Leicester City Season Preview 2017/18
Second Scholar: Yet, Ranieri, call on God.
Ranieri: On God, whom Ranieri hath abjured? On God, whom Ranieri hath blasphemed? O my God, I would weep, but the devil draws in my tears… O, he stays my tongue! I would lift up my hands, but see, they hold ‘em, they hold ‘em.
All: Who, Ranieri?
Ranieri: Why, Lucifer and Mephistopheles, the finishing pixies. O gentlemen, I gave them my soul for my Premier League title.
(‘The Tragedy of Doctor Faustu-‘ I mean, ‘The Tragedy of Don Ranieri’, Act V, Scene II)
Leicester City’s 2016/17 was a step different from their 2015/16. The (utterly, utterly) bizarre honour of being the last English team still left in the Champions League after they reached the quarter-finals coincided with genuine fears that they would be drawn into the relegation battle. While this latter wasn’t ever *quite* a realistic possibility, it was close enough for the Foxes to smell the rotting dread and dying hopes of the battlefield.
And then, like a Shakespearean tragedy (GEDDIT!), Craig Shakespeare coldly stabbed his boss in the back, ably aided by Leicester’s key players. ‘Et tu Jamie?’ And ‘Shakey’, as even professional journalists took to calling him, ruled the kingdom of Leicester, and he was a Good King who brought back the Old Ways, and the Kingdom was Glorious because of it.
Only, not so much.
Under Ranieri, Leicester had an Expected Goal difference of -4.59 (11th in the league for that period), but an actual goal difference of -20. Under Shakespeare, Leicester had an Expected Goal difference of -1.24 (a little better, though still only 9th in the league), but an actual goal difference of +5. That’s some pendulum swing in the luck-stroke-variance department. And, as for the claim that Shakespeare took Leicester back to the way they’d played in their title-winning season?
Kind of yes, but not really. While they started to get their shots off at a similar rate to 2015/16 again, Shakespeare’s side passed forwards less, pressed less (the PPDA and Opponent pass percentage metrics), and defended a little deeper.
There might be some nuance to consider. Shakespeare’s side started winning, so it’s conceivable that they may have played in a more similar way to Leicester of 15/16 when scores were level, and then dropping back into more of a defensive and conservative block when they were ahead.
Yes, Shakespeare’s 2016/17 Leicester side played more in keeping with their title-winning style than Ranieri’s 2016/17, but it was not a radical departure from one to the other.
It’s worth noting that the slight departure which Ranieri may have taken from 15/16 to 16/17 was justified, as well as partially being a burden which Shakespeare has not had to bear until now. The expectation was that opponents would ‘find Leicester out’ and work out the code to stop their counter-attacking style, so a change of tack was sympathetically met (until it stopped working).
But Ranieri also had to figure out how to fit big summer signings Ahmed Musa and Islam Slimani into his squad. They did not fit particularly well, and Shakespeare, purely in charge to steady the ship in the short-term, immediately benefitted from being able to more or less discard them in the latter part of the season.
The coming year…
Shakespeare will not have this benefit in 2017/18, though. Fortunately for him, it seems that either Leicester or Slimani have figured out how to play him in the second striker role behind Vardy. He’s no Shinji Okazaki there (who made 2.4 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes last season; Slimani made 1), but based on pre-season friendlies it looks to work a little better now, and also offers another attacking dimension.
Musa may as well be considered gone. He offered 2 shots per 90 in the league last year, only 0.7 on target, and only offered 0.8 key passes per 90 in the way of creation for his team-mates. He also didn’t offer anywhere near the level of defensive work and shape-holding which Marc Albrighton offers, or the advantage of youth which Demarai Gray has (who created a similar number of shots and more key passes anyway).
Wilfred Ndidi was the perfect signing signed six months too late for Leicester’s 2016/17 season, although no-one could have seen Nampalys Mendy’s injury troubles happening before he arrived last summer.
Vicente Iborra has come in from Sevilla, with more sub appearances than starts in La Liga last season at the age of 29. Back when he played for Levante five or so years ago, he was a high-defensive volume central midfielder, but not so much since then (figures per 90 minutes).
You don’t have to watch for long to see that he’s got a bit more of a controlled touch than some of Leicester’s other options in midfield, but the question is how he fits into the side. He’s apparently pretty flexible, with decent central positioning sense or an ability to play as a second striker (of the Marouane Fellaini variety), but – and I’m not sure how much is age and how much is just him – he’s pretty sluggish. How he’ll fit into the squad’s share of minutes, and a squad which plays a quick, counter-attacking game at that, remains to be seen.
Harry Maguire has come in at central defence, a signing only verging on exciting because it brings the average age of Leicester’s primary centre-backs below the state retirement age.
Kelechi Iheanacho has finally arrived, and now the questions turn to where exactly he would fit in. Vardy has been such a talisman up top that it would be a surprise to see Iheanacho replacing him, and what makes Okazaki so key in the second-striker role is his ability to defend - to cover passing lanes, to harry. Last season, it took a good while for both Musa and Slimani to look even vaguely comfortable doing that job.
They briefly experimented with moving Vardy to second striker with Slimani up top, and Vardy understood the role better, but it ruined what made him an effective forward. So either Iheanacho replaces Vardy, or has to learn the 'Okazaki role' a damn sight faster than either of the striker signings last summer did. Leicester are not exactly short on attacking options either, particularly considering that Gray, Musa, and Mahrez can all feasibly play in the second – or even main – striker role.
With Ulloa, Okazaki, and Vardy all now 30 or older, Iheanacho could pave a path for a strike-force of the future though. The age profile is probably as much an issue to address as any positional group, especially considering that Ndidi, 20, is unlikely to stay at the club in the long-term, or maybe even the medium-term.
Aims for 2017/18
What to aim for as a club who are, barring disaster, nailed on for midtable? Consolidating your ‘midtable’ status, of course, and realistically Leicester should probably be aiming fiercely for anything from 11th place upwards. The top 8 of 'Big 6 plus Everton and Southampton' will likely be difficult to displace, and losing out on the top half to West “spend now, plan later” Ham United and West “Tony Pulis is King” Bromwich Albion would not be too disappointing.
However, by taking on West Brom, Leicester can vie for the title of Masters of the Midlands which – summer transfer battle for Jonny Evans in mind – is probably a bigger deal than it sounds. Midtable is always a bit of a mess, where a good run of games can push you up a handful of places, but it seems likely that they'll finish 11th, plus or minus two places.