Leicester City 2016/17 Season Preview: What Comes Next?
Leicester City won the Premier League title?
That actually happened. It's been around three months since Leicester clinched the title and I still can't believe it. We live in a world where Leicester are going to host Champions League matches and be seeded into pot 1, which is mind boggling on so many levels. The Liverpool run of 2013-14 was surprising but at least it could be partly explained by simply saying Luis Suarez was awesome and everyone else just kind of fell into their natural place. You really can't do the same thing with Leicester even if we mention all the big teams who disappointed last season.
The PL is a different place from where we last left it in May. The Manchester clubs have new high profile managers and are spending loads of money, and maybe this time more sensibly. Chelsea are retooling under Antonio Conte's leadership and making solid new additions. Arsenal might be adding more high profiled players to their squad and Liverpool are now going to have a full season under Jurgen Klopp. The law of averages would dictate that Leicester will fall into a group alongside the likes of Everton and Southampton where scrapping for 7th place is the highest ceiling, but why rule them out? Maybe they have one more trick up their sleeve that could somehow see them contend once more for the CL? Who knows.
So that's where we're at with Leicester. They completed the greatest title shock in the history of modern football and it's generally established by most that the best they could probably do is a potential Europa League spot. It's a weird acceptance if you support them but that's looking like the most likely scenario. Plus given just how unlikely their achievement was, the club probably bought themselves so much goodwill with their fan base that finishing mid-table over the next few seasons would be just fine.
I think you guys know the gambit by now: sky high conversion rates on both ends of the pitch which were rare for a team without the glut of talent that the likes of Manchester City have had, alongside both shot and xG numbers which were mostly pretty decent, When it came to generating big chances, they were quite proficient at it but it was still nothing that resembled a traditional title winner. Since the 2009-10 season, Leicester's scoring% ranked the 6th highest during that time span and their save% 16th highest. Even the most optimistic of Leicester fans would concede that won't happen again. A penalty differential of +9 is the second best mark that I could find on record in the PL over the last decade, with only Chelsea from 2012-13 beating it. There was a stretch of games in the second half of the season where it felt like opponents couldn't buy a goal:
Add that all into a pot alongside great injury luck, no European football and that's a potent blend that somehow went from 5000-1 odds to win the title. Leicester were a fine enough team if you remove the crazy variance going their way and they did improve as the season went on but there's still little to suggest that they could replicate much of this and make another go at a CL spot. Even the counter attacks and speed data which made them famous last season could stand to decline substantially as teams work them out more (just ask Brendan Rodgers after the 2013-14 season). Looking at simple regression to estimate a team talent level, the absolute best case scenario I could make was Leicester were around a 70 point team, so basically the 3rd best team in the league behind the North London clubs.
Leicester's best hope for repeating another shock might have to be doing what Tottenham did under Pochettino between 2014-16 and Manchester City under Mancini between 2010-12 and just improving substantially from a team that were around break even in shot numbers to around the 60-65% range that's normally been for PL contenders. Does grandpa Ranieri have that still in him? Even when Man City improved as a team in 2011-12, they had the benefit of buying Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri to kick them up to title contention. Ranieri is a realist and he knows that it will be tough.
One of the things suggested as Leicester were completing their shock season was because of the giant windfall of PL TV money and CL money, they could potentially fight off bigger clubs trying to poach their stars and even add to the squad to combat for more games next season and an overall tougher league to compete in.
So far that rhetoric has kind of been true. Currently as it stands, Leicester have only lost Kante to Chelsea and while the reports suggesting Mahrez would follow suit to Arsenal have died down, it's still a bit uncertain. It's somewhat amusing that Vardy could be the only player of the trio to stay after his dalliance with Arsenal given at his age, he stands to lose out the most. But hey, shit happens in football sometimes.
Also let's get this out of the way because I know this is going to rear its ugly head: Namplays Mendy and N'Golo Kante aren't the same player just because they're athletic, around the same size, black and played in France. Kante is one of the best counter attacking initiators in the world from the central midfield position, and Mendy isn't that. Back in his days at Caen, this ability was present and he landed on the perfect PL team to showcase that trait to a larger audience.
Now that we've got that settled; I do like Mendy. He's talented and was part of a terrific midfield at Nice that was probably the best non PSG midfield trio in France helping them overachieve last season, but he's not Kante. He's a different player and profiles much more like a traditional defensive midfielder with very intriguing passing range. Also he played on a Nice side that was diametrically opposite to Leicester. When he or another of their midfield three won the ball, it meant restarting their possession actions more times than not. So it remains to be seen just how good a fit he'd be for Ranieri if they stick to being a counter attacking side, although he did have him at Monaco a few years back.
Ahmed Musa? I don't know. I mean 12 goals and 5 assists is fine production and getting that this season would be good value for his transfer fee but Russian PL players haven't had the greatest track record of success in the PL so it's fair to be skeptical of him being a success. Bartosz Kapustka had a solid tournament and at his reported fee, he's a sensible gamble considering respected judges are high on him as a player.
I don't know how feasible this would've been and he's still working his way back from an ACL tear, but I would've loved to seen Leicester take a run at Nabil Fekir. Readers will know how much I loved Fekir and although he profiles more as a second striker or number 10, he could've been a fantastic gamble at Leicester. Who knows how much Lyon would've demanded for his services although finishing as well as they did without him might've helped with his price. Again though, he did have a major knee injury and it still needs to be proven that he's gotten back to 100% and have that burst to his game again. But in the event of a Mahrez sale, he would be one of the best bets to replicate his production.
Having said all that, this is still a pretty thin squad and they have to deal with European football as well. The PL doesn't have the greatest reputation for tactical diversity or match day game planning for opponents, but with the quality of coaches at the top you have to believe that Leicester won't be afforded the same opportunities to turn games into track meets. This will mean a probable adjustment in terms of style of play, which will lead further credence to the "tinkerman" label that Claudio Ranieri has garnered, but getting this team to contend for a top 4 spot again would require some of the finest coaching we've seen from a PL manager in years.
I think it's pretty safe to say that Leicester won't win the PL title and their odds for getting back to the top four again are also not great. Bookies have generally given Leicester the 7th best odds of qualifying for the CL, way below the likes of Tottenham or Liverpool. Though they're no longer the 5000-1 underdogs, still being in the region of 28/1 to win the title is steep odds. With European football to deal with and a tougher league to navigate, not as many breaks will be afforded to them as last year. Between their over performance plus legitimate skepticism with the likes of Vardy and even Mahrez replicating similar seasons, there's just so many variables going against them that finishing in the top 4 again would alone be just about as remarkable an achievement as winning the title last year.
Having said all that, Leicester on a player trading aspect have done well to consolidate their standing as possibly the best of the rest in the league. To this point they've kept two of the core trio that drove them to the title. Mendy is a solid buy at his price even though he's not Kante, perhaps Musa bucks the trend of Russian PL imports and he turns out to be a good buy at his price too. If Mahrez stays for another season, then it becomes a bit more feasible to suggest that they can still contend for a Europa League spot. The seeds are there for the club to join Southampton and the likes as solid mid table clubs who can punch a little bit above their weight, which while nowhere near as exciting as winning the league, is still a perfectly fine niche to live within. Leicester finishing as most project them to finish at around 7-9th place would still be a fantastic season and it shouldn't be looked down upon just because they found the pot of gold previously.
7th-9th, but hey, Champions League football at the King Power Stadium!
Check out our other previews here