Saturday 16 December 2017

Foxes struggle with away-day blues as crunch period looms

Failure to win on road all season leaves champions in relegation battle, but it is not all doom and gloom

Riyad Mahrez: No goals from open play all season. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images
Riyad Mahrez: No goals from open play all season. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Stuart James

For a team that have developed an aversion to playing away this season, Leicester City's next batch of fixtures should ring a few alarm bells. The champions are on the road in five out of six games in a season-defining period that includes three Premier League matches away from home, a trip to Derby County in the FA Cup and that mouthwatering visit to Seville in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.

It feels like a make-or-break stretch in a campaign that has served as a reminder to everyone that the word "miracle" was used over and again last season for good reason. Normal order has been restored at the top of the table and, in the eyes of some, Leicester are also back where they belong, sitting in 15th place going into the weekend, one position below where they finished under Nigel Pearson, the season before the unthinkable happened.

Realistically, Leicester were never going to mount a serious defence of the Premier League title. Indeed, the feeling around the Midlands club before the start of the season was that progress from the Champions League group stage and a top-10 finish would be acceptable - something which is still eminently achievable.

The bit that no one really bargained for was that Leicester would be anxiously looking in the rear view mirror at this stage and seeing the relegation candidates far too close for comfort.

Claudio Ranieri's side started the weekend only six points clear of the bottom before today's match at Southampton, where Leicester go in search of their first away win in the league since beating Sunderland 2-0 in April.

It is quite a turnaround for the club that had the best away record in the league by a distance last season. Three points from 10 games on the road this term tells a story and so do some of the statistics behind those results, most notably that Leicester made 70 more tackles across the first 10 away matches in their title-winning campaign and 100 more interceptions. They are not the sort of numbers that can be easily dismissed and there are no prizes for guessing where the next sentence starts.

N'Golo Kante's departure to Chelsea has left a huge hole, not just in terms of tackles and interceptions made by the Frenchman in the centre of the Leicester midfield, but also because his industry rubbed off on others.

This season Leicester are seeing more of the ball away from home but they are nothing like as effective at stealing possession, which often left opponents exposed to those devastating counter-attacks that were such a feature of the team that were crowned champions.

The arrival of Wilfred Ndidi from Genk for £14m has offered encouragement that Leicester will have more about them in the middle of the pitch over the second half of the season, yet their problems run deeper than one position.

There is also a psychological barrier. One of the key figures in their extraordinary success last season came up with an interesting analogy last week, when he explained what the players were up against mentally when they reported back in the summer. "Winning the title was like climbing Mount Everest," he said. "Then you get back down, receive a pat on the back and you're told to climb up it all over again."

Although new faces were brought in during that close-season to try to strengthen the squad, it was an oversight not to sign a top-class central defender to compete with Robert Huth and Wes Morgan. Leicester tried - Burnley turned down a £15m offer for Michael Keane - but never succeeded.

From the club's recruitment strategy to some curious tactics from Ranieri at times, there are plenty of areas that can be mulled over when trying to work out why things have unravelled for Leicester. One of the most obvious is that far too many players have not performed anywhere near the level they reached last season.

Danny Drinkwater was honest enough to admit last week that his form had dropped. Jamie Vardy has suffered from a lack of service, not just a shortage of goals. His five Premier League goals have come from nine shots on target all season.

As for Riyad Mahrez, it is a good thing that he takes penalties. Currently away at the Africa Cup of Nations, he has not scored from open play in the Premier League since Leicester beat Swansea 4-0 in April, on the same day that the Algerian picked up the PFA player of the year award. Mahrez has scored or assisted five Premier League goals this season compared with 20 from the same number of appearances last term.

It is easy to keep pointing the finger, yet amid all this doom and gloom it is perhaps worth keeping a sense of perspective. After all, Leicester are still in the FA Cup, fully capable of climbing into the top half of the Premier League and 180 minutes away from reaching the last eight of the Champions League. As their supporters know all too well, the club has been in far worse positions.

Observer

  • Southampton v Leicester, Sky Sports 1, 12.0

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