Injuries, a rotating defence and stale tactics: Here’s how Leicester City went from European football to relegation in one season – scout report
Leicester City‘s relegation from the Premier League in the 2022/23 season has left football fans scratching their heads. How did a team that won the league just a few years ago, and finished eighth in the previous season, fall so far so quickly?
‘Our objective this season is to get to 40 points.’ – Brendan Rodgers.
A quote that at the beginning of the season shocked Leicester fans, confirmed the dire reality at the King Power at the end. Ironically, 40 points would have been enough to keep Leicester in the Premier League and perhaps Rodgers was right.
There are multiple factors behind Leicester’s sharp decline in form this season, none more so than their dreadful start to the season. But what caused it? Simply put, the lack of transfer activity in the summer, losing key players to injury, and of course, selling their captain and long-term goalkeeper caused instability and a lack of confidence in the squad. Heading towards the second half of the season, Rodgers was unable to steer the ship back out of the relegation bottom three.
The sacking of Rodgers back in April, and the arrival of Dean Smith as manager did bring about a visible change in the team’s tactics and playing style and an immediate accumulation of points, however, it was not enough to keep the Foxes afloat.
This article will be a tactical analysis, in the form of a team scout report, of Leicester City’s disappointing 2022/23 Premier League season and the causes behind it. This analysis also looks at Leicester’s standout players this season who have put in performances that might be worthy of a stay in the Premier League.
“With the greatest respect, we have not had the help in the market this team needed.” – Rodgers in September following defeat to Manchester United.
Leicester had the least spending of any Premier League side last summer. The lack of transfer activity this year was undoubtedly impacted by the Chairman’s decision to spend 100 million pounds on a state-of-the-art training facility back in 2018-2019, right before the COVID-19 pandemic that affected teams all around the world. But to fully understand how Leicester found themselves cash-strapped, we must look at how they have handled their transfers over the past few seasons.
Having finished in consecutive Europa League qualifying places in 2020 and 2021, Leicester earned a sizeable pay bump in their revenue due to their domestic success and could attract players of a higher calibre to the club with the promise of European football. At the end of the 2020/21 season, they even narrowly missed out on a Champions League campaign by finishing one point behind Chelsea.
Naturally, with such support and faith from Chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha in their manager, during the summer of 2021, Leicester spent almost 60 million pounds on incoming transfers for the likes of Patson Daka, Boubakary Soumaré, Jannik Vestergaard, and Ryan Bertrand to bolster the squad. At first glance, this may not seem like a big deal having spent significant amounts on incoming transfers from previous summers for the likes of Wesley Fofana, Timothy Castagne, and Youri Tielemans. However, it is the change in nature of Leicester’s transfer policies that seemed to have impacted their campaign this season significantly.
Prior to its 2021 summer spending spree, the club had a history of selling big players to fund transfers for young and exciting players. Riyad Mahrez’s big money transfer to Manchester City back in 2018 funded the arrivals of James Maddison, Caglar Söyüncü, and Ricardo Pereira. In the following season, Harry Maguire was sold to the other side of Manchester for a record transfer, and in came Tielemans, Ayoze Pérez, and Dennis Praet. Then in the next summer, Ben Chilwell made way for Fofana and Castagne’s arrival. Most of the incoming signings have been impactful and directly contributed to Leicester’s successes in the following years.
The 2021-2022 season was different. Leicester City kept hold of all of their star players and did not let go of any players to fund incoming transfers. This led to a bloated squad and a huge wage bill increase (more than doubled from 68 million pounds in 2016 to 158 million in 2022), and the Foxes had to try to slim down their wage bill before they could bring anyone in this summer. As a result, Leicester City’s inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to let go of valuable assets in 2021/22, had severe implications on their ability this season to tap into the transfer markets. The departure of star centre-back Fofana and captain Kasper Schmeichel aimed to help alleviate some of this problem, but ultimately Leicester was unable to balance the books, with the latter heading to Ligue 1 for just 1 million euros.
A poor start and untimely World Cup break
Starting the season without replacing two vitally important members of the team in Fofana and Schmeichel was a recipe for disaster. With Söyüncü frozen out of the squad almost entirely this season, only making two appearances in the Premier League across the entire campaign under Rodgers, the Foxes started with 35-year-old Jonny Evans and pushed defensive midfielder Daniel Amartey into the heart of the defence.
Losing Ricardo Pereira early on to injury as well meant that four of the regular back five from last season (including the goalkeeper) were not present for the start of the season.
In the first seven games this season, Leicester conceded an astonishing 22 goals, losing all but one in a 2-2 draw against Brentford. This was likely the first time in Rodgers’ four-year tenure at the King Power that his job was under any real threat. The playing style and tactics hadn’t changed too much since his side’s top-10 finish last season either. Leicester still played out from the back, drawing teams in and looked towards the creativity of Tielemans and Maddison to unlock defences, whilst pressing immediately upon losing the ball.
One notable change Rodgers attempted to implement at the beginning of the season was inverting the fullbacks into midfield, a common sight in the Premier League this season. There are many reasons behind this, as Rodgers explains in an interview during pre-season. However, losing Periera to a rupture Achilles put an early end to this change.
“A different tactical idea to bring to the team. We work a lot from the side of the pitch. When he (the full-back) is coming in, the midfield player’s in a more advanced position and it’s for us to be more aggressive higher up the pitch.” – Rodgers commented when asked about Pereira’s positioning.
The Premier League can be an unforgiving test. The importance of a top-quality keeper can make all the difference when margins are so small at the highest level. With Schmeichel, Leicester had a steady pair of hands throughout their time at the English top flight. There are arguments on both sides as to whether letting him go to France was a good decision, but it can be said with certainty that not replacing him with another top-level goalkeeper has cost Leicester dearly.
It is well documented at this stage that Danny Ward, former second-choice goalkeeper at Leicester City, has not been able to repay the trust Rodgers had in him this season to step up, later being dropped in March for Daniel Iversen. Ward only managed six clean sheets this season (only Illan Meslier from Leeds has less with five). Moreover, when looking at his PSxG (post-shot expected goals measures how likely a goalkeeper is able to save a shot), Ward has a -5.5 PSxG, meaning he has a remarkably low shot-stopping rate.
The signing of Wout Faes at the end of the summer transfer window seemed to help plug the hole in defence for the Foxes. Faes help Leicester to four clean sheets in his first five games for the club. With the Belgian in the side, Leicester settled into a back four of James Justin, Fous, Amartey, and Castagne that brought them out of the relegation battle and into 13th in the league as the World Cup in Qatar brought the first part of the 2022/23 season to a halt.
The World Cup break really affected Leicester and any good form they had stopped dead in its tracks upon the restart. More injury setbacks to their defence with Justin rupturing his Achilles in an EFL Cup tie against Newport County and Evans sustaining a calf injury in early December meant further changes to their back four.
Rodgers brought in Harry Soutaar and Victor Kristiansen to reinforce their defence in January. However, both players had no prior experience in the Premier League which further emphasised Leicester’s struggle in the transfer market this season. At this point, it was a slippery slope for the Foxes. The constant chopping and changing to their defence led to instability and a lack of confidence in the squad. Rodgers only managed one win after the World Cup up until he was sacked in April and replaced by Dean Smith.
Too little too late
With Leicester sitting in 19th place, two points from bottom, it seemed like bringing in a replacement for Rodgers was only a matter of time. With eight games to go, Smith brought with him Craig Shakespeare and John Terry to help reinvigorate this sunken Leicester side. Immediately there was a visible change in tactics and the way they played.
This season, Leicester has dropped 24 points from winning positions, outlining their potency to go forward, but Smith needed to make some changes at the back. The manager brought Söyüncü back into the side to a more settled back four in Castagne, Faes, Söyüncü, and Kristiansen and changed their formation slightly, lining up in most games in a 4-4-1-1. This was done in part to bring their most in-form player, Maddison, into more dangerous positions and allow him to play off of the striker and in higher parts of the pitch to provide a more creative spark to the side. More importantly, it allowed Leicester to sit in a 4-4-2 defensive phase when teams have possession, to minimise space in behind and close off gaps in the middle of the pitch.
Pragmatic and defensively sound, those were the objectives for Smith to close out the season.
In the final eight games, Smith managed to get nine points, losing only twice to Fulham and Manchester City. Compared to Rodgers, who only managed eight points in 15 games after the World Cup, Smith definitely brought more out of the current crop of players than his predecessor. However, even winning against West Ham on the final day had a hint of being too little too late.
In an age where Premier League managers seem to come and go like a revolving door, there is some praise that has to be given to Leicester’s Chairman Srivaddhanaprabha for sticking with a manager. But one can’t help but think if Leicester might have stayed up had Smith taken over earlier. Or perhaps sticking to their manager through ups and downs might have seen another bounce back in form to keep the Foxes in the Premier League like Nottingham Forest and West Ham have done with their managers this season.
The only thing that is certain is that Leicester City hasn’t performed, and they will be playing in the Championship next season.
Leicester’s sellable assets
When teams drop down to the Championship, there will often be a clear out of players to lighten the wage bill, as Leicester will certainly need to do. Moreover, Leicester has had some stand-out players amidst a poor season that will likely tempt other Premier League teams to come in for a bargain buy.
Adding to their transfer woes, Leicester has seven players that are out of contract his summer, and six more with only a year left. There must be something said about allowing players of this quality to run down their contracts, especially the likes of Tielemans and Söyüncü who have attracted interest from top sides in previous years.
Out of Contract 2023
Out of Contract 2024
There are many first-team players who are out of contract this summer. Söyüncü has been in talks with a move to Atletico Madrid since the January transfer window and will have likely agreed on pre-contract arrangements. Tielemans is also an interesting player, having had great seasons before with the Foxes. He has had a dip in form this season but with him being out of contract this summer, it won’t be a surprise to see teams coming in for him with rumours of a move abroad being on the cards.
However, there are two key players that stand out as potential candidates to remain in the Premier League, albeit with another club. Leicester will likely look to get good money for Maddison and Harvey Barnes in the summer in a bid to avoid them leaving for free like some of their teammates this summer.
Maddison has a year left on his contract. With 10 goals and 9 assists in the Premier League this season, he is enjoying one of his best seasons with Leicester. Maddison is able to operate in midfield or out wide on the right and has an incredible ability to pick out a pass or have a shot himself, noting his dangerous passes per 90 and high shots per 90.
Moreover, Maddison has become more clinical in front of goal over the past two seasons, registering double digits in each. With that, Maddison combines a dangerous set-piece delivery and sharp technical skill with a willingness to press and run. It will be a real surprise to see Maddison playing in the Championship next season.
Despite playing on the left side, Barnes is Leicester’s top goal scorer in the Premier League this season with 13 goals this season. Rodgers has undoubtedly helped Barnes to become a more efficient and direct winger since his rise from the academy. With incredible off-the-ball movement and an ability to get in behind opposition defences after a quick one-two, Barnes is a handful for most sides.
He may lack some creativity in the final third, especially in his passing, but he would work well in teams that leave space behind for him to exploit. However, with Barnes contracted to Leicester until 2025, the Foxes may hold out for more money than some clubs may be willing to spend.
It wasn’t long ago that Leicester City went from winning the Premier League to consistently challenging for top-six finishes. From 8th to 18th, this season has seen Leicester slide from Europe to relegation. The club has a bloated squad with large wage bills, combined with spending big the summer before and the inability to offload key players for large sums, Leicester has gone about the season slow and lethargic.
The unfortunate injuries to key defensive players and the World Cup break have also impacted their season, causing them to ship far more goals than in previous seasons.
With Everton surviving relegation and hovering two points above Leicester on the final day, it may seem trivial but a possible win in the 2-2 draw at King Power against the Toffees may have been enough to keep the Foxes’ top-flight dreams alive, such are the fine margins of the Premier League. With the recent developments of their new training facility, and perhaps cashing in on some star performers this season, it may just be a small dip in an otherwise fairytale of the story for the Foxes in the past decade.
The fall of Leicester is only that much more evident from their sudden rise to the top back in 2014, and they may do the same again soon.
“If 8 years ago, you’d have given me the option of winning the Premier League and the FA Cup and then get relegated, I’d have snapped your hand off” – Gary Lineker.