'It's back to reality now.' Why Leicester City are struggling in the Prem
"We are fighting in a relegation battle." That, coming from the manager of a team two points off the bottom three, would seem a statement of the obvious. But when it comes from Claudio Ranieri, manager of defending champions Leicester City, who have just qualified for the knockout rounds of the Champions League with a game to spare, it looks slightly more alarming.
Were it not for a last-minute penalty in a 2-2 draw against Middlesbrough on Saturday, Leicester would have lost their third straight Premier League game. Frustration in the crowd was evident and, although the outward vocal dissatisfaction had not reached that point yet, one sensed that boos would have greeted the final whistle if they had lost. For a team who achieved such miraculous things last season, that is extraordinary.
Leicester's title win was probably the biggest over-performance in English -- perhaps all -- football history, but that doesn't necessarily explain why they have dropped so far this season. The Foxes could be the first defending champions to be relegated since Manchester City in 1938. In some ways that would be fitting, emphasising even further what an utterly magnificent freak event last term was. But there are reasons for it beyond the obvious.
"It's back to reality now, that's for sure..."
-- club captain Wes Morgan tells ESPN FC
So why are things going so wrong?
Leicester's dangermen being kept quiet
Morgan points to a number of factors, the clearest being the stifling of their primary attacking threats, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. "They were our key dangermen," says Morgan. "Perhaps other teams are looking at 'how can we keep them quiet, because if we can we've got a good chance of getting a result against Leicester.' I think obviously those players haven't found it as easy as they have last season, and it could be they've found extra focus on them this season."
Ranieri certainly agrees, commenting on a number of occasions that teams now double up on Mahrez in particular. "When Mahrez gets the ball, there are minimum two players close to him," he said before the weekend. "If he keeps possession, arrives a third."
Teams did that in the second half of last season too, but Leicester managed to find a way around it, relying on others to make an impact. Yet, this season, others have not stepped up and Vardy has now gone 15 club games without a goal.
Against Middlesbrough, one moment summed up the plight of Leicester (and last season's player of the year) rather nicely. Vardy stood in acres of space inside the penalty area as Shinji Okazaki wiggled his way into some room on the left; Okazaki briefly considered the merits of passing or shooting, electing for the former, but his ball was weak and slightly misdirected, giving a Boro defender a chance to slide it away. Vardy grinned grimly, quietly lamenting the fates that were conspiring against him. With Leicester desperate for a goal, he was taken off midway through the second half, head bowed in frustration.
Teammates say Vardy is the same character as he was when scoring plenty of goals last term -- although Ranieri revealed that he hadn't even been scoring much in training -- but it's clear that he's far less potent. Part of this is due to opposition tactics, with teams dropping much deeper and not allowing him space to run in behind defences, but it's also clearly a confidence issue. There have been slightly more subtle changes, too.
Teams are playing against them differently
"Teams are happy to let City have the ball this season," James Sharpe, correspondent for the Leicester Mercury, tells ESPN FC. "Leicester had 55 percent possession against Watford [a game they lost 2-1] but ended up having to lump balls into the box as they had 11 men behind the ball."
This is in stark contrast to last term when they listed 18th in the Premier League possession statistics, averaging 44.8 percent over the campaign. Statistics can be misleading, but this was a significant part of Leicester's gameplan: allow teams to have the ball, then hit them on the break.
This also fits with how opponents have been playing against them in the Champions League. "The top teams in Europe like to play a more possession-based style, whereas we're more of a counter-attack style," says Morgan. Leicester seems much happier there and have won four of their five games in the competition -- only having the majority of the ball in one.
This doesn't happen in every game, but it's a clear tactic that opponents have adopted against them. Again, Leicester faced elements of this last season but found a way to punch through, including that extraordinary run in which they won five games in a row 1-0. In some of those games they relied on luck and, if you listen to some of the angrier corners of the internet, refereeing decisions going their way. It seems simplistic to say it, but sometimes things like this happen in a sport as chaotic as football.
And yet, despite their struggles at home, they are performing brilliantly in the Champions League. Could it be that it's just easier to take teams by surprise in Europe?
"There's no definite answer as to why we're doing well in the Champions League but not the Premier League..."
-- Wes Morgan
Have Leicester psychologically de-prioritised the Premier League?
Are Leicester just more focused on the novelty of the continental competition than domestic matters? "Not at all," says Morgan. "We understand what got us to the Champions League, so in terms of that you'd think the Premier League would be even more of a priority."
Yet the manager's actions and words tell a slightly different story. Ranieri has regularly rested key players with European games in mind, notably leaving Mahrez out of the side to face Chelsea a few days before playing FC Copenhagen, and more or less explicitly stated his preference when explaining his choice.
"The Premier League is one year long," he said. "Champions League is two months, in or out. We want to go in the knockout in Champions League or Europa League. To achieve this you have to have all your players fit and I prefer to preserve some players for Tuesday night."
This shouldn't be a surprise: last season when the title looked close but Champions League qualification was wrapped up, Ranieri almost seemed more delighted they were guaranteed a top-four place.
The Italian's demeanour hasn't changed: he is still the avuncular, grandpa of the Premier League, and has continued his endearing habit of shaking hands with every journalist present at his prematch news conferences. But his priorities have altered: this is a man with unfinished business in the Champions League.
More games are having an impact and cause Ranieri to tinker
There's also the fact that Leicester have more games to cope with this season. Last term, they exited both domestic competitions in the fourth round, leaving them free after January to purely concentrate on the league. It's been noted at length elsewhere, but it's not a huge surprise that the Premier League's top two sides, Liverpool and Chelsea, have no European concerns to clutter the schedule this season.
That they had to strengthen their squad to deal with the extra pressures and workload has a knock-on effect too: last season the announcement of Leicester's team was the least exciting event of every weekend. Barring injuries or suspensions, you always knew who was going to play.
This term, with more options, Ranieri has tinkered and, according ESPN FC's Leicester blogger Ben Jacobs, doesn't seem to know his best XI. "We've got some new players in, we've lost some players from last season, and the dynamics have changed a little bit in terms of that," Morgan says.
The loss of N'Golo Kante is key
But what about the opposition players -- is there anything they have noticed in particular?
"The big, big difference is N'Golo [Kante, sold to Chelsea in the summer]," Crystal Palace midfielder Yohan Cabaye, who scored in a recent 3-1 defeat to Leicester, told ESPN FC. "They have very good players now, I respect everyone, but N'Golo was their main player and the one who kept their shape, and kept the team really strong. He helped them win the title for sure. Since he left, maybe it's more difficult for them to be as solid this season."
Nampalys Mendy, signed to at least partly replace Kante, has been out injured since August, leaving Daniel Amartey to largely fill in since. Amartey, for all his qualities, is merely one player; Kante always controlled the game like he was at least two.
Leicester have a target on their backs
"We're the champions, and everyone wants to beat the champions..."
-- Wes Morgan
"I don't know if they're giving an extra 10 percent in their games because they want to beat us more, but it's definitely been much tougher," Morgan adds. "The other teams have definitely improved too -- the bigger teams that didn't perform so well last season are all fighting at the top, and you can see it's a real battle up there."
Simpson agrees. "The reactions of teams in the last couple of weeks when they've beaten the team has said a lot," he said, when Morgan's theory was put to him by ESPN FC. "They want to beat the champions, and yeah, maybe they are giving it a bit more, and they're coming to the King Power with nothing to lose."
After such a great season, it's just normal
There are many reasons for Leicester's struggles and one could probably distil everything down to the fact that, last season everything went right, and it only takes a few variations to disrupt that delicate balance. This time, normality has returned; the confidence and the inevitability of results, as if a higher guiding force was pointing them in the right direction, has gone.
"They remember last season, when everybody played well and everything they tried was good but this year we have to reconnect our brains," said Ranieri at the weekend.
Perhaps it doesn't matter if Leicester struggle this season. Perhaps it will only emphasise the glory of 2015-16; a star which burned brightly but briefly.
"Most players in our team would never have imagined what we achieved last season, and we're not going to easily forget about it..."
-- Wes Morgan
"Last season I had to look behind me, and for this reason I always said [the target was] 40 points, 40 points, 40 points," Ranieri said last week. "When I said 40 points this season, a lot of people were laughing. But I know what could happen. What's happening this year with Leicester is normal."
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.