What was billed as the ideal fixture to open their title defense, Leicester City were downed 2-1 by manager-less Hull City. Norwegian international Adama Diomande opened his Premier League account with an overhead kick just before the interval. The defending champions would level matters one minute later however, when Riyad Mahrez slammed home his spot-kick after Damarai Gray was seemingly brought down in the box by Tom Huddlestone. The Tigers were not to be denied though, with Robert Snodgrass finding the winner in the 57th minute to seal all three points.
The result saw Hull become the first promoted side to win on opening day in the last four years. Leicester, however, were consigned the first champion to lose on opening day in Premier League history.
For all the justified credit levied in the direction of Mike Phelan’s troops, the grievous wounds suffered by the Foxes at the KC Stadium were self-inflicted.
“We made a big effort but it was individual effort, not like a team. Our strength is when everyone is connected to each other.” – Claudio Ranieri
A historic run last campaign is perhaps the best the midlands club could ever expect for quite some time, but the truth of the matter is one that we are all rather familiar with – Leicester’s camaraderie, work ethic, and inspirational performances from the aforementioned Mahrez, cult hero Jamie Vardy, the recently departed N’Golo Kante, Wes Morgan, Christian Fuchs and Kasper Schmeichel were key to their unexpected success. The question, simply, is where did that Leicester disappear to? Seemingly, it’s still on holiday. The one that showed up today may have dressed the part, but it was not the one that stole our hearts under the Italian headmaster a few months ago.
When you’re crowned champion, added expectations come with it. Last season the Foxes were one of the most efficient counter-attacking sides in the Prem, coupled with top-quality organization on the pitch and a spirit of optimism that is rarely seen in a side that wasn’t even close to being tipped for the European places. But perhaps said expectations have gotten the better of Ranieri’s men.
On Saturday we saw a Leicester side that replaced their identity for a title-winning swagger, over-confidence, and replaced hard work with a nonchalant approach – it’s a warning shot across their bow that cannot be ignored.
If a return to their tactical and mental approach is an absolute must, finding a way to move on from the loss of Kante is of equal importance. The French international holding midfielder was the embodiment of what Leicester were about last season. Coming out of nowhere after his move from SM Caen, he burst onto the scene to form one of the most dynamic midfield duos in recent memory.
By the end of the 2015/16 campaign, Kante led the Prem in tackles, as well as being high on the list of interceptions. Beyond his defensive ability, Kante provided control of the center of the park in performance after performance reminiscent of Claude Makelele – this key avenue of contribution was something they sorely missed against Hull, and it’s an aspect of their approach that they need to rediscover… the sooner the better.
The question for Ranieri, and indeed many a Leicester support, is have the club genuinely replaced him properly? It may only have been one performance, but Andy King did himself no favors alongside Danny Drinkwater. There was improvement when Daniel Amartey was introduced in the 67th minute, but it certainly wasn’t enough.
The potential replacement for Kante comes by way of new signing holding midfielder Nampalys Mendy, who joined the club from Ligue 1 outfit OGC Nice. Mendy played a vital central role for Les Aiglons last season under now Southampton boss Claude Puel, featuring in all thirty-eight league fixtures and helping the Cote d’Azur-based side to an unexpected 4th-placed finish and a place in this season’s Europa League.
Though he’s been capped at every youth level in the French national set-up and comes highly-touted, we’ve seen many players come from Gallic country and fail to impress in their first season in England (see: Aston Villa last term). The immediate concern for Ranieri needs to be to get Mendy fit and firing if Leicester are to cope with life without Kante.
In that light, beyond moving past the loss of such a key player, Leicester have to get back to being who they were. No one worked harder, and certainly there were none who wanted to earn results more. Despite those qualities, it’s difficult to see them pulling off another magical run to the top of the pile. However, they remain a club that have the players capable of another strong domestic showing.
Added to the move for Mendy, Ranieri brought in Bartosz Kapustka, Ahmed Musa, Luis Hernandez and Ron-Robert Zieler. Not only has their talent pool improved, but they now have added depth to tackle a season which will include the Champions League.
With more ability added to the side, there will be residual silk applied to their style of play. The goal should be to avoid overlooking the building blocks that were laid previously.
It’s a dilemma we’ve recently seen around Europe. The likes of Werder Bremen and VfB Stuttgart topped the Bundesliga in 2003/04 and 2006/07 respectively, but then failed to genuinely kick on afterwards. The same can be said for Montpellier in 2011/12 in Ligue 1, finishing first but then collapsing like a flan in a cupboard not long after.
Surprise champions are not unheard of, but unfortunately neither is their failure to establish themselves. This is the conundrum that Leicester now face. They’ve improved on paper, but they must resist the temptation of turning into something they are not. A team can better themselves without forgetting where they came from. If they are to keep themselves in the Premier League elite, Leicester must continue to put faith in the system that got them there.