Season Preview: Another star departs; can Leicester cope?

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Leicester City at a glance

Premier League titles: 1 (2016)

FA Cups: 0 (best finish: runners-up – 1949, 1961, 1963, 1969)

League Cups: 3 (1964, 1997, 2000)

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It’s been two years since Leicester City won the Premier League after starting the season as 5,000-1 long shots, and the Foxes only managed to narrowly eclipse their 2015-16 season points total (81) in the last two seasons gone by, combined (91). Leicester were headed for a serious relegation battle when Claudio Ranieri was dismissed nine months after lifting the PL trophy, but managed to finish 12th (44 points) on the back of a seven wins in their final 13 games. Last season followed quite the opposite path, as Craig Shakespeare was fired in October and Claude Puel arrived with a massive boost still quite early in the season. They finished ninth, but still won just 47 points in the process.

N'Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy were pretty unquestionably — and probably in that order — the three most important players during the title-winning season. Kante left for Chelsea mere weeks after celebrating at the King Power Stadium, while Mahrez finally got his long-sought-after move to — and corresponding payday from — a European giant, Manchester City. Even while missing a handful of league games due to transfer-related issues last season, Mahrez still bagged a dozen goals to come second, behind Vardy (20), for his now-former club.

The top-end talent is nowhere near the level it has been in the recent past, but there’s a solid case to be made that the middle of the squad is massively improved and that that could result in a steadier ride in 2018-19, with higher lows and lower highs.


Leicester will further solidify a top-half place because… manager Claude Puel builds and drills extremely competent and organized — but limited, albeit — teams. They’ll have one of the most robust, hardest-working midfield units in the entire league. They will be no fun to play against, and they’ll be even more difficult to score again. They have a great chance to finish with the best defensive record of clubs outside the top-six.

Leicester will end up in the relegation scrap because… scoring goals will be a challenge, unless Kelechi Iheanacho has a breakout season. While contributions will come from more places this season, there isn’t really any way to replace a player of Mahrez’s caliber if you’re a club of Leicester’s stature. Mid-table PL sides don’t sell a player for $80 million, then turn around and replace him with a $50- or 60-million player, the way an Arsenal or Chelsea can do. Also, Vardy is will turn 32 years old in January, and at some point he’s no longer going to be lightning quick, at which point he becomes far less effective — and feared.

Best possible XI:

Schmeichel

Pereira — Maguire — Evans — Chilwell

Ghezzal — Iborra — Ndidi — Gray

Maddison

Vardy

Transfers In: James Maddison ($32 million, Norwich City), Ricardo Pereira ($29 million, Porto), Danny Ward ($16 million, Liverpool), Jonny Evans ($5 million, West Brom), Rachid Ghezzal (undisclosed, Monaco)

Transfers Out: Riyad Mahrez ($80 million, Man City), Robert Huth (free), Ahmed Musa (undisclosed, Al-Nassr)

Ranking their offseason: B-

As discussed already, it’s impossible to replace Mahrez directly or with one player, so it was wise to not even try. Maddison has quickly progressed through the Football League and is full of potential, but he’s 21 years old and has played zero PL minutes in his career. Pereira, 24, is good enough to lock down the right back spot for nearly a decade, if he’s not poached by a bigger club in two years’ time; Evans arrives with the perfect blend of experience and a cheap price tag to replace Huth. Ghezzal is the wild card of the bunch.

Star player: In a perfect world, Iheanacho will have asserted himself as the Foxes’ undisputed star by the time May — November, preferably — rolls around. He’ll have to overcome a lot to do so, though, as Puel used him sparingly last season and pretty clearly doesn’t see him as a fit alongside Vardy, meaning he’ll likely have to unseat the man 10 years his senior in order to deliver on the potential he showed during brief flashes during his time at Man City.

Coach’s Corner: Again, Leicester won’t play the most beautiful, free-flowing soccer you’ve ever seen — far from it, actually — and it’ll be downright frustrating at times, and it’ll be by Puel’s design.

PST Predicts: Alongside Everton, Leicester should occupy no man’s land dead center between the top-six and the other dozen teams in the PL, all of whom are similarly competent and ambitious, but lacking the kind of depth possessed by the Toffees and Foxes. Leicester appear set to be a PL club for quite a long time into the future.