in the entertainment business than the sporting encore. That bit where you’ve thrilled your appreciative audience and have to utter the words “and now for my next trick…” From dazzling high jinks on the trapeze wire, Leicester City are now making like the guy suspended upside down in a water tank, furiously wrestling with the padlocked chains while the seconds count down and the crowd looks on in growing terror.

To all intents and purposes Claudio Ranieri’s men are in the process of “doing a Leeds.” The relief for Leicester supporters is that does not entail a rigid adherence to the strict definition of that term in that the club is in danger of disappearing down a financial plughole anytime soon. Rather, it is following in the ignominious footsteps of Howard Wilkinson’s 1991/92 League winning side in mounting a title defence of no little ineptitude, faithfully on track to match Leeds United’s inglorious achievement of not winning a single game on the road all season.

Right now, Leicester hover two points above the relegation zone, precisely the number of points Leeds had to spare by the end of that trying season. There is also some important Champions League business to play itself out, a beautiful distraction, it must be said, but a distraction nonetheless. Rival clubs have been busy in the transfer market and producing surprise results against bigger clubs. Even hapless Sunderland have started to pick up points again. There will be mild surprise, at best, if Leicester do end up going down.

Certainly, there will be nothing like the seismic shockwaves they were regularly producing this time last year. The pre-season consensus that Ranieri’s men were destined for mid-table mediocrity seemed reasonable, only that mediocrity does not appear to be part of the club’s recent DNA. Leicester’s last five seasons have comprised a near miss on promotion, promotion, a relegation dogfight, a title win, a fresh battle against the drop. Feast or famine. Ever destined, it seems, to keep their fans perpetually at their wits’ ends.

It doesn’t require much by way of hindsight to identify where things have gone wrong. Leicester are floundering for reasons that mostly suggested themselves at the outset of the campaign. It seemed obvious that things that had worked in their favour last season wouldn’t get the job done this time around. What new trick would Ranieri bring to the table? What new trick could he bring?

A pleasing aspect of Leicester’s deserved title was the proof it offered that an old-fashioned 4-4-2 set-up could still function so effectively in English football. The caveat to that, however, was that it was probably only possible because of the hugely steadying influence of N’golo Kante. How much easier that exuberant, counter-attacking style was to operate in the knowledge that Kante would be there as a buffer, a never-ending source of energy and impeccable timing, to settle them when things broke down.

Riyad Mahrez may have walked away with the player of the season award, but deep down most people knew it was Kante that laid the foundation for Leicester’s title, just as he is providing the impetus for Chelsea’s imperious march to glory this season. Perhaps you could criticise Ranieri for trying to replace like with like when the smart move might have been to tweak the system to compensate for Kante’s absence. Either way, it seems undeniable that Leicester simply became too predictable and were never flexible enough.

Aside from Kante’s departure, the last thing they needed was such a sharp drop-off in form from key players such as Mahrez and Jamie Vardy. There was a certain degree of inevitability about that, of course, but while 10 or even 15 per cent might have been acceptable, 30 per cent (or more) has spelled trouble. That has infected the rest of the side, as it was always likely to do. Defending champions or not, it seems pertinent to ask whether Leicester are carrying players who simply aren’t good enough.

As for Ranieri, the truth may well be that he was the right man in the right place a season ago. He had a squad assembled relatively cheaply, a substantial part of it rescued from the obscurity of the lower Leagues, that had just escaped the clutches of relegation under an abrasive manager whose style rubbed many of them up the wrong way. Ranieri brought freshness and a more open approach, allowing them a freedom to express themselves that perfectly suited the moment. The whole thing grew wings and took off.

It may well be that the qualities that worked so well last season made Ranieri a poor fit when something different was required from the outset this time. How to convince players who have just won a title that the same again wouldn’t be good enough and that they needed to ascend another level. It sounds harsh but the truth is that Ranieri doesn’t come across as a manager who would be comfortable delivering that type of message.

Mahrez and Vardy have been pale shadows of the pair who notched 41 goals between them last term. Indeed, Mahrez has yet to score from open play this season. It says much that one of Leicester’s better displays came at Stoke when a two-goal deficit was rescued after Vardy had received a red card. The idea that Leicester’s stars might be droppable has rarely surfaced, though, a nod to the status they carry from their deeds last season and the lack of trust Ranieri has in his reserves, for all the bulging promise of the likes of Demarai Gray and Ahmed Musa.

Contrast that with the brute decisiveness of Pep Guardiola, a different beast entirely to Ranieri, both in terms of resources he has at his disposal and how he deploys them. Sergio Aguero, he wants us to know, is not too big to face criticism and prolonged spells out of the team. Gabriel Jesus, the latest sensation, is quickly brought back down to earth. Guardiola’s team goes on a run of good results, but the manager is keen to point out he is not happy with his squad, new players need to be brought in. Guardiola is ever fearful of many things, none more so than complacency.

For Leicester, perhaps, the comparison with Wilkinson’s Leeds is more instructive. Just like Leicester, Leeds sold their best player after becoming champions (though they did so mid-way through the season and Wilkinson didn’t rate Eric Cantona highly anyway) and failed to find an adequate replacement. For one reason or another Wilkinson’s major signings, including David Rocastle and Frank Strandli, failed to work out. He stayed loyal to the team that had delivered the title. Standards began to slip. Confidence started to erode.

One thing you could say for Wilkinson, though, is that he had a vision. It was under Wilkinson that the Leeds academy at Thorp Arch, a verdant 10-acre spread north of the city, took shape. The Leeds manager was determined to leave a legacy for those who came after him. Even while they were scrapping for points towards the end of the season, Wilkinson took time to blood several of that year’s FA Youth Cup winning side. The foundation was laid from which David O’Leary would reap a harvest several years later.

It’s hard to say where exactly Leicester are at right now, beyond battling for their Premier League lives. This has been, in many ways, a season defined by loss: the loss of Kante, the loss of the sense of innocence and fun that helped carry them to glory, above all, though it scarcely gets a mention, the loss of Steve Walsh, the chief scout who played a huge part in identifying the qualities of Kante, Mahrez and others and convincing them to throw in their lot with Leicester.

The loss of Walsh isn’t easily calculable, but it will be felt year after year when the influence of his judgement and good eye for a young or improving player isn’t brought to bear on the club. Walsh is working his magic at Everton now and if it is far too soon to value his input at Goodison, the acquisition of Ademola Lookman from Charlton for what looks like a bargain fee of £10m suggests he is already making his mark.

The thing is, of course, there is probably nobody around Leicester right now getting hung up on future visions or where the club might be in five or 10 years time. What they care about is where they are now and that is in the middle of a basement brawl, desperate not to slip out of the Premier League money pit and into the bear pit of the Championship. That’s just how the game is these days.

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