Dilly ding, dilly dong… what on earth has gone wrong?
A year ago, though we didn’t believe it at the time, Leicester City were on a near-vertical collision course with the unlikeliest of Premier League titles.
The Foxes – making the most of a perfect storm of rival slip-ups, key players discovering the form of their lives in unison and spiralling self-belief – ended up securing their first top-flight crown with games to spare.
Football, though, has a habit of bringing us all back down to earth. And, just nine months on from Andrea Bocelli’s booming chorus at Leicester’s King Power celebration, the East Midlands club are no longer looking up and dreaming. Now, heads are tilted towards feet and relegation is very much on the agenda.
It’s a remarkable transformation… though not wholly unpredictable, what with Claudio Ranieri placing emphasis on qualification for the Champions League knockout rounds – achieved of course, but at what cost?
Leicester simply aren’t the force they were last season, in any respect. The rock-solid defence is crumbling like sand dunes, the intelligent, creative midfield has writer’s block and, up front, there is no lethal weapon.
At the equivalent stage of the 2015-16 campaign, the Foxes has won 15 of their 24 matches and had lost just two. A win rate of 58 per cent saw them fighting with Arsenal for the league leader’s jersey.
They’d scored 44 goals and conceded just 26. They were resilient, dynamic and, perhaps most importantly of all, a different prospect to any other title challenger of years gone by. There’s unlikely to be anything quite like them in years to come either.
Fast forward now, if you dare, to today.
Twenty-four games played, just five victories. Forty-one goals conceded and 24 scored. It’s almost a total role reversal.
Why? Look no further than three case studies. Three players who made Leicester what they were last year… Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante.
Between them, the trio were the sharpened blade, the master craftsman and the fully-fuelled engine room – relentless pace, trickery and energy which wore out even the most hardened of Premier League defences, pinning opposition backwards in semi-conscious defence of the counter-attack.
At the equivalent stage of the season a year ago, Vardy had scored 18 goals at one every 116.5 minutes, including a record-breaking 11 consecutive games. He was maximising the chances given to him – mostly by Mahrez – and averaged more than 2.5 shots per game. Furthermore his shooting accuracy was 58.6 percent.
That’s all changed. Whether he’s misplaced his Red Bull and Port or simply shown himself to be a flash in the pan, the one-time Halifax amateur turned England international is not the prolific force he was last term.
Now he’s averaging just one shot per game, one goal every 322.4 minutes (almost five and a half hours for those who skipped time-telling class in year four) and he is creating 40 per cent fewer chances for team-mates – 18 this year compared to 30 in the corresponding period in 2015-16.
Perhaps this is, in part, down to the lack of high-quality service from the right, where Mahrez – the leading man throughout last season – has become a bumbling mess under the spotlights.
Not even a prompter has helped the Algerian, as he’s flip-flopped his way through a sequel to the PFA Player of the Year performances which would have critics reaching for their favourite put-me-downs.
Mahrez has scored three fewer goals at the equivalent point in each campaign – three compared to his 13 of last term – his shots per game have almost halved, his shot conversion rate has slipped dramatically from 27.7 percent to 10.7 percent and he’s not beating his man anywhere near as often, with just 41.5 percent of his dribbles completed this year compared to almost 60 percent last.
The winger has sloped off to the Africa Cup of Nations and been barely missed because, quite frankly, nobody was entirely sure if he was there in the first place.
Perhaps Vardy and Mahrez’s collective migraine has worn off on each other.
In reality, there’s a crucial cog that’s been pulled from the Leicester mechanism.
Kante is doing at Stamford Bridge what he did at the King Power in 2015-16 – dominating midfields with extraordinary ease. Merging old fashioned leg-biting with balletic grace in possession and a wicked-quick mind out of it, the Frenchman has kept hitting the same levels of performance he managed last season.
The only problem for Leicester – and it’s a pretty major one – is that he’s no longer in Foxes blue.
Instead, Chelsea are benefitting from the hustle and bustle and toil and trouble that Kante’s unique brand of football presents to his lucky employers.
His tackle success percentage is as high as it was last term and he covers the same ground as last year, yet, somehow, Antonio Conte has made him even better.
Kante’s passes per game stats are up from 43.18 per match in 2015-16 to 61.84 percent this time around.
His passing accuracy has improved from 81.64 percent to 87.8 percent.
And now he can boast a better dribble success rate than Mahrez – 70.27 percent. Whatever he does appears to be ‘right place, right time’.
With Kante pulling the strings, Chelsea have flown to the top of the Premier League and it is they who look on track for the title. Only a minor natural disaster can stop Conte and Co now.
Conversely, Leicester are 16th, a point off the drop and the most out-of-form side in the division. Nay, the most out-of-form side in the country.
They have become the first Premier League side ever to fail to score in their opening five games after the turn of a year.
They are staring into an abyss.
They are staring at trips to Burton, Portman Road and Glanford Park while simultaneously preparing for the Champions League last 16.
Dilly ding, dilly dong… it really has all gone wrong.