On paper, a 12th place Premier League finish and a narrow Champions League quarter-final defeat to Atletico Madrid would signify a positive campaign for Leicester City. In light of the 15/16 title win however, it is understandable that some supporters feel a little underwhelmed.
Six of the starting eleven who guaranteed survival with a 3-0 win over Watford last term, also started in the 0-0 draw at Sunderland that produced the same result in 14/15. We have seen a similar starting XI battle relegation twice and win the title, so when the evidence is so contrasting, it is hard to assess what the team is capable of.
Craig Shakespeare’s appointment has at least moved form back in a positive direction. Under him, The Foxes picked up 19 points from eight games against teams outside the top seven, 2.38 per game, more than Manchester United’s 2.19 and Liverpool’s 1.84.
The key to this resurgence was a return to simplicity. Claudio Ranieri, while deemed the victim of modern football’s cruelty, should not be absolved from blame, changing the team and tactics on a weekly basis. It showed in the title win that the players benefited from clear instructions which was within their skillsets and that is what Shakespeare brought back. He returned to the tried and tested system from the previous campaign and confidence thereon returned.
The improvement in Jamie Vardy was particularly evident. Baring December’s hat-trick against Manchester City, the ex-Fleetwood striker looked lost in the first half of last season. Ranieri’s last Premier League game in charge, a 2-0 defeat at Swansea, encapsulates this with Leicester playing 403 short passes (WhoScored) as Vardy grew frustrated. In Shakespeare’s first game, a 3-1 win over Liverpool, they played just 208 short passes, looking to release their number nine at the first opportunity.
Those early balls trigger a sense of opportunism in Vardy’s mind, because he relishes the chance to run at a centre-back and Shakespeare’s tactics allowed him to do that. He scored nine goals in 16 club appearances after the change of manager, compared with seven in 32 beforehand. Continued goalscoring form at the same rate would see him score 21 goals if he starts all 38 games this year, which could make betting sites 33/1 (correct as 25th July) on him to be the Premier League’s top scorer in 17/18 good value.
While Vardy was very focused, having committed his long-term future to the club, Riyad Mahrez’s improvement in form was less stark. He had perhaps had his head turned by rumours linking him with a move to a bigger club and, ironically, his resultant dip in form may have put off potential suitors such as Arsenal.
His lack of defensive aggression could prove problematic. For example, in the 1-1 home draw with Atletico, he showed a reluctance to close down Felipe Luis, even though he had the insurance of Danny Simpson behind him to do so. Mahrez’s mercurial nature is a huge contrast to Marc Albrighton, who is less technically gifted but won 40 tackles last season, more than any other left winger in the division.
If Mahrez either leaves or continues to show attitude problems, Shakespeare may favour Albrighton on the right next season and offer a run of games on the left to Demarai Gray, who showed flashes of pace and potential last season.
Whoever plays out wide should benefit from central stability provided by Wilfred Ndidi, who adds the kind of tenacity Leicester missed in the absence of N’Golo Kante. Ndidi should be partnered by the more creative Danny Drinkwater while summer signing from Sevilla, Vincent Iborra, may complete a defensive trio against better opposition.
When the East Midlanders are under the cosh though, they will rely on their great Dane, Kasper Schmeichel. The custodian was arguably Leicester’s only player who matched his performance levels from the title win, impressing especially in March’s 3-2 win at West Ham, meaning Eldin Jakupovic should expect to be an understudy.
The other signing from Hull, Harry Maguire, will expect to feature more prominently. Wes Morgan and Robert Huth are getting no younger while Yohan Benalouane, despite the odd impressive European display, still has his critics. Should Ben Chilwell improve on the defensive side of his game, he could threaten Christian Fuchs’ place, though similar competition is yet to be found at right-back with Danny Simpson set to start in a back-four.
That back-four was truly ripped apart by Tottenham in a sobering last home game, meaning Leicester have lost four of their five games against top seven opposition under Shakespeare. Those performances suggest another title win this year is unlikely, as is a top seven berth, but the fearless Foxes should be among the best of the rest.