The unthinkable is on the cards for the second season running at Leicester City.
After performing a modern footballing miracle last season to secure their maiden Premier League crown, Claudio Ranieri’s men have suffered a dramatic decline in fortunes.
Sunday’s 3-0 home defeat to Manchester United left the club just one point off the relegation zone and in serious danger of facing a battle to avoid the drop, as we head towards the final quarter of the season.
But why has it all gone so drastically wrong for Leicester? How has a team of high-flying overachievers become a shadow of the side that created history less than a year ago?
Here are five reasons for their decline and why they face the possibility of becoming the first English champions to suffer relegation the season after since 1938.
The difference that the absence of N’Golo Kante has made can not be emphasised enough.
Last season, Kante made 175 tackles - 31 one more than any other Premier League player - and was an integral shield for a Leicester back four that have proven to be vulnerable this season.
The Frenchman’s combative presence allowed the likes of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy play further up the field and hone their skills on more offensive play.
In the 37 games that Kante played last season, Leicester picked up 80 points.
The contrast without him is stark - the Foxes have only 63 points from 63 games - and the lack of protection that Kante gave has meant that Leicester’s defence has been brutally exposed.
His endless energy also allowed Ranieri to play a highly effective 4-4-2 formation, with midfield partner Danny Drinkwater also having a license to dictate play with his passing in much more threatening areas.
The difference Kante has made to Chelsea’s title challenge proves just how influential a player he is.
He gave another masterclass against Arsenal on Saturday on how to break up the opposition’s play using an aggressive but technically correct approach to tackling.
The departure of Kante has meant that Leicester’s formation from last season has been less effective, leading to a lack of consistency in the club’s system during this campaign.
An Ageing Defence
As solid as the centre-back pairing of Robert Huth and Wes Morgan were last season, the protection that Kante gave them was invaluable.
Now, with Kante gone and his replacement Nampalys Mendy struggling to fill such big shoes, the exposure of the defensive duo has been increasingly apparent this season.
During Leicester’s triumphant 2015/16 campaign, the club conceded only 36 goals - joint-third least. This season, however, 41 goals have already been shipped in and the issue doesn’t look like being stopped anytime soon.
Both Huth and Morgan, 32 and 33 respectively, have consistently failed to deal with the movement and pace that opposition forwards are providing and as a result, the pair are being drawn out of position far too often.
A shortage of quality defensive cover has lead to Morgan and Huth playing a lot, possibly too much.
As a result of being past their prime and coming towards the twilight of their careers, both have not had enough mobility to deal with attacks, especially on the counter.
Relegation or not, at least one new centre-half will surely be on Ranieri’s transfer agenda this summer.
Star Men Out Of Form
If Kante and a solid back four were the reasons why Leicester only lost three times, the form of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez provided the match-winning impetus.
The pair scored a combined 41 goals, with 17 assists to boot as their thrilling, relentless attacking prowess proved the catalyst behind Leicester’s 23 wins last season.
Although Vardy did score a brilliant hat-trick in the 4-2 win over Manchester City, his finishing, in general, this season has left a lot to be desired, with the striker scoring on just two other occasions.
“Jamie Vardy has got to go back to being a non-league centre forward again,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports. “Run. Be horrible. Be nasty. That was the strength of his game. Rat centre-backs, get against them, get your elbows up in the air and start to fall out with people again. Forget about being someone who holds the ball up and brings others into play.”
Mahrez is having a similar slump in form, largely due to opposition defenders finding ways to stop him getting into attacking positions.
Last season, the Algerian completed 131 dribbles at a success rate of 51.4%, however, he has completed just 49 during this campaign with his success rate dropping significantly to 41.5%.
It is evident that Mahrez’s influence is being restrained, therefore reducing the potency of Leicester’s attack.
Inconsistency With Formation and Starting Eleven
During Leicester’s title-winning season, Ranieri had the luxury of playing a settled side on a consistent basis, largely due to a lack of injuries and excellent form of his key men.
The workhorse ability of Kante and the impressive passing of Danny Drinkwater not only provided a stable centre-midfield pairing but also gave license for the likes of Mahrez and Vardy to use their energy up the field more often in a 4-4-2 formation.
Yet the departure of Kante has left a gaping hole in Leicester’s midfield and consequently Ranieri’s attempts to switch to a 4-5-1 and even a 3-4-3 system have proven unsuccessful.
Wilfried Ndidi, Nampalys Mendy and Daniel Amartey have all been brought in and out of the side but Ranieri has failed to settle on a new, sustainable partner for Drinkwater in midfield.
What’s more, finding the right balance to the attack has proven to be just as big a problem.
Vardy has struggled to form an encouraging strike partnership with Islam Slimani and Ranieri has flirted with options such as Mahrez, Ahmed Musa, Shinji Okazaki, Marc Albrighton and Demarai Gray on the flanks but once again, is still looking for his favoured combination further up the field.
Consistency in selection is key a team’s success and it is an area with which Leicester have struggled severely this season.
Lack Of Impact From The New Signings
Many felt that with Champions League football to be played this season, signings would need to be made to add much-needed depth to the Leicester squad.
Ranieri did indeed splash the cash, spending £62 million on Islam Slimani, Ahmed Musa, Nampalys Mendy, Bartosz Kapustka and Robert Zieler in the summer, before forking out a further £15 million on Wilfried Ndidi in January. However, all of the new additions have failed to make a real difference.
Slimani has just five league goals this season - a shadow of the man who netted 27 goals for Sporting Lisbon last campaign - while Musa has scored just twice.
Inconsistent displays have also meant that neither Mendy or Ndidi have proven the answer to replacing the ever-dependable Kante.
Consequently, added pressure has been put on Vardy and Mahrez to provide the spark, along with Drinkwater, who is yet to have a settled partner in midfield.
In addition, Zieler’s fragility in goal meant that Leicester missed Kasper Schmeichel more than they should have during his spell out through injury.
Perhaps they need more time, but Leicester will need their signings to improve their form drastically if they are to survive the threat of relegation, which is looming ever closer.
Written by Sean Wilson
Follow Sean on Twitter @WilsonFC2012
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