This Premier League season is proving to be as difficult as last year for Leicester City. Having hauled themselves out of the wreckage last season to eventually finish 12th in the table, they have struggled to build momentum in the early weeks of the new campaign.
Chief among Craig Shakespeare’s problems is a lack of goals throughout the squad. Jamie Vardy has started the season in fine form, with five goals to his name already, but played through the pain barrier in the 0-0 draw at Bournemouth last weekend.
With the striker sitting out England’s World Cup qualifiers against Slovenia and Lithuania, there is a possibility that Leicester may have to do without their striker in one or two of the games to come.
Even if Vardy makes a full recovery and plays in the Foxes’ next match, at home to West Bromwich Albion, it’s time for the rest of the team to start chipping in regularly as they try to climb their way up the table and away from the relegation zone.
THE VARDY AND OKAZAKI SHOW
Leicester have scored nine goals this season. That’s not a terrible return. In fact, it’s more than any other team in the league’s bottom half and even more than Burnley, who are sixth. However, eight of those nine goals have been scored by either Vardy or Shinji Okazaki.
Yes, it’s true that strikers are in the team to score goals: that is their job after all, but if you look at the Leicester side that memorably clinched the Premier League title in the 2015/16 season, goals were spread throughout every area.
By the end of the season, 13 different players had scored as Ranieri’s men defied logical expectations and clinched the Premier League crown. At this point, though, the Foxes had six different goalscorers after seven games, doubling this season’s tally, with Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, Marc Albrighton, Ritchie De Laet, Nathan Dyer and Okazaki all having opened their accounts.
In seven games this season, only Harry Maguire has chipped in outside of Vardy and Okazaki’s contributions, with a header to round off the 2-0 win against Brighton & Hove Albion back in August.
With the possibility of time out for Vardy looking increasingly likely, it’s time for some of the misfiring Foxes to step up.
CAN THE REAL RIYAD PLEASE STAND UP?
One of Leicester’s biggest problems this season has been the form of Mahrez. After announcing his desire to leave in the summer, the Algerian playmaker has seen his popularity take a hit at the King Power Stadium, while uninspiring recent performances prompted Shakespeare to drop him for the trip to Bournemouth.
But the 26-year-old has recently looked like a forlorn shadow of the dynamite winger who terrorised defences during that title-winning campaign when he scored 17 league goals and added 11 assists.
This year is a different story. Mahrez is yet to score while his corner for Maguire’s header against Brighton is the last assist he notched.
In the recent 3-2 defeat to Liverpool, Mahrez was very much on the periphery of proceedings, offering sporadic flickers of promise but ultimately remaining ineffective. He was subbed off after 61 minutes, having completed only 69% of his passes, made just one key pass and failing to register a shot on target.
The problem with Mahrez is that he has the ability to shape and influence Leicester’s fortunes in the final third. When he isn’t performing, there are subsequently fewer chances for his teammates to score.
According to the Premier League’s official website, Mahrez has only created one ‘big chance’ this season and, if he doesn’t dramatically improve his productivity, he may not get that move away he clearly desires.
TOOTHLESS SUPPORTING CAST
With Mahrez dropped at the Vitality Stadium it was a chance for Demarai Gray to stake his claim for a regular starting berth. However, despite having shown signs of real promise, struggled to seize his opportunity despite playing the full 90 minutes.
He managed two shots, both from a central position not too far out, yet what he produced was sadly sub-standard, with one ballooned well over the bar and the other saved by Asmir Begović. Also, playing on the wing, it was disappointing that Gray failed to create a single chance during the game.
But it would be myopic to merely focus on Gray as the overall contribution from midfield to Leicester’s fortunes in front of goal has been alarming. In the defeat to Liverpool, not one of Albrighton, Wilfred Ndidi, Andy King or Mahrez managed a single shot on target.
It was the same story in the draw at Huddersfield, and from the same midfield quarter. In fact, looking deeper into the midfield shooting stats over the last five league games reveal some alarming figures. In those five games, Leicester’s starting midfielders have managed just 14 shots, two shots on target and no goals.
There is certainly rationale behind picking a midfield four of Mahrez, Ndidi, King and Albrighton – it offers balance – but they are not influencing matters in the final third. In fact, although he certainly contributes with a tireless work ethic and has defensive qualities, Albrighton has not had a shot of any description since the win over Brighton back in August.
Leicester still have Islam Slimani, Leonardo Ulloa and Kelechi Iheanacho in their squad. All three are recognised goalscorers, yet the contribution from them, when they have played, has been minimal. Iheanacho and Slimani cost the club £60million but have started two league games between them this season.
However, Shakespeare isn’t leaving them on the bench for kicks: neither player has shown enough to warrant a regular starting place and it’s not helping their manager, who is starting to appreciate what it feels like to be in the firing line during a dismal run of form.
SHAKESPEARE NEEDS TO BRING THE BEST OUT OF STRUGGLING FOXES
Of course, some of the blame has to be bestowed on the manager. He is picking the team, determining the tactics and formulating the game plan every week. Sadly, the performances have reflected a lack of nous.
Unfortunately, the performances have reflected a lack of nous. The Foxes were overrun against Bournemouth, ripped apart by Liverpool and made to look distinctly ordinary against Manchester United and Chelsea. Perhaps it’s time Shakespeare shook things up a bit and moved away from a 4-4-2.
The emergence of Vicente Iborra has certainly given the manager food for thought over the international break, while he will have important decisions to make regarding Vardy and Mahrez.
What’s done is done at this point. The next three league games – home games against West Brom and Everton either side of a trip to Swansea City – certainly represent an opportunity to make up some points.
To do that, this Leicester side will need to display more courage and confidence in possession. In return, Shakespeare needs to show an ability to turn it around under pressure, and that means getting the best out of Mahrez and his big-money strikers.
Failure to do so may well result in him losing his job before Christmas. The Leicester board have proven they are not afraid to swing the axe when results aren’t going the manager’s way.