Guardian writers’ predicted position: 9th (NB: this is not necessarily Paul Doyle’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: Champions
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 33-1
Leicester City have peaked and should brace themselves for a Humpty Dumpty-style fall. Jamie Vardy was naive to turn down Arsenal, Riyad Mahrez needs to get himself to a club more befitting his class, Claudio Ranieri should have retired on a high rather than haggle for a new contract and Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha is a ditzy sentimentalist rather than a sober businessman for not selling up while Leicester are as valuable as they are ever going to get. That, at any rate, is one appraisal of the reigning champions, one seemingly shared by those cold-blooded stiffs of the bookmaking community, who make Leicester much more likely to be relegated (14-1 or thereabouts) than to retain their title (33-1 if you’re lucky). Few people, it seems, think Leicester can do a Leicester again. Has last season taught them nothing?
OK, so one of the reasons for the grim prophesies is precisely that the big clubs are believed to have learned plenty from last season. Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea, for instance, all fancy that they have splurged with a tad more discernment this summer, headhunting elite managers to improve their squads and methods and restore the perceived natural order of things. Each of that decadent trio threw away points last season and none managed a victory against Leicester. With better management and players, that is widely expected to change, especially as one of Chelsea’s recruits is N’Golo Kanté, a hero for Leicester last season and the perfect midfield Jeeves to rescue floundering aristocrats such as Cesc and Eden Wooster.
The loss of Kanté seems particularly costly to Leicester because his extraordinary dynamism makes him one of the players who might have coped fine with the extra workload that the club will have this season by dint of being in the Champions League. A European campaign represents both a new thrill and a daunting challenge that could weaken their Premier League defence even if a quirk of the domestic fixture list means they will have home matches after each of their Champions League group games. Fatigue is certainly likely to be more of a factor for Leicester this term than it was last season, as the team that had the third-lowest rate of possession in last season’s Premier League may find themselves having even less of the ball, and thus chasing even harder, on the continent.
That means that Ranieri, who used fewer players in the Premier League than any other manager last season, will probably have to revive his Tinkerman reputation even if Leicester are again spared many serious injuries and suspensions. Ranieri will have to make his decisions without the input of at least one of the assistants who advised him during last season’s triumph, as Steve Walsh has been lured to Everton. There is talk of his other assistant from last season, Craig Shakespeare, leaving to hook up with Sam Allardyce at England despite signing a new three-year contract this summer.
So there are clear grounds for expecting Leicester to fly lower this season even without contemplating suggestions that players such as Vardy, Danny Drinkwater, Wes Morgan, Danny Simpson and Marc Albrighton are a bunch of one-hit wonders who don’t have it in them to ever again top the charts.
But, as forgetful readers will attest, the Guardian has never been one to write off Leicester and Ranieri prematurely so let us consider other pertinent facts. The above-mentioned players, and others, have been excellent for more than one season, last season’s success coming on the back of a rousing end to the previous campaign. Although other clubs are still leering at, and possibly unsettling, Mahrez and Drinkwater, Kanté is the only major player to have left a team that won the league by 10 points and Leicester’s triumph was fuelled partially by a spirit that predates Kanté’s arrival and should survive his departure, especially if Ranieri’s rotation is smooth. It should be, because in spite of Kanté’s departure Leicester will have a better squad than last season if their new signings prove to be as shrewd as they seem and youngsters such as Ben Chilwell, Demarai Gray and Daniel Amartey progress as expected.
The most scrutinised of the new arrivals will be Nampalys Mendy, the midfielder tasked with filling the chasm left by Kanté. Ranieri knows all about Mendy, having worked with him at Monaco before the player moved to Nice in 2013, where his quiet but firm leadership qualities led to him being named captain at the age of 22. Mendy is not an eye-catching player and will not feature in many fantasy league teams as goals and assists rank low in his repertoire, and he is not as relentless a tackler as Kanté, but in his career so far he has still exerted a great influence over his teams and sabotaged opponents thanks to his intelligent reading of play and immaculate technique. He looks a decent fit at Leicester.
As does Ahmed Musa. Leicester broke their transfer record to sign the Nigerian from CSKA Moscow because they believe he will enhance their firepower. It is not hard to see why. Musa, though only 23, has strong Champions League and international pedigree and searing pace that, when paired with Vardy’s, will scald opponents, especially on the counterattack. He is two-footed and has an impressive scoring record from either wing despite erratic finishing and can also play centrally. Versatility, indeed, is an attribute possessed by most of Ranieri’s signings as far back as January, as Amartey can play across midfield and defence. That should make rotation easier. So will the capture of Bartosz Kapustka, the exquisitely talented and precociously clever 19-year-old Poland midfielder (or sometime defender) bought from Cracovia. With Musa, Mahrez, Albrighton, Gray, Kapustka and Jeffrey Schlupp, Leicester can expect to make creative use of the ball when they have it.
It would still be worthwhile to lessen the reliance on Vardy for goals. Shinji Okazaki may start embellishing his selfless work by adding to the score sheet, and Leonardo Ulloa may continue to serve as adequate backup but reported summer interest in Troy Deeney and Saido Berahino is understandable. The transfer window could yet be used to reinforce further.
Leicester’s back four was remarkably trusty throughout last season even after opponents had time to figure out ways of getting behind them. Some of those opponents will have smartened up but Morgan, Robert Huth, Christian Fuchs and Simpson will not readily lower their guards. The additional demands, however, mean they are likely to need solid backup. Luis Hernández, the centre-back signed from Sporting Gijón, will have to adjust quickly to his new surroundings. Chilwell, a 19-year-old graduate of Leicester’s academy, looks an excellent left-back option defensively and going forward. He does not quite have the crossing prowess of Fuchs but is a nifty dribbler and passer.
Kasper Schmeichel, coming off the best season of his career, has been given an extra incentive to keep his standards high by the arrival of another accomplished goalkeeper, Ron-Robert Zieler from Hannover.
A little more defensive cover could yet be signed but, although an arduous series of early fixtures could sow fresh doubts around the club, Leicester look better prepared for the start of the campaign than most of their rivals, requiring less of a makeover than United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Southampton, all of whom they face, along with Arsenal, in the opening few weeks. Rather than dread a tough start to their title defence Leicester should relish the chance to steal an early march on their challengers, all of whom will be under heavy pressure to play catch-up better than they managed to do last season.
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