Remember how last year as Leicester marched to the League title there was that joke about how their goal for the season was 40 points? Well, with just 17 points from 18 games, Leicester’s actual goal this season is 40 points. In the off season they we able to beat off Arsenal’s interest in both the football writer’s player of the year, Vardy, and the actual player of the year Mahrez. They kept their leading scorer and their most valuable offensive threat, the defense is the same, the manager is the same, and yet the defending champs are in a relegation battle. What happened?
They sold their most valuable player to Chelsea.
One might be tempted to point to the creative players and suggest that they are struggling, which they are, as the reason for the decline. For example, many of Mahrez’s stats have dropped from last season:
|Key Passes P90||2||1.6|
His shots and Key Passes have remained relatively the same but his successful dribbles, through balls, and assists have plummeted. Meanwhile, he’s taking shots from the same positions as last season but he’s not scoring them. Finishing percentage is capricious but creating shots and getting into scoring positions are indicators of quality. That Mahrez is still putting up decent numbers indicates to me that Mahrez is still playing at a high level but he’s missing a key element around him. A second scorer to take the pressure off. Someone to pass the ball to who can score goals.
That key element is Vardy. For all the hype of last season Vardy looks like he’s going to be a one-hit wonder. Great players are able to adjust to his team’s ebb and flow but instead of adjusting, all of his numbers are down:
|Key Passes P90||1.4||0.8|
Missing Vardy’s productivity is clearly a problem but overall, Leicester are suffering. They have dropped from 7th in shots per game with 13.7 to 14th with 11.1. Their possession stats and passing completion rates haven’t changed, so teams aren’t just conceding possession to them. Their aerial duels stats haven’t changed, so they aren’t going long ball. And defensively, Leicester are actually blocking more shots per game than last year. The problem is that the team’s attack was built around Kante and they didn’t replace him.
Last season Leicester were second in the League in tackles with 22.9 per game, this season they are 14th with 16.3 per game. Last season they were 1st in the League in interceptions with 21.6 per game and this season they are 11th with 14.3 per game. Obviously, Kante wasn’t averaging 7 interceptions and 7 tackles per game last season but he was averaging 4.2 interceptions and 4.7 tackles. His replacement Daniel Amartey only averages 1.3 interceptions per game and 1.9 tackles.
Not only did Kante win the ball back for Leicester, Kante brought an infectious energy with him. Both Mahrez and Vardy have dropped a tackle per game combined. Even Marc Albrighton and Christian Fuchs’ tackling has dropped a half a tackle a game each. On the other hand, Danny Drinkwater’s tackling is up almost a full tackle per game. Not only do they miss Kante’s tackling, everyone seems to be missing his energy.
Worse than just the number of tackles was the way the team was set up. Last season, the pattern was for Kante to win the ball and pass to Drinkwater who would pick out a sprinting teammate for an assist or create the entry pass for Mahrez to get the assist. The result is that Drinkwater averaged 1.3 key passes per game last season and he is down to just 0.5 per game this season. Drinkwater is still a terrific center mid but in Kante’s absence he’s forced to be Leicester’s shield rather than facilitator.
It’s rare that a single player can make such a huge difference to a team’s success and even rarer that a defensive midfielder can play such a huge role. But it’s clear that in the absence of Kante, Leicester’s counter attack has withered on the vine and his former teammates haven’t picked up the slack.
If Leicester are relegated it would be the biggest story in Premier League football history. Man City were relegated the season after they won the League but that was back in 1937/1938 when football was still being born. Herbert Chapman won the League with Arsenal the season City were relegated with his innovative new system the WM.
In modern football Blackburn Rovers won the League in 94/95 and they finished 7th in 95/96. And the next season – after they sold Alan Shearer, who was averaging 30+ goals a year – they finished 14th. The worst finish by a champion in the Premier League era goes to Chelsea who finished 10th last season. Chelsea are currently top of the table and that is in no small part due to the fact that they bought N’Golo Kante from Leicester.