For a start, he says, they must adapt to the loss of a player who did the jobs of two men last season, N’Golo Kanté.
With Jamie Vardy having spurned Arsenal’s advance and Leicester having discouraged interest in Riyad Mahrez and Danny Drinkwater, Kanté is the only member of last season’s title‑winning team to have departed as Leicester prepare for the ceremonial kick-off to the new campaign by taking on Manchester United in Sunday’s Community Shield at Wembley. But Kanté is no ordinary player. Ranieri has bought a £10m replacement from Nice – Nampalys Mendy – but says that his players are still going to have to run and focus twice as hard to fill the void left by Kanté, who joined Chelsea for around £32m after the London club made use of the player’s release clause.
“There will be a big difference,” said Ranieri of life for Leicester after Kanté. “If Chelsea bought Kanté, it’s because he played as two players last season. The referee counted 11 but we were 12. Now everybody must understand that there is no Kanté, so we have to be more close, more attentive. They can do something extra. You remember last season I said that if one day Kanté crosses the ball and scores with a header, it’s normal. Now we have to think different and close space quicker. We must be smarter.”
That will be all the harder on Sunday because Leicester are not fully primed for the new campaign, with Ranieri estimating that they are currently at about 60% of their capacities. Not ideal for a team whose strategy is based on harassing opponents and attacking in devastating bursts. “Our play is not about possession,” says Ranieri. “To do our play it is important to be 100% fit. For us Sunday will be important because we can’t press for 90 minutes, it’s not possible at the moment. It will be important to be intelligent on the pitch, to play together more than last season. But we will have the confidence that last season has given.”
Playing United at Wembley while not at full strength could be valuable preparation for a season when Leicester will have to defend their domestic crown while competing in the Champions League for the first time.
The top teams in Europe’s elite competition tend to hog the ball and have the ability to put Leicester’s physical and mental stamina to an unprecedented test. Ranieri knows that the calibre of opposition combined with the sheer workload of additional fixtures will stretch his players’ mental resources. Players, he says, will need rests not so much because of physical fatigue but because of the mental toll taken by the concentration and travel. That is why he intends to revive his Tinkerman reputation by rotating his squad.
“For this season I asked my owner to have a minimum of 22 players with the same level because I have to change something during the season,” said Ranieri, whose five summer recruits are expected to make important contributions even if only Ahmed Musa, the Nigerian forward signed from CSKA Moscow, has substantial Champions League experience.
“It’s not so difficult for the fitness to manage 16 or 17 more matches, it’s mentally. When you play for the first time a team who play in the Champions League you lose a lot of mental energy. That is the real problem. You want to kill the opponent and be aggressive but it is difficult to recharge the batteries for a team that is playing in it for the first time. The big teams are used to playing in it, for us it is new. I must understand this modulation.”
Given the mental challenges ahead, some managers would encourage players to consult a sports psychologist. Not the manager of the year who remains resolutely of the old school when it comes to mental empowerment. “When you are young maybe you need somebody who can help you but now you are a man,” said the 64-year-old. “In life you need to be strong. Psychologists? No.”
He does at least suggest that some sports psychologists may be useful, which is just as well, as Leicester employ one part-time: Ken Way is the author of Mental Mastery and, according to the club’s website, “focuses on the ‘mental game’ for all first-team and under-21 players – working on aspects like confidence, focus, belief, concentration, mental toughness and resilience.”
Still, Ranieri reckons “it is difficult to find a [good] sports psychologist” and explained that in 2012-13, when he guided Monaco to promotion from France’s second division, he worked with a practitioner who saw fundamental psychological problems where Ranieri saw basic football ones. “Once I had a psychologist who told me that when we played at home, there was a big elephant in the dressing room. I said: ‘I never saw this big elephant.’ He said: ‘We have a problem at home but not away.’ I said: ‘But you can understand tactically that when we are at home the other team stays all together behind the lines and we have to find a way through?’ Then when we won the title, I said: ‘Where is the elephant?’”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010