Leicester City: 2018/19 Premier League Preview
Riyad Mahrez is gone, but Claude Puel will still be hoping to build on their ninth-placed finish in 2017/18.
Action Images via REUTERS/Tony O’Brien
Perhaps taking the safe option, using what happened to Southampton as an example, Claude Puel is still employed as Leicester City boss despite reports emerging at the end of last season citing reports of discontent amongst the squad.
The Frenchman can hardly afford a slow start to the season, however, and he begins the campaign with a target on his back as one of the managers close to the sack.
Opening against Manchester United, Wolves, Southampton and Liverpool, the Foxes are in for a make-or-break start.
2017/18 Season Review
A terrible start to the season – winning once in their opening eight games against Brighton – preceded Craig Shakespeare’s departure, with new manager Claude Puel engineering an upturn in form from October to December. The Foxes lost once in Puel’s first eight matches, including a four-game winning streak.
The good fortune seemingly came to an end during the Christmas period and Leicester went on to win just five more games from the turn of the year to the conclusion of the campaign as the players grew disillusioned with Puel’s training regimes and style of play.
Two runs to the quarter-finals of both the FA and League Cups helped foster a positive atmosphere at the King Power stadium, but, in truth, last season was a case of ‘what could have been.’
Had Leicester pieced together a better run of form, they could be sitting pretty in the Europa League. Finishing ninth seemingly papers over cracks.
Fee: £22.5 million
One of the most eye-catching signings of the summer, Leicester forked out £22.5 million to tie down one of the Championship’s highest-rated prospects. The Foxes have lacked a true playmaker to play behind Jamie Vardy and this signing, therefore, plugs a key creative hole in the side.
The loss of Riyad Mahrez, moreover, makes this signing all the more important, with James Maddison’s 14 goals and eight assists a key reason behind his addition. His strengths lie in his passing ability, vision when it comes to through balls and dribbling, so expect passages of play to flow through the 21-year-old.
Fee: £19.8 million
A shrewd piece of business from Leicester to replace one of their weaker areas. Danny Simpson never was quite able to replicate his title-winning form of 2015/16 and Ricardo Pereira is an impressive upgrade for a club of Leicester’s stature.
The pacy Portuguese right back will also help compensate for the loss of Mahrez by providing more width down the right flank and a genuine attacking threat on the overlap when searching for crossing opportunities.
He’s already assisted Kelechi Iheanacho for a goal in a friendly against Udinese. And he has the stamina and speed to track back, too, ensuring he’s not caught out defensively.
Fee: £12.6 million
Perhaps preparing for the future, this is a signing that could bear fruits in the coming seasons. Not given a fair chance at Liverpool, Danny Ward is a decent goalkeeper with potential for improvement with the right guidance.
There’s still a possibility that Kasper Schmeichel could depart – with the likes of Chelsea sniffing around – so this is a somewhat pre-emptive move from Leicester, ensuring they aren’t left twiddling their thumbs if their Danish captain was to move on.
Fee: £3.6 million
Relegated with West Brom, Leicester activated Jonny Evans’ release clause to bring him back to the Premier League. Despite his advancing years, this is going to work out to be a smart move from the Foxes.
Evans is still a quality centre back – better than Wes Morgan – and will be able to provide leadership and guidance to a back four susceptible to disorganisation. He will also set a good example for Harry Maguire to replicate. Coupled with Pereira on the right-side of defence, this is a crucial personnel improvement.
Aleksandar Dragovic returned to Bayer Leverkusen after his loan expired, whilst Robert Huth left the club upon expiry of his contract, but the biggest departure of the summer is, naturally, Mahrez, who left in a £60 million club record deal to Manchester City.
With 12 goals and ten assists in all competitions, replacing Mahrez will prove difficult, but the signing of James Maddison should go some way to aiding this, though a winger, too, would be useful in this respect. Elsewhere, Ahmed Musa is still expected to leave the club after spending last season on loan at CSKA Moscow.
Provided Schmeichel stays at the King Power, he’d start as Leicester’s number one, with Ward used on a rotational basis.
Pereira and Evans are both expected to come into the back four as regular starters – alongside Maguire and Ben Chilwell – with Maddison perhaps embedded more slowly, but the expectation is that he’ll become a key player.
Iheanacho will be keen to push for a starting spot, but Jamie Vardy remains the undisputed striker of choice after a haul of 20 league goals last year.
After deploying a 4-2-3-1 formation for a majority of the season, Puel is expected to retain this system, but a new array of defensive options gives him flexibility to use a back three if desired.
There’s always the tried and tested 4-4-2 to turn to if in need, whilst the Foxes could be experimental in picking a 4-3-1-2. This allows Vardy to play off Iheanacho with Maddison in behind, supported by a tough trio of Wilfred Ndidi, Victor Iborra and Adrien Silva.
The Key Question: Who replaces Riyad Mahrez?
This really is the key question. Mahrez was on hand to bail Leicester out of tough situations time and time again last season and replacing his goals and general creativity will be vital in the Foxes building on last season.
The acquisition of Maddison will hopefully go some way in doing so, but the likes of Iheanacho, too, need to make a more direct contribution to take some of the goal-scoring burden off Vardy, who will be recovering from the World Cup.
As it stands, Leicester don’t have a direct replacement for the Algerian. They could push Pereira into an advanced role, or shift Iheanacho or Maddison out wide. Instead, Marc Albrighton could come back into the side with Demarai Gray moving to the right.
Failing to compensate for Mahrez’s loss, however, will result in a poor season and Puel’s ultimate departure.
It’s not completely outside the realms of possibility to suggest that Leicester could be the best side outside of the top six and finish seventh. It will require consistency, but it’s achievable given what Sean Dyche pulled off with Burnley last year.
The Foxes are vulnerable to poor runs of form, and whilst they’re probably too good to get relegated – whisper it quietly – a worst case scenario could see them sucked into an unwanted relegation battle as per 2016/17, with the end result a 13th to 16th-placed finish. Puel to be sacked along the way if he starts slowly.
Leicester shouldn’t have too much trouble finishing in the top half of the Premier League and they’ve bought well over the summer to that end. An improvement on last year’s ninth-placed finish will be the aim.
If you want to read more football content, make sure you follow us on Twitter @realsportgoals