A season ago, the Foxes of Leicester City were the toast of European soccer.
As you may know, the team overcame 5,000-1 odds (longer championship odds than the Browns‘) to win the English Premier League title in one of the most stunning triumphs in the history of sports. The rest of the world noticed and appreciated their Cinderella performance. I wrote about them, and in that piece, I noted that Leicester earned 22 points in its final nine games the year before just to avoid relegation to England’s Football Championship League. The miracle finish in 2014-15 at least partially precipitated the miraculous title run in ’15-’16.
But halfway through this season, Leicester City may need to harness their relegation-dodging magic once more.
Yes, just a little under eight short months after winning the Premier League title, Leicester finds itself far closer to relegation than it does to defending their championship. Granted, a regression to the mean was to be expected this season; after all, the Premier League has not seen a repeat champion since Manchester United won back-to-back championships in 2008 and 2009. Even with many of the same pieces returning from last year’s team, expecting a similar performance from LCFC this season would be insane.
Still, you would expect them to at least be competitive in the league. So far, their 2016-17 season is slowly morphing from a championship defense to a survival quest just to stay in the league.
At just about the halfway point of the season, Leicester find themselves 16th in the Premier League table. Just as a reminder, the bottom three teams in the Premier League at the end of the season are relegated to the Football League Championship; the Premier League has twenty teams. The top three teams in the Football League Championship (currently Brighton, Newcastle, and Reading) are promoted to the Premier League while the bottom three of the top league are relegated to the Football League Championship, and so on and so forth for England’s lesser leagues, as well.
Leicester played in England’s second and third leagues from 2004 until 2014, the year in which they were promoted to the top level of English soccer. This year, they will have to fight to remain in the top level.
Following a 2-0 home loss to Everton on Boxing Day, opposing midfielder Gareth Barry had this to say about the defending champions’ confidence:
“They’re not the team they were this time last year […] Football is about confidence, it was always going to be tough for them to repeat what they achieved last year. It was once-in-a-lifetime what they achieved.
Barry is absolutely right, but still, these are the defending champions we’re talking about here. In the States, we think that the Denver Broncos had an unsuccessful season after losing one of the best quarterbacks ever and going 8-7 to this point in the season. Imagine if Denver went 2-13 to this point in the year and still had Peyton Manning. That is the equivalent of what has happened to Leicester this season.
There are any number of reasons as to why the Foxes have fallen off from last season. One would be crazy to expect the squad to repeat their dominant performance from last year; anyone could see that last year’s team over-performed under once-in-a-lifetime circumstances. After all, that’s what made the title all the more astounding. However, this season’s failure has been team-wide and systemic, and worst of all, it hasn’t been a fluke, either.
For example, take star forward Jamie Vardy. After a season in which he scored 24 goals for the league champions, Vardy was seriously courted by Arsenal FC. Arsene Wenger’s team, based largely on one productive season from the striker, decided to offer Vardy a £22 million transfer (or a little over $27 million in American dollars). Vardy declined the offer and re-upped with Leicester, citing the decision as an easy one that allowed him to continue his career with the Foxes.
This season, though, Vardy has not lived up to LCFC’s £100,000 per week investment in him. To this point, Vardy has scored just five goals; needless to say, this is a massive decline in production from a season ago. At the halfway point of the season, Vardy is on pace for roughly ten goals, which leaves Leicester fans wondering why the organization overpaid for his services and Arsenal fans feeling lucky that they did not pay up to bring him to Emirates Stadium.
However, Leicester’s failures are not solely Vardy’s fault. One of the biggest reasons behind the Foxes’ championship last season was their defense, one that surrendered just under one goal per game. This year, that figure has ballooned to 1.72 goals per game with virtually the same roster from a season ago. The only starter to leave the organization from a season ago was N’Golo Kanté, who signed a £32 million contract with Chelsea in the offseason. Kanté was a significant loss but that alone does not explain the precipitous decline in performance from last season to this one.
And that’s the frustrating thing. There really isn’t anything that does explain what’s going on. Most of the same team from last year has returned but almost no one has matched their performance from a season ago. Many praised Leicester for the team nature of their victory last season, as the squad came together like we had not seen before.
Unfortunately, that also applies to how they’ve fallen apart this season. The Foxes won as a team last season; this time around, they’ve lost as a team. Unfortunately, things are not getting easier for the Foxes anytime soon. Out of the twenty matches they have left this season, only four of them are against teams currently below them in the Premier League table. Even worse, another six of those matches come against teams in the top six of the league standings. Currently, LCFC finds itself just three points out of the bottom three of the league standings.
Sure, stars like Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have under-performed. But so has just about the entire rest of the team. That has made this long, nightmarish collapse all the more unbelievable: there’s not just one place where manager Claudio Ranieri can look to find a solution to his team’s woes. Their problems are littered all over the field.
The Foxes find themselves in serious danger of something they were able to avoid 21 months ago: relegation.
Who would have thought that would even be possible going into this season?