clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Fallen champions Leicester City just learned a lot about their struggles

Many have been asking why Leicester City are so much worse than they were a year ago, but their loss to Manchester United threw their struggles into sharp contrast.

Leicester City v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The relegation of the English champions is not unprecedented, but you have to go back quite a ways to find the last time it happened — back before the Premier League, back before the Second World War. In 1936-37, Manchester City won Division One by three points from Charlton Athletic, scoring 107 goals over 42 games. The following season they scored 80, conceded 77, finished second bottom with 36 points, and plunged Icarus-like into the foaming wine-dark depths of Division Two. Football used to be a very silly place.

Correction: football is still a very silly place, because Leicester City are still reigning champions and that is never going to sound sensible. But reality is starting to reassert itself. Sunday's 3-0 home loss to Manchester United puts the Foxes 16th in the table with 21 points, one point above the relegation zone and two off the bottom. Awkwardly, both of the teams immediately below them, Swansea City and Hull City, are thriving under new management and have taken, respectively, nine and seven points from their last five games. Leicester have taken one.

Helpfully for anybody asking themselves why Leicester are in trouble, the defeat to United neatly showcased Leicester's weaknesses. The absence of the remarkable N'Golo Kante — on course to win the league with Chelsea — is the most striking difference between last season and this. It's hard to imagine, had the Frenchman been playing, that Henrikh Mkhitaryan would have had quite so much freedom to burst free and score United’s first goal.

Or that Robert Huth, easily evaded by the Armenian, would have been quite so exposed in the first place. Much was made last season of the fact that Kante essentially did the job of two players in the middle. Leicester scout Steve Walsh joked that the side played three in midfield: "Danny Drinkwater in the middle, with Kante either side." But his endless running and assiduous tackling also meant that Leicester's centre-backs, Huth and Wes Morgan, could spend less time trying to inconvenience nippy runners from midfield. Handy, since both tend toward the lumbering.

The second goal came just 88 seconds later, this time a calamity of concentration. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not a small man and doesn't move particularly quickly these days, yet he was able to drift away from both Huth and Morgan in the penalty area and poke home unmarked. If this had been a comic strip, both defenders would have had a huge thought bubble above their heads reading: "It's basically halftime already. Quite fancy an orange slice and a sit down. Oh. Oh dear."

This, along with the third goal — which featured a terrifically wonky offside line — shows that the focus that characterised the second half of Leicester's title season has completely drained away. That title was built on solid foundations, secured by a defensive unit that kept 12 clean sheets in the last 20 games. Now, it's a mess, which only throws the shaky form of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez into sharper relief.

The pinch of Leicester's situation is, unlike the other clubs in the relegation morass, they are rather attached to their manager. Hull have changed theirs, Crystal Palace theirs, and Swansea have done so twice. But to fire the man who cajoled, smiled, and organised a bunch of relegation battlers who then became champions? The charming, avuncular face of one of the greatest sporting achievements of the millennium? After less than a year? Even for elite football, that borders on the unconscionable, and they've backed their man in strong terms.

Only "borders on," obviously. Managers have been sacked on Christmas day and on their birthdays. They've been sacked by fax and by television. They've been sacked after winning trophies, after promotions, and in almost every other circumstance that sport, when filtered through desperation, ambition, and blockheadedness, can conjure. Leicester, champions or no, are deep in the sticky stuff, and the Premier League doesn't give out money for sympathy.

Worryingly for Claudio Ranieri, the most striking thing about Leicester's troubles this season has been the meekness of it all, the readiness with which they've accepted defeat after defeat. Last season they took 14 points from losing positions; this season, they've managed a mere three. Last season, they only failed to score in three games; this time around, they've already drawn 10 blanks, including the last five consecutive games. No team ever looks happy to lose, but Leicester, so aggressive and keen last season, are taking their beatings with an air of weary and worrying acceptance.

Maybe this is just the universe rebalancing itself in unusually brutal fashion, an extremely mean regression. Football never stays silly for long. Still, if Ranieri's place in Leicester's future is shaky, his place in their history is secured. As trade-offs go, a title one year for a relegation the next doesn't seem like the worst exchange from any perspective. (Except, perhaps, the financial.) If you take the average, Icarus kept himself at a steady and sensible altitude. But that wouldn't have been any fun.