[This series will break down each positional group and preview its expectations on a player-by-player basis. After finishing with the goalkeepers and defenders, it’s the midfielders’ turn.]
One of the biggest factors that helped Leicester City on their push to an unlikely title was the play all across their midfield four. In a world where three central midfielders is now the norm, the Foxes’ two of Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kanté held their own, while the creative play from the wide men was spectacular.
Of course, a big part of the success of that system was Kanté, who Ranieri and Steve Walsh both described as playing the part of two players. He’s now departed for the “greener” pastures of 10th place finishers Chelsea, but three quarters of that fantastic combination remain with some new additions and some old faces returning.
So what can we expect from the midfield this coming season...
Riyad Mahrez - @Mahrez22
Leicester’s ace in the hole. Simply put, Mahrez tore the Premier League apart last season, picking up 17 goals, 11 assists and the PFA Players’ Player of the Year trophy. Since then, a new rumor that he’ll sign for Arsenal has sprung every 2-3 days. The owners insist he’s not for sale, however, and Ranieri says the player is happy to stay, so hopefully he will.
Season Preview: As long as he’s a Leicester player, Mahrez will continue to work that right-hand side and devastate defenders (case in point Cesar Azpilicueta) while providing a deadly offensive partnership with Jamie Vardy and the rest of Leicester’s forward group.
Mahrez may have just completed the season of his life. That could be it, he’s peaked, and it’s all downhill from here. I mean, it could be. It isn’t through. In fact, he’s still getting better. In particular, his defensive effort under Ranieri looked to be improving week on week. Becoming a more rounded player would be a great move for someone with a tendency to occasionally leave his dancing shoes at home.
Expect the Algerian to play almost every minute in Europe for the Foxes this season and in the Premier League, but players like Marc Albrighton and Demarai Gray can provide much-needed respite on the right side during a long season.
Danny Drinkwater - @DannyDrinkwater
The impalpable connection between Drinkwater and Kanté was a sight to behold all last season, with the French midfielder getting most of the praise from pundits. For all the talk of Kanté’s energy, Vardy’s goals and the sublime skills of Mahrez, appreciation for Drinkwater can sometimes get lost.
Drinkwater doubled his total minutes played from 2014/15 and had a phenomenal season, providing a strong link-up on the counter-attack and working his way to the fringes of the England camp.
“Name me a midfielder who eclipsed him last season. There isn’t one.” - Ian Wright on Drinkwater.
Status: First Choice
Season Preview: After working side-by-side with one of the game’s best defensive players, Danny D faces one of the biggest tests in Leicester’s camp this upcoming season. There’s no denying that whoever he partners in midfield this year, things will be a bit different and it may take some time to adjust to it.
It remains to be seen if he’ll take a year to adjust to the Champions League, as he did with the Championship and the Premier League, but it’s suspected that he’ll remain consistently impressive this year and will make his mark for club and country.
It’ll be interesting to see just how much of Drinkwater’s success was influenced by Kanté and how he’ll adapt to playing alongside Namplays Mendy and Andy King. Things that won't change in that time include his work rate, tackling and beautiful long balls over the top of defenses.
Andy King - @10_kingy
King Andrew X, Andy to you and I, has been with this club from the lowest point in its history to the very highest it can get. A perennial sight for Leicester in the midfield, King has seen it all. He’s been a part of championships in League One, the Championship, and the Premier League with the Foxes — a first for the Premier League era — and is their all-time leading scorer in the position. He was also in the Wales squad that made it to the semifinal of Euro 2016. Quite a year.
Status: First choice, for now
Season Preview: Kanté needs to be replaced and the team still doesn’t seem certain how. There are plenty of options, but they all offer something a bit different. King, who has 49 appearances since making the top flight, will get the first chance.
Despite Mendy being Kanté’s like-for-like replacement, King should get the start for Leicester this season. He’s not as strong defensively, but does offer positives. His tendency to find the back of the net from midfield would be a boost if Vardy or Mahrez struggle to replicate last season’s form. Playing just over 1000 minutes for the Foxes last season — scoring two goals and one assist — expect Kingy to see a lot more time on the pitch this campaign.
Nampalys Mendy - @MendyNempalys
Mendy was temporarily the club’s record signing after a £13m move from French side Nice this summer. The diminutive frenchman won promotion to Ligue 1 with Monaco under Ranieri and, at just 23, captained Nice to 4th place finish this year, qualifying for the Europa League.
Status: First off the bench
Season Preview: King will be given the first chance at starting, but Mendy will be waiting for his chance, and will probably be given substitute appearances to make an impression as well. As much as he’s been compared to Kanté, that impression will be felt very differently.
He prefers to break up moves using his sense of positioning, rather than the high motor and great speed we’re used to. He is, however, a fantastic passer and I expect him to play a lot and well. As long as no one expects him to be a different 5’6” frenchman, we’ll all be very pleased with him.
Marc Albrighton - @RealMarc12
Two years ago, Aston Villa decided local boy Marc was no longer up to their standard and let him leave. Recently promoted Leicester planned to bring in a big man and decided they needed to pair him with a dedicated crosser, so signed Albrighton for free.
Today, Leicester are champions of England and Aston Villa just lost to Luton Town 3-1 in the League Cup. The clubs’ fortunes have drastically differed since Marc joined the Foxes.
After joining Leicester ahead of the 2013-14 season, Albrighton has seen a resurgence with Leicester by playing an important role with set-pieces and his crossing ability.
Status: In the rotation
Season Preview: The club’s best defensive winger with a great work rate and a killer right foot, he’ll continue to get plenty of minutes, especially in Europe and against the biggest teams. With up-and-comer Demarai Gray breathing down his neck for playing time, Albrighton could split time on the left side over the course of the season, especially in cup matches.
There’s no denying the strength in depth the Foxes currently have on the wings, however. Marc is much better on the right, where he doesn’t have to cut back to cross, but Mahrez has that position locked down. Expect to see much more rotation on the left than we did last year.
Bartosz Kapustka - @kapi67d
Leicester City’s newest recruit after a £7.5m transfer from Cracovia, Poland’s “little cabbage” is one the countries biggest rising stars. He featured regularly in their Euro 2016 campaign, including a man of the match performance against Northern Ireland.
Status: In the rotation
Season Preview: A left sided playmaker, the disputed territory that is the left wing is the natural fit for him within this 4-4-2 system. There are lots of other options there, including Jeff Schlupp, Demarai Gray and Ahmed Musa, who will be featured amongst the strikers.
Outside of his position, it’s hard to know what to expect. Sure he’s talented, but he’s coming from a very weak division to arguably the strongest. We all remember how Kramaric handled that transition.
Daniel Amartey - @Dan Amartey
Since his arrival from FC Copenhagen in January, the Ghanaian international has started at right back and central midfield and appeared as a substitute in all three midfield positions. Back in Denmark he also played as a center back.
Status: Super utility
Season Preview: It’s not a glamorous role and he may be accused of being a jack of all trades, but these types of player are very useful. He will come off the bench fairly regularly but start rarely.
Matty James - @MattyJames_8
James was the perfect foil to Danny Drinkwater in the Championship winning season and played a huge part in the great escape the next year. Unfortunately, he picked up an ACL injury and hasn’t appeared in a competitive match since May 2015.
Season Preview: I was always a big fan of his play, so ignore me when I say: if he comes back as good as he was, he could push ahead of King and Mendy to start.
With that out of the way, James is probably here to provide depth and not a great deal more. He’ll start cup games and make the occasional substitute appearance.