As Leicester City rose to new heights last season, Chelsea, the defending champions, mounted the worst title defense in Premier League history. But it has been a role reversal this season; as Chelsea steam toward the title in indomitable fashion, Leicester hover three points above the relegation zone. They lost three games in the Premier League last season; this season they have already lost eight. At no point have they won consecutive matches in the league. They only require seven more goals to match their goals conceded column from last season.
Although the club is doing much worse, many characteristics remain the same from last year. Leicester are still primarily a counter-attacking side that line up in a 4–4–2. Last term they averaged 47% possession, this season it is 46%. That, however, might be part of the problem. Troy Deeney said that teams have become more used to playing against them.
That is evident in the performances of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, two stars of last season. Mahrez was the best player in England last season, while Vardy was one goal away from tying for top scorer. Concerned about the threat that the two present on the break, opposing teams have focused on stopping those two. Their attacking output has fallen accordingly.
Rather than one particular aspect of Mahrez’s game being blunted, the Algerian is all-around less effective. He makes 1.1 less dribbles per game, 0.3 less key passes, and 0.2 less through-balls. Although the differences may seem miniscule, in relative terms they have had a fairly big impact. 0.2 less through-balls, for instance, means Mahrez is making half as many through-balls as he was last season. These help explain why he has only created 1.4 chances per game, compared to 1.8 last season. The most obvious numbers that capture Mahrez’s fall in form are his goals and assists: from 17 goals and 11 assists last season, he has three and two, respectively, this season. Interestingly, Mahrez was actually fouled more last season. But, as Claudio Ranieri noted, teams now assign multiple players to shut down the winger. It has no longer become necessary to directly foul Mahrez. Marking and containing him is enough to nullify his threat.
And with the supply line from Mahrez cut off, Vardy no longer looks like the player whom Arsenal bid £22 million for. Vardy takes less than half as many shots per game as he did last term (3.2 vs 1.4). Vardy also runs over a kilometer less per game (9.82 vs 8.48). It may be that with less chances being crafted for him, Vardy feels less need to run about, or it may be that he is simply fatigued.
While Mahrez and Vardy have suffered significant dips in form, N’Golo Kanté has carried on from last season. The problem, of course, is that he is no longer at Leicester. His individual contribution to Leicester’s midfield was huge. The Frenchman made 4.7 tackles and 4.2 interceptions per game. No one came close. (Second was Christian Fuchs, with 3.1 tackles and interceptions each per game). This season, no one at Leicester is matching those numbers. Danny Drinkwater has done his most to step up, with 4.1 tackles and 1.7 interceptions per game (compared with 3 tackles and 1.6 interceptions last season), but Daniel Amartey, his new midfield partner, makes 2 tackles and 1.2 interceptions – not enough to fill the Kanté-shaped hole in midfield. Nampalys Mendy, who was ostensibly signed as Kanté’s replacement, has been out of action since suffering an injury on his Premier League debut in August.
Football, of course, is not an individual game, and it is often the case that when one star player is removed, the resulting burden is shared by those who remain. This does not appear to be the case at Leicester. Compared to last season, Leicester are making 11 less defensive actions (blocks, interceptions, and clearances) per game than last season. They make 16.2 tackles per game, compared to 22.9 last season. Not all of it can be attributed to Kanté’s absence, but the team as a whole is doing less defensively than last season.
There are other issues. Some notable players, such as Drinkwater and Kasper Schmeichel, have spent long periods out with injury. Ranieri has been much keener to change the team’s lineup, although such tinkering is arguably justified due to injuries, rotation, and a need to adapt to more prepared opponents.
Last season, Leicester became the unlikeliest Premier League champions ever and the first debutant champions of England since Derby County in 1972. Relegation still seems unlikely, mostly because there are a plethora of poor teams in the Premier League. But should it happen, Leicester can at least lay claim to one more record: the first champions to be relegated since 1938.