With a cast full of free transfers, rejects, and players who were in the second, third and even fourth tier of English football in the last few years – Leicester City chugged along to an improbable English Premier League title in the 2015-16 season – proving themselves as the ultimate real-life depiction of The Little Engine That Could tale.
Facing odds longer than Playboy head honcho, Hugh Hefner admitting he was a virgin, Leicester penetrated their way into football folklore and won the hearts of sports fans worldwide. But after the big boys they slew along the way geared up with player and coaching reinforcements and with Champions League demands to endure, has the clock struck midnight on this fledgling Cinderella?
That certainly seems to be the case in the league.
Through nine games, Leicester have already lost more games this season (four) than all of last season (three), earning them the least points (11) of any defending champ in that span to start a season. Those losses include 4-1 defeats at Liverpool and Manchester United and a 3-0 defeat to Chelsea, looking completely overmatched in midfield and defense and playing with a lack of discipline that was hardly noticeable last season.
While holding on to the likes of PFA Player of the Year, Riyad Mahrez, and breakout striker, Jamie Vardy amidst much transfer speculation were wins for the club, the loss of arguably their most essential piece to their title-winning puzzle, N’Golo Kanté, to Chelsea has fractured the spine of this team
Ghanaian midfielder, Daniel Amartey, has been tasked with trying the void left by Kanté, but through seven games, it is clear he isn’t equipped with the ball-winning and tackling abilities as well as the technical nous of the French international. Amartey has averaged just one tackle, one interception, 85% pass completion and committed a defensive error, according to Squawka while Kanté has averaged 1.89 tackles, 2.89 interceptions, succeeded on 61% of his dribbles and completed 90% of his passes with no defensive errors, already making a real difference at Stamford Bridge. Nampalys Mendy, brought in from OGC Nice with the intent of filling his fellow countryman’s shoes, has failed to see the field since his debut against Arsenal after sustaining an ankle injury which now requires surgery.
In attack, Mahrez and Vardy have been very underwhelming. Mahrez, who could be consistently relied upon for moments of brilliance thanks to impeccable close control and vision last season to spark their transition game, has just one goal in the league – a penalty against Hull City – and one assist, along with 10 chances created and succeeded on just 37.5% of his take ons, around 19% worse than last season, according to Squawka.
Vardy, who notched 24 league goals last season – second best total only to Harry Kane – has just two so far. The man who set a Premier League record by scoring in 11 straight EPL matches, has failed to score in his last nine in all competitions. Part of that has to do with Vardy having to accommodate record signing, Islam Slimani, in the starting XI and essentially do more of the dirty work that Japanese striker, Shinji Okazaki, did for him last campaign. Part of it also is Vardy’s own lack of precision in front of goal, with just a 44% shot accuracy rate, missing chances he normally would bury. Based on his slow start, Arsenal fans might be breathing a small sigh of relief he reneged on the chance to sign with them in the summer after they activated his release clause.
While Leicester’s league form has predictably dipped, their UEFA Champions League form is a complete contrast. Albeit in a very manageable group featuring a rebuilding former Champions League winner in FC Porto, Danish champs, FC Copenhagen and Belgian champs, Club Brugge, Leicester have shown no jitters in their first UCL appearance, winning their first three games and keeping a clean sheet in each match.
The formula that got Leicester to the summit of English football has translated into early success in Europe’s premiere club competition. They play on the counter largely with long passes, rely on Mahrez to provide a moment of inspiration – he has been involved in all but one of their five goals so far in UCL play, scoring three with one assist – and defend for their lives led by captain and Reggae Boyz centre back, Wes Morgan, with Danish keeper, Kasper Schmeichel called upon to make key saves.
Should Vardy finally get his party going again in front of goal and the team continue to execute Claudio Ranieri’s game plan centered on defensive organization and quick transition, there is no telling how far the Foxes will go in Europe. Most expect them to depart the competition once the round of 16 rolls around, but given the fact they’ve beaten long odds before and have settled well at this level, further progress should not be ruled out.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s Leicester. I’m very proud. For one side, I’m very proud. For the other side, when I think of the Premier League, I’m very, very angry. But it’s OK, because also in my career this has happened.” Ranieri said in a presser after Leicester’s 1-0 win over Copenhagen October 18th. “When for the first time you go and play in a big competition, you lose something when you go back in your league. This is normal, but we want to change this.
Time will tell if Leicester can get on a sustained winning run in the league given the physical exertion Champions League football requires from them until December at least, plus the resignation of having to play without Mahrez, Slimani and Amartey in January due to African Cup of Nations duty. A place in European competition for next season is still within reach, though Ranieri has made it clear since the preseason that achieving safety is the primary objective.
The Foxes were crazy enough to think they could capture England’s top prize while battling the country’s elite and did it. The next few months should show how much farther this Little Engine can go until it finally breaks down.