The 2022/23 season has brought out arguably the most intense relegation battle in Premier League history, with eight teams all still in danger as we enter the final stage of the season. There are teams that were generally expected to struggle that make up the foundation of the relegation battle, the likes of Bournemouth and Southampton, but there are also some surprise packages that are in real danger. If a few could have foreseen the misfortune of West Ham and Wolves this season, then even fewer would have seen the chaotic slide toward disaster from Leicester City.
Now Leicester have taken the surprising move of hiring Dean Smith until the end of the season. The former Aston Villa manager built a solid reputation for getting the very best out of the likes of Jack Grealish but was most recently unsuccessful in the Championship with a good Norwich City squad. The Leicester fans who breathed a sigh of relief when the deal for Jesse Marsch collapsed may end up ruing the day. So where did it all go wrong for Leicester and Brendan Rodgers?
For eleven years, Kasper Schmeichel was a stalwart in the Leicester City goal. The Danish international was equally important in Nigel Pearson’s miraculous relegation escape as he was in Claudio Ranieri’s Premier League win and Rodgers’ FA Cup triumph. It’s true that by the end of the 2021/22 season, his form had fallen off a cliff, so a deal was agreed upon to move him onto Nice that summer. The only issue with this plan was that Leicester didn’t see it necessary to replace their long-term number one with a new goalkeeper, instead turning to Wales number one and backup goalkeeper Danny Ward to step up.
Unfortunately for the King Power faithful, Ward has not been up to the task, making a range of errors that have cost his side points across the season. This, coupled with his inefficiency in distribution led to his dropping towards the end of the Rodgers reign, has seen 25-year-old Danish goalkeeper Daniel Iversen take his place, a goalkeeper with no prior Premier League experience, having spent time out on loan at teams in England’s lower leagues such as Rotherham United and Oldham Athletic as well as Leicester’s partner club in Belgium OH Leuven.
Iversen is finally getting regular minutes at the first-team level with the Foxes after arriving in January 2016, but it remains to be seen whether or not he can fill the lofty shoes of his compatriot. Leicester have not kept a single clean sheet since November 12, giving Iversen a massive task on his hands as he looks to consolidate a spot between the sticks and do his part to keep Leicester up.
Spending and Recruitment
It is no secret that Leicester spent less than any other Premier League team in the summer. Wout Faes was the only new face to come in the door, and despite being a solid defender with a bright future by all accounts, it always seemed unrealistic for him to instantly replace Wesley Fofana. In January, three more additions arrived to try and bolster the squad. Harry Souttar joined from Stoke City after an excellent World Cup with Australia. Souttar has since largely earned the respect of Leicester fans who now hope that under John Terry, who joins alongside Dean Smith, the Australian defender will only get better.
Victor Kristiansen came from Copenhagen and started very positively but has since seemingly lost confidence – like many of his colleagues. Tete, the final January signing, on loan from Shakhtar also hasn’t done enough despite scoring on his debut. The four signings haven’t been by any means disastrous or even bad. The real issue is that there aren’t enough of them to compete in the spending juggernaut that is: the Premier League. While good squad options are always useful, signing them usually implies you have a nailed-down first team of strong starters, which Leicester City simply does not.
Although bringing fresh faces in has become an absolute must to guarantee safety in the Premier League, Leicester have not been helped by the (in some cases staggering) decline of form in some players. Any match-going Leicester fan will tell you that Wilfred Ndidi is simply not the same player that was linked with a move to the likes of Manchester United a couple of years ago.
The stats are there to back them too, Ndidi went from 6.5 tackles/interceptions and 8.1 duels a game in 19/20 to 3.6 tackles/interceptions and just 3.8 duels in the current season. This undeniable decline has left a gap in Leicester’s midfield which Boubakary Samare has not been able to fill.
Meanwhile, Caglar Soyuncu seemed to never recover from Turkey’s dreadful European Championship, Daniel Amartey is prone to lapses in concentration and Jamie Vardy has one goal in 29 league appearances this season. These are almost three players chosen at random to highlight the issues at the spine of the team, there have been so few Leicester players in consistently decent form across the season.
The entire Leicester City operation had become stale under Rodgers. Players were reported to be increasingly confused with the manager’s approach to man management throughout the season. Having signed Ryan Bertrand and Jannik Vestergaard the previous summer, the manager now wanted them moved on. Players were dropped and bought back in seemingly without good reason, Timothy Castagne and Dennis Praet being prime examples.
On the pitch, Rodgers was stubborn in his tactical approach. For the fans watching over the course of a season, it seemed as if the manager was asking players to play in a way that they simply weren’t capable of. Hence why some of the individual errors that Rodgers would bemoan and avoid responsibility were now being attributed to him, for persisting in a system where players bereft of confidence were expected to dominate and demand the ball.
As is so often the way when a seemingly staple Premier League club finds themselves in a relegation battle, Leicester have been hampered by injuries. Starman James Maddison had a recurring knee injury which kept him out for six matches at one time. Leicester simply cannot replace his quality when Maddison is out of their team and generally find it impossible to get results in these periods. The ever-reliable Jonny Evans has no return date set on his calf injury which he sustained in December, James Justin’s injury problems persist and Tielemans may well not be back before the end of the season with his torn ankle ligament.
Can They Stay Up?
The Foxes have been in this position before and have pulled off the great escape. The form is abysmal and the morale is on the ground, Dean Smith is known to be a good man manager and should help to lift spirits – whether he has the tactical nous to guide Leicester through their tricky remaining fixtures against the likes of Newcastle, Liverpool and Fulham remains to be seen. Three games against relegation rivals in that time will prove key, as they take on Wolves, Leeds and Everton back to back, before closing out their season with a visit from West Ham.
By: Wilf MacDonnell / @WilfMacdonnell
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Joe Giddens – PA Images