(Writer’s Note: This is the 12th of what will hopefully be 20 team previews in 20 days. Or at the very least, all 20 teams prior to the 2018-19 Premier League’s season-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City on August 10. Links to previous teams can be found at the bottom of the page)
LEICESTER CITY FOXES
Manager: Claude Puel (Hire Date: Oct. 25, 2017)
Tenure Length: 14th/20 in Premier League and 49th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 12-11-15, 47 points, 9th in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 56
2017-18 Goal Difference: minus-4
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League: 5 (includes 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 2014
Last Relegation: 2008 (Championship to League One)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Quarterfinal loss on penalties (Manchester City)
2017-18 FA Cup: Quarterfinal loss after extra time (Chelsea)
It was a rough start for Leicester City, which had a brutal gauntlet to open the season with losses to Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool among its first seven matches. But it was the draw at struggling West Bromwich Albion that proved a bridge too far for ownership as Craig Shakespeare was sacked in mid-October.
Claude Puel, who was jettisoned after one season at Southampton despite an eighth-place finish in 2016-17, stepped into the vacant coaching spot. The Foxes responded with five wins and points in seven of its next eight matches, with the lone blemish a 2-0 loss to Manchester City.
Leicester City struggled in December, with the low point a tough exit on penalties to City in the quarterfinals of the Carabao Cup, but the turn of the calendar year saw a positive bounce with seven points in league play and FA Cup victories over Fleetwood Town and Peterborough United. The Foxes hit their high-water mark of seventh place on Jan. 24 after beating Watford 2-0 on goals by Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.
But a five-match winless spell in league play followed, with draws in three consecutive home matches, and the Foxes’ FA Cup run ended with a loss after extra time to Chelsea in the quarters. Despite taking just four points in the final seven matches (1-1-5), Leicester City was able to stay above the struggling bottom half of the table the entire time.
The Foxes sealed their top-half status with a 3-1 win over Arsenal in their penultimate match, then concluded the season with a wild 5-4 loss at Tottenham Hotspur in which they squandered a 3-1 lead and nearly stole a point before being done in by Harry Kane in the final quarter-hour.
POTENTIAL STARTING XI
One thing which stands out for Leicester City is the flexibility Puel has with wide backs Ben Chillwell and new acquisition Ricardo Pereira. While the Foxes have played with four in the back in the preseason, it seems possible Leicester City could hybrid into a 3-5-2 set-up.
Kasper Schmeichel is the unquestioned No. 1 after backstopping Denmark to the round of 16 at the World Cup, and Harry Maguire is coming off a standout performance for England in Russia that has skyrocketed his value to over £65 million as the Foxes are fighting off potential suitors, most notably opening-match opponent Manchester United.
Evans adds another capable veteran to the back line, while Fuchs would flank Maguire on the right behind Pereira, another player who saw his stock rise in Russia while playing for Portugal. On the left in front of Evans is Ben Chillwell, who has shown plenty of promise at the club while progressing through England’s youth program.
The midfield is where it gets messy or interesting depending on how you view your glass. Wilfred Ndidi remains as the defensive midfield stopper, and Puel could pair him with Vicente Iborra or Adrien Silva, whose adventurous transfer saga delayed his Midlands debut until January.
Nampalys Mendy provides depth at both positions, but who will fill the large playmaking boots of Mahrez is a question that has no set answer and plenty of possible ones.
Marc Albrighton could get first crack at the most forward role, though it is also possible Silva could feature there. Newcomer James Maddison has the potential to carve out some playing time, and Daniel Amartey could prove an interesting flex option if Puel wants to try something that would resemble a 3-4-2-1 set-up with Jamie Vardy as a sole striker.
Vardy will again lead the line, but there is competition for the underneath role among Kelechi Iheanacho and his Nigerian compatriot Ahmed Musa. The tireless Shinji Okazaki again serves a useful third striker role off the bench, and there are reports Islam Slimani will be off-loaded, perhaps to Fenerbahce, before the start of the season.
While Puel claimed he had a lineup in mind for the opener versus Manchester United after a preseason loss to Udinese, he does not lack for options or potential combinations throughout his starting XI.
THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS
Leicester City made a raft of signings over the summer, but the move everyone will rightfully focus on is the departure of Mahrez to Manchester City for £60 million. That ended a protracted saga which should have ended in the January window and lasted almost two entire seasons after the Foxes won the Premier League title in 2016.
His absence creates a huge playmaking void that no one signing can replace. The hope is Madisson can eventually be that player after coming over from Norwich City on a £22 million move, but the 21-year-old England youth product may be a season away from taking on the role full-time and should fare well as an understudy to Albrighton.
After losing backup keeper Ben Hamer, Leicester City signed Danny Wood after he became surplus to goods at Liverpool following its record signing of Alisson. The Foxes shored up their central defence with the signing of Evans after his relegation clause was activated at West Brom, and the move to a three-man backline was put into high gear with the £24 million acquisition of Pereira, the Portugal international who spent last season at Porto after two seasons on loan at Nice, including the 2015-16 season under Puel.
THE GUY WORTH SEEING
Jamie Vardy (F)
The cult hero of the Midlands and the poster boy for hard work to climb the rungs of the football ladder, Vardy continued to bang those who “chat shit” after ringing up 20 goals in league play for the second time in three seasons, giving him 57 in 108 matches over that span and 63 in 128 overall.
He will obviously miss Mahrez’s creativity as the two operated on a wavelength few could match in Europe, let alone just the Premier League, but Vardy’s work rate has never failed him in his climb to the top, and that will still be the case after helping England reach the World Cup semifinals this summer. He may take a small step back in terms of the final number of goals, but undervalue him at your own risk.
Oddsmakers are fairly confident Leicester City will not be part of the relegation scrap, offering 14/1 odds on the Foxes being dropped, pegging them as the best team outside the top seven. They have the third-shortest odds to finish in the top 10 at 4/6 and are even money to place 11th or worse.
Leicester City is getting 7/1 odds for a top-six finish, again the favorite outside the standard seven, while a top-four finish is 33/1, behind promoted Wolverhampton outside the top seven.
Vardy is 13th to take home the Premier League’s Golden Boot with 33/1 odds, level with Manchester City’s Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling.
FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES
Aug. 10 — Manchester United (2nd) A
Aug. 18 — Wolverhampton (N/A) H
Aug. 25 — Southampton (17th) A
Sept. 1 — Liverpool (4th) H
April 20 — West Ham United (13th) A
April 27 — Arsenal (6th) H
May 4 — Manchester City (1st) A
May 12 — Chelsea (5th) H
On one hand, it feels like Puel being in charge in the Midlands is a return to Leicester City’s counterattacking roots Cluadio Ranieri developed in its fairy-tale run to the 2016 title, but on the other hand, two seasons removed from all the dirty work N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater performed that campaign shows just how much further Ndidi and Iborra have to develop to bring the Foxes to an elite level.
That task is made all the more difficult without Mahrez, and Leicester City’s attack is more of a jigsaw puzzle in the middle Puel must figure out with the border already solved in Vardy.
The Foxes should be fairly strong in the spine this season after the superb summers of both Schmeichel and Maguire; the key for Puel will be to make sure Chillwell and Pereira remember their defensive responsibilities out wide in support and being disciplined in the timing of their upfield thrusts.
While the start of their schedule is challenging, playing top teams who are loaded with World Cup regulars working their way back into shape could prove to be beneficial for Leicester City. But the Foxes’ run-in is diabolical, even before factoring in pundits pegging West Ham to punch above its weight compared to last season.
This season will be a work in progress for Leicester City, which can ill-afford a coaching merry-go-round for the third straight season. The sooner the Foxes find a consistent replacement for Mahrez’s playmaking duties in the midfield, the better, but look for this team to be a defence-first outfit in the early going before getting into gear offensively.
PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS
July 18 — Fulham July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace Auugst 6 — Manchester City