Saturday 22 July 2017

Stephen Hunt: The quicker Leicester drop into the bottom three, the better it will be for them

Leicester City's Danny Drinkwater and Marc Albrighton
Leicester City's Danny Drinkwater and Marc Albrighton
Leicester City's Jamie Vardy.
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

Recent results mean Manchester United's trip to Leicester City today is seen as a must-win game for both, but that might not be true. Bear with me, but it might actually be the best thing for both clubs for United to win - and for Leicester to be left sitting in that relegation zone for a bit.

Trust me, the quicker the champions drop into the bottom three, the better it will be for them. It will finally wake them up and give them something to fight for. It will be the shock they need to get them going again.

I firmly believe that their main problem is mental, even with the loss of N'Golo Kante; that they can't get the same adrenaline rush as last season to focus them; that they're still in the bubble but no longer flying.

That's why dropping into danger would be good for them, because the last thing they want - and something that is now a very real possibility - is the slow death of dropping into the Championship.

I have some personal experience of this, even if nothing close to their miracle. My Reading 2006-'07 team did well to finish seventh in our first season in the Premier League, but we just couldn't maintain the same verve the following season as we slowly drifted back down the table.

All of a sudden, we fell into the relegation zone with just one game to go. That shocked us, got the adrenaline up, and we immediately beat Derby County away from home 4-0. It was too late, though. It wasn't enough. We went down, having only fully comprehended that we were in danger of it right at the end. Instead, we were left thinking 'I wish I did this, wish I did that'.

Something similar happening to Leicester would be especially harsh. It would feel very unfair on their players to have that special status taken away after what they achieved.

That is why the quicker there's a bit of anger, a bit of anxiety and disgruntlement in the crowd, the better. Because when reality hits home that's when you get the reaction. They need to get the jolt to the system as quickly as possible.

This isn't to say they're not trying. They are. It's just a bit more complicated than that. They're trying, but it's almost about the subconscious effort that needs to go with it.

At the moment, they're like an addict not really getting their hit. Even beating West Ham United 1-0, their last victory back on New Year's Eve, would have temporarily satisfied them, but wouldn't have done enough for them because it's not continuous; it's not putting them on that wave that they were on and it means it becomes a bit of a repeating cycle.

It's also why it suits them playing big games at the moment - and why I think they have got results against Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur or in the Champions League - because they get that adrenaline. They get that kick they got last season.

It's in the run-of-the-mill games that they have the problem. Even though they are consciously trying, they just can't raise that same sharpness, that same edge. It's because, somewhat inevitably, they are still living in the bubble of last season and haven't yet had anything to really burst it.

Now, I say all this, even though they are missing Kante.

He was huge to that adrenaline, and he is badly missed. He was their five-second frenzy player. By that I mean that, when you lose the ball, everyone in the team should have five seconds of frenetically trying to win the ball back. He did that for them, going after it no matter where it was. It's an example I've used here before, but he was their trigger man for that kind of pressing, just like Adam Lallana at Liverpool.

PANews_P-44f83361-fabc-4626-9e17-1f7c88adf7e8_I1.jpg
Leicester striker Jamie Vardy (right) is shown a red card by referee Craig Pawson

Leicester haven't got that right now. Jamie Vardy does set them off with his closing down but that's not quite the same thing.

That, however, is why the rest of the team need that jolt even more.

And there are only two ways that's going to change - either they drop into the relegation zone or sack the manager.

That, of course, is probably why it's even more important to drop down early. Nobody wants to sack Ranieri. Sure how could you after winning the title?

I don't really think Ranieri has done anything wrong either. He's taken responsibility. He has not blamed the players. He knows his football. He's almost in a bit of a dilemma, too, because anything different he does will immediately be questioned by the players. As soon as he changes something, or deviates from an old message, they will go 'you didn't do that last year'.

The situation is all the worse because the Champions League is coming now as well. When and how will that competition take a back seat to survival? Given that most of the players have never played at that level, it's a difficult question to ask. I think it's something Leonardo Ulloa should remember as well, because he has made huge strides at Leicester and under Ranieri in a way he might not have elsewhere.

I believe United will beat them, too. Despite their run of draws, I wouldn't be worried about them. Jose Mourinho will be frustrated they haven't won those games but, since they're still unbeaten in the league since October, he knows those wins will come. And one will come today, because Leicester look like rabbits in the headlights. They're dazed.

Meanwhile, I was very impressed with how Manchester City dazed West Ham United. The movement of the front three - and I think I'm right in saying Pep Guardiola calls them his three centre-forwards - was something else. Gabriel Jesus has made an immediate impact and it only makes it clearer that Sergio Aguero is on the bench because his off-the-ball work is not what the manager would want. He just doesn't press in that way, even in the way Leo Messi does.

That City attack was actually very like Guardiola's Barcelona with their pressing. In that great side, they all closed down, they were all triggered, even Messi. Sure, he would start to walk again if the ball went past him but that was because he had been asked to press in a specific area and, when they didn't get it back, he was then expected to work himself into position so he would be best-placed for the next wave of attack when Barcelona did win the ball back.

Aguero can consider himself hard done by, since he's a goalscorer, but he just doesn't fit into that pressing game. Jesus does. He's been very effective so far. He looks brave, looks positive, he wants the ball, he wants to go at people and it looks like he's come to England to achieve things.

To illustrate how mature he is, compare him to Raheem Sterling. I've always said that when Sterling's finishing and passing come together, he'll be unplayable. For young players, though, that can take time. Not with Jesus. He already looks the complete package. He has it. He sees passes that Sterling still doesn't.

If Sterling is playing a pass, for example, it looks like he's always off-balance; as if he hasn't fully developed that side of his game yet. Jesus, by contrast, knows when to play a one-two, knows when to take players on. It's probably bad for City in the long run, but he actually looks like a Barcelona centre-forward.

Their recent burst will be challenged today by a resurgent Swansea City, where I think Paul Clement has already done a very impressive job. He's had a good tally from a very difficult run of games.

I had him at Ireland for a week when he was working with Don Givens, and I can't praise him enough. To this day, when I see Don and we have a chat, I still wind him up that he was lucky he had Clement for his week with the national team. It was something really different. A lot of what he did, it was the first time I'd seen it. There was a fluency to training, and it was just enjoyable. That is why he ended up with Carlo Ancelotti and so many big clubs.

He's gone his own way now and had a tough first spell with Derby County, but I think he's probably learned some lessons.

It makes this relegation battle all the more engaging, one that could get even more interesting if Leicester don't get that shock. They badly need one.

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