The Season In Review
For much of this season, it has seemed like every mid-table Premier League team has teetered on the brink of implosion, identity crisis and unexpected relegation. The likes of Everton, Crystal Palace and Southampton, with teams so full of quality and top-level know-how, have been sucked into damaging and costly battles for survival, while West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City, clubs who had seemingly built well enough to avoid ever being sucked into trouble, have gone down without that much of a fight. Apart from the top six and, inexplicably, Burnley, no-one has been safe.
In that rather fearsome and depressing context, Leicester’s season has been a relatively positive affair. The Foxes may have endured a painful managerial change, but they’ve nonetheless been involved in some belting matches and won enough of them to find themselves in a solid league position, comfortably clear of the at times sprawling relegation dogfight.
Unlike many other teams, their star players have performed: before handing in a transfer request and taking a few weeks off, Riyad Mahrez was in truly sparkling form, reminiscent of his 2015-16 heyday; Jamie Vardy has hit the heights again, with eighteen league goals to his name; Harry Maguire has continued on his upward trajectory and seems likely to go to the World Cup with England. Lesser lights like Wilfred Ndidi, Ben Chilwell and Demarai are stepping out of the limelight and making first-team places their own.
Unpopular and most likely departing manager Claude Puel deserves the lion’s share of the credit for having turned things around. With Leicester in a degree of turmoil following the departure of Craig Shakespeare, Whispering Claude proved to be a canny hire, bringing clarity and stability to a squad which was obviously losing direction and failing to play to its potential. One would hope that the many Proper Football Men who frothed at the mouth when he was hired could find it within themselves to apologise, but given Puel’s strained relationship with the squad, who have tired of his distant manner and inexplicable tinkering with the starting eleven, such hopes are unlikely to be realised.
The Summer Ahead
Indeed, Leicester seem to be plagued by an overpowering apathy at the moment. Off the back of a season which ends in a top-half finish, with relegation never a worry and with star players having played to their best, it’s bizarre that their season ends with morale so low and with yet another new start coming over the summer. Last week’s end-of-season lap of honour was barely observed by any fans at the King Power Stadium, and the supporters’ apathy will be acted upon.
Puel seems set to be replaced by Marco Silva, Mahrez will finally get his big move and many of the squad’s past-it veterans will be moved on and replaced by new blood. This all sounds positive in abstract, but it also sounds very similar to the reboots envisaged by Stoke and Southampton in recent summers, and look how they’ve ended up. Leicester’s fans would be well advised to be careful what they wish for.
For years now Leicester have been more-or-less unchanged tactically and the success or failure of their methods has been largely down to the morale and motivation of their players, and what state their opposition is in relatively on the day. When the Foxes have been on-form and their opponents haven’t been at the top of their game, the cut-and-thrust of their play has been enough to secure victory. When there has been trouble in the dressing room, as there is now, their problems have spilled over onto the pitch and the same style of play has become blunt, predictable and very easy to negate.
Leicester always start in a narrow, compact 4-4-1-1 and largely let their opposition have the ball, allowing them to advance into forward positions and vacate territory behind the defence. Forcing midfield turnovers and playing fast balls into that empty space allows the rapid Vardy to burst in and thus the Foxes create good quality chances very easily, just when their opponents think they have everything under control.
If their opponents sit deep to neutralise Leicester’s counterattacking threat, they have the guile and technique of Mahrez to call on, while Kelechi Iheanacho is taking big steps each week as Vardy’s foil. As in years past, the accurate crossing of Marc Albrighton and the selfless, committed play of Shinji Okazaki have added strings to the Foxes’ bow, but neither will feature here.
Leicester’s clinical finishing is a huge strength and Tottenham should be very wary of allowing them time and space to shoot. They’ve scored 52 goals this season vs 49.02 Expected Goals, and, outside the top six, only Bournemouth, West Ham and Burnley have overperformed by more this season. They create very good quality chances and the likes of Vardy, Mahrez and Iheanacho are very good at taking them.
Besides their finishing, they have a good tactical level and no player has any doubt whatsoever regarding his role and his responsibilities in the team. This means their style of play, which could appear too basic or too easy to counter, usually ends up being very effective: take their midweek humbling of Arsenal as a case in point. Tottenham have struggled to find their best form in recent weeks and look tired – if Leicester can get their act together and stop fighting each other, they have the tools to take Spurs down.
As we’re seeing this season and as previously stated, the top six play on a different level to the other fourteen teams in the division and even though Leicester are among the best of the rest, they’re still some way short of being able to come to Wembley with realistic hopes of anything other than escaping defeat. They’ve only managed to get one point in their visits to the rest of the big clubs, so to expect them to do any more here is unrealistic.
It’s also worth saying that this is the same team which recently lost 5-0 to Crystal Palace, as well as surrendering meekly to West Ham and Newcastle. This is going to be Claude Puel’s last game in charge and Mahrez’s last game for Leicester. Many others will likely be afforded chances to say goodbye, at least as substitutes, which is hardly the best way to send out a competitive unit.
With Whispering Claude auditioning to be the new, 2018-version of the Tinkerman, it’s hard to predict a starting line-up. Spurs should prepare for the strongest possible starting eleven and take anything else as a bonus.
Even with Spurs in such wretched form they should have enough win here. A clean sheet would be a surprise, but they should have enough to put a few past the Foxes. 3-1.