Unless Arsenal can recover from the shock of losing at home to Watford and produce a surprise win at Stamford Bridge tomorrow, there’s every prospect of Chelsea’s pursuit of the title turning into a procession.
That being so, the most compelling story of the Premier League season could yet feature, for the second year running, Leicester City. Except that this time, the drama surrounding the Foxes will unfold at the other end of the table, where, astonishingly, the reigning champions are teetering on the brink of the abyss.
Ahead of the weekend’s action and before they face Manchester United, at the King Power Stadium tomorrow, Leicester share 21 points with a newly resurgent Swansea, just two clear of the drop zone currently inhabited by Crystal Palace (19), Hull City (17), and table-proppers, Sunderland (16).
It’s startling to compare Leicester’s current stats with those of a year ago. On February 1, 2016, the Foxes were top of the tree, three points ahead of Manchester City and Arsenal, who were in joint second, and five ahead of Spurs, who were fourth. Having played 23 games, Leicester’s Premier League record read: W 13, D 8, L 2, GF 42 GA 26, GD 16 Pts 47.
And now, 12 months on and having played the same number of games, Leicester’s collapse is writ large in the details: W 5, D 6, L 12, GF 24, GA 38, GD -14, Pts 21.
February of last year was pivotal in Leicester’s title triumph: three wins out of four — including that sensational 3-1 victory away to Man City — finally made believers out of even the most sceptical. The only blip was a 2-1 defeat at Arsenal, in the middle of the month, but, after that, Leicester went unbeaten in the Premier League for the rest of the season, winning eight and drawing four of their last 12 games.
And, with Chelsea’s draw at Spurs on the first of May confirming the by then inevitable, Leicester were champions with two games to spare and, in the end, enjoyed a roomy, 10-point winning margin over runners-up, Arsenal.
But now, just nine months later — and making that extraordinary title triumph seem even more like the stuff of dreams — Leicester are back where they were in the summer of 2015: then, they were 5,000-1 outsiders to win the Premier League and, having pulled off the fabled great escape under Nigel Pearson, to stay up, the previous year, widely regarded as cast-iron relegation fodder under new boss, Claudio Ranieiri.
The reasons for their dramatic change in fortunes, this season, are varied, but hardly mysterious, the biggest one being the break-up and decline of last year’s holy trinity of Jamie Vardy, Riyadh Mahrez, and N’Golo Kante.
The loss of Kante has been the most serious blow, the extent of the negative impact on Leicester matched only by the degree to which he has had a positive influence at Chelsea. It’s obviously not the sole reason the two clubs are at opposite ends of the table, but it goes a good way to explaining why this is so.
Kante was the glue that held Leicester together. His tenacity and work-rate were vital to winning the ball and providing the ammunition for the counter-attack, while simultaneously providing a valuable protective screen in front of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth. That centre-half pairing has looked so much more exposed and weary without him.
Kante’s absence is a factor at the other end of the pitch, too, exacerbated by the second-season syndrome affecting Leicester’s two other game-changers, Vardy and Mahrez.
Again, the stats tell a sobering tale of steep decline. The pair, who finished last season with a combined total of 41 goals in the Premier League, has so far managed only a measly eight between them, with the extravagantly gifted Mahrez, his magic only now fleetingly on show, actually yet to score from open play.
While you can point to other factors behind Leicester’s fall, ranging from Ranieri feeling obliged to revert to tinkering with his line-up, to opposition teams upping their efforts to take the scalp of the champions, the decline in potency of Vardy and Mahrez illustrates perhaps the biggest problem Leicester have faced this year.
And, in essence, it’s a psychological one: when you’ve already achieved the impossible, it must be extraordinarily difficult to find the motivation and energy to attempt to do it again — and harder still if you discover, early on in the season, that the best you can hope for is mid-table mediocrity.
Retaining a title is a mighty test for all but serial winners, and Leicester have no tradition of being that kind of club, which is also why, despite being champions of England, they were always likely to fall short in their efforts to improve their squad with the recruitment of marquee names.
Unlike the big guns who have sought, with varying degrees of success, to reassert their dominance this season, Leicester are a club built more for survival than supremacy — and in that, perhaps, lies the best hope that their present predicament will concentrate minds sufficiently for manager and players to harness some of the can-do spirit that served them so spectacularly last time around, and thus ensure that they don’t follow glory with farce.
Of course, incredibly, there’s also the small matter of Champions League football still to play for, something which, under the circumstances, is a bit like Spinal Tap discovering that, just when they thought they were on their last legs, they were still big in Japan.
But the newly fearful Foxes can’t afford to be dreaming of stirring deeds on foreign fields when United come calling today.
If Leicester can’t play like the champions they are, then the least they can do is fight like the underdogs they have always been.
The rise and fall of Leicester City
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