Glance at the Champions League standings and it would seem all is just fine at Leicester City this season. Three matches. Three wins. No goals conceded.
If only the defense of its English Premier League title was going so well.
Few expected Leicester to replicate the feats of last season, when the unheralded team from central England went from relegation favorites to title winners in one of the most amazing stories in all of sports.
Few, though, would have expected such a drop-off in the league the following season.
“When I think of the Premier League, I’m very, very angry,” said Leicester’s usually amiable coach, Claudio Ranieri.
Leicester heads into Saturday’s home match against Crystal Palace in 13th place in the 20-team league, having lost four of its opening eight games. The team only lost three league matches in the whole of last season.
The most obvious explanation for the drastic dip in form is a change of focus. This season, it increasingly seems, is all about the Champions League, which Leicester is competing in for the first time.
“It’s just psychological,” Ranieri explained. “Because when we play in the Champions League, all the specials are switched on. You’re very, very smart, focused in every situation.”
The same can’t be said in the Premier League. Leicester has lost to Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea by three-goal margins and also has been defeated by promoted Hull. Its only wins have come against Burnley and Swansea, both of whom – like Hull – are among the contenders for relegation.
There are other factors to blame apart from a preoccupation with the Champions League.
The loss of N’Golo Kante to Chelsea has hit Leicester hard. It felt at times like the energetic Kante did the work of two players in central midfield last season, providing protection for the defense and also a springboard for the attack. Offseason recruits Daniel Amartey and Nampalys Mendy (currently injured) just aren’t in Kante’s league.
As a consequence, Leicester’s defense looks vulnerable, with center backs Wes Morgan and Robert Huth exposed and making errors. That, however, doesn’t explain the team’s tendency to concede at set pieces this season, which is simply down to a lack of concentration and awareness.
Another factor is Ranieri’s squad strengthening over the summer, which included signing forwards Ahmed Musa and Islam Slimani for what were club-record fees. It has given the Italian coach more options for his lineup but he might no longer know what his best team is.
Last season, everyone knew Leicester’s first-choice lineup and Ranieri – nicknamed “Tinkerman” during his time at Chelsea – rarely rotated, but that has changed. Shinji Okazaki, for example, rarely starts now and the Japan forward was a key member of the title-winning team because of his work rate, unselfishness and qualities in linking the midfield and attack.
Then there’s the dip in form of star players from last season – striker Jamie Vardy and winger Riyad Mahrez. Vardy has scored twice this season, and not since Sept. 10, while Mahrez hasn’t been the same effervescent force that once flustered defenses. Have opponents worked out how to play them?
A mid-table finish in the Premier League and getting to the knockout stage of the Champions League would be acceptable in this most unusual of seasons for Leicester. But for Ranieri, the quicker the team gets to the 40-point mark – a figure widely regarded as the safety net against relegation – the better.
Here are some other things to watch out for this weekend in the ninth round of games:
CHELSEA VS. MANCHESTER UNITED
United manager Jose Mourinho returns to Stamford Bridge on Sunday for the first time since getting fired by Chelsea in December, which ended his second spell at the London club.
It will be the latest game in a tough period for United, which played away to Liverpool on Monday and hosts Manchester City in the League Cup on Wednesday.
Mourinho adopted a defensive, containing approach at Liverpool, which eked out a 0-0 draw for United. He may do the same against a Chelsea team that has won both of its games since manager Antonio Conte switched to a three-man defense.
MANCHESTER CITY VS. SOUTHAMPTON
Sergio Aguero has found himself in an unusual position in City’s last two games: on the substitutes’ bench.
Rested against Everton in the Premier League after exertions on international duty, the Argentina striker was controversially left out for tactical reasons in the 4-0 loss at Barcelona in the Champions League on Wednesday.
Aguero should return on Sunday for the league leaders against Southampton, which hasn’t lost any of its last four games in the league.