Last season was a strange one wasn’t it? Aston Villa were abysmal, Chelsea catastrophic, West Ham often wonderful and Bournemouth a bolt from the blue but the 2015/16 season will always be remembered for nobody than other Leicester City. From dilly ding dilly dong to Jamie Vardy’s having a party, like a musician trying to produce the perfect song Leicester City went from being a group struggling to make any progress whatsoever to mainstream success and a headline slot at the hardest gig of them all. Had such a storyline have been included in a soap opera or movie you may have believed it but given that Leicester’s league title success seemed to happen quite so comfortably in one of, if not one of the hardest competitions in European football, it’s therefore unsurprising why Foxes fans were pinching themselves to make sure that they weren’t dreaming.
However over six months on from Vardy’s title winning party, the blue ticker tape and open top bus parade, Leicester fans must still be in dreamland if they think that there isn’t any cause for concern; their most recent defeat the most poignant wake up call of all with the threat of relegation looking that bit more genuine as each game progresses and the losses continue to mount up. For a team that were so dominant, so controlling and even mesmerising to watch with Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and N’Golo Kanté all on song, could the reigning champions flip the league on its head and actually be relegated this season?
You don’t need me to tell you just how much money you’d have won had you put a highly speculative bet on Leicester City to win last season’s Premier League title. Likewise with the novelty failing to ware off post-title victory if it wasn’t long until bookmakers began to take ‘smaller’ clubs that bit more seriously with lesser odds than those offered on Leicester eighteen months ago. Nonetheless whilst it was always unlikely for Leicester, or any team for that matter, to retain the league title the following season after winning it, the dawn of a new season led some fans and bookmakers alike to pose the question whether Leicester would in fact be involved in a relegation battle this season… surely not? For a league title winning side to fall so gravely is unprecedented but on the very one off chance that last season was one of those miraculous and never to be repeated seasons ever again, the potential for Leicester City to struggle was certainly real.
Competing in four competitions with the burden of at least six extra midweek games and the travelling that inevitably comes with it, clearly the Champions League was always going to affect Ranieri’s side in the early part of the 2016/17 season. Yet despite their success and progression on the European stage, Leicester’s have performed much worse domestically and far, far worse than their late form under previous manager Nigel Pearson to initially avoid relegation in 2014/15 and of course under Ranieri in their famous title winning season last year. With only five wins in twenty-three games, Leicester’s league record is staggering; a true sign of the times that a club can fall so much, so quickly. With fifteen games remaining including crunch ties against Swansea City, Hull City and Sunderland to come, unless they find form quickly their fight for survival looks set to go right down to the wire. Just as unexpected as it was watching Leicester win the league last season, Ranieri could yet be a victim of his own success and shock the world and make further history by failing to beat the drop with the champions of England.
So where has it all gone wrong? Conversely where has it actually gone right this season? Well for starters all good things come to an end but to end so negatively and as abruptly as they have done is what make Leicester’s fall from grace all the more striking. The club’s supporters may phone up radio phone-ins and take to social media and tell you that they’d have took relegation eighteen months ago given where they were and the experiences that have come as a result of last years miracle season but for all of the great progress the club made in such a short space of time, it would be somewhat disappointing to see your club go down on such a whimper even in spite of watching them lift the Premier League trophy and embark on a European holiday of a lifetime. Sustaining such rampant league form was always going to be a big ask but faltering as quickly as they have done even with the extra demands as Premier League champions is as unthinkable as it was to predict they’d ever win the league title in the first place.
As well as missing the regular goalscoring form of Jamie Vardy and the consistent yet unpredictable magic of Riyad Mahrez, the gigantic hole in the centre of the park by N’Golo Kante is one that Leicester have struggled to fill and will always continue to do so. The likes of Daniel Amartey and Wilfred Danny Drinkwater have failed to step up and adequately fill the shoes vacated by Kante whilst the jury is still out on Ahmed Musa and Islam Slimani. Despite flashes of individual brilliance, neither perhaps offer the consistency that Mahrez and Vardy offered last season and with both subject to interest from further afield, you do wonder whether they will remain Leicester City players and make it to next year’s Premier League season should the club stay up.
Likewise the goodwill and optimism from Leicester supporters in their shared belief that things will and must eventually get better can only take the club so far and as well as question marks over Ranieri’s ability to do the nitty gritty, fight fire and dig Leicester out of a relegation battle, Leicester’s players and their commitment to the cause also needs questioning. Lucas Hernandez and Leonardo Ulloa’s desire to the leave have certainly not got unnoticed whilst Bartosz Kapustka for all of the promise that he displayed in Euro 2016 has yet to even feature for the club in the league. Only time will tell whether he or Ulloa can force their way back into the manager’s plans in what is increasingly becoming an even greater uphill battle than it already was before the New Year and the critics will be out on force if positive results don’t come quickly. Although it is clearly too quick to judge, Leicester’s January transfers Molla Wague and Wilfred Ndidi will also come under great scrutiny with the club and its fans not just wanting them to hit the ground running but perhaps needing them to should they stand any chance of survival.
Meanwhile as for Ranieri, the Italian may have resolutely answered those who initially questioned his English top flight credentials upon arrival at Leicester with a historical title victory but doing so once again could prove an even greater challenge with his reputation on the line with every passing game. You could say that given his remarkable achievements, his mild manner and calmness throughout last season where most may have crumbled in some way deserve at least a year’s grace without any real expectation other than avoiding relegation. Knowing the type of manager that he is and all of the attributes of a top-class manager that he displayed game by game last season, then surely he cannot be personally happy with how his Leicester team have fared this season.
However when looking for a response from his team, for one moment to help kickstart their season or simply for a bit of fight and passion to avoid relegation with the same level of emotion that won them the league, he hasn’t yet been able to achieve it. Perhaps an exit is on the cards and may be the best possible outcome for both Ranieri and the club itself after both the good and the bad times under his leadership. Yet first and foremost before any end of season move and final swansong elsewhere with a pay cheque that his most recent success probably warrants, there is a job at hand in salvaging top flight for next season for when the Italian may well be long gone.
Nonetheless you could say that the one saving grace for The Foxes has been their success in Europe but to what avail of playing Sevilla and FC Porto on a Tuesday night soon becomes a midweek clash with Burton Albion? Of course meaning no discredit to Nigel Clough’s side whose progress as a club has been somewhat remarkable in the past decade, but for a club that has defied all odds and lifted a trophy nobody ever thought they would, it would perhaps be the most undeserving ending to a clubs fairytale and a team that fully warranted their league success last season. Of course Leicester were never going to reach the enormously dizzy heights they achieved last season but surging the drop mustn’t have been seriously considered as a realistic option either.
Likewise in what feels like a world tour off the back of a best selling album that beat all of its nearest rivals in the charts last year, whilst taking their foot of the gas somewhat may be expected given their achievements, just like every successful artist on tour they still have targets to reach, a crowd to play to and ultimately a job to do. Second album syndrome is always difficult to overcome but it is most certainly doable, therefore if Ranieri can conduct his squad into singing from the same hymn sheet once again and producing performances reminiscent of the same level of enthusiasm, commitment and desire of last season, they could yet end up away from the bottom of the charts for this season at least with a European Cup run and guarantee of top flight for next season. Time to get tinkering one would think…