In the notorious words of one Christopher Wallace, “It was all a dream.” Or at least that’s how it feels these days. It’s not possible that this Leicester is the same club that won the Premier League title less than a year ago, is it?
For the sake of accuracy I’m forced to remind everyone that it is, in fact, the same club, though it certainly doesn’t look like it on the pitch.
The best feeling Leicester City fans have felt in quite a while is an extra-time win over a Championship side in the FA Cup. That is startling. While a 3-1 scoreline against rivals Derby should lift the spirits of otherwise downtrodden fans, it might not be an accurate indicator of where the team is heading. This may be especially true when you consider the quality of the opposition and that both sides fielded heavily rotated squads.
So while - for the most part - the team struggles and the supporters suffer, we’re left with little to analyze other than this very suffering.
With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the most frustrating aspects of Leicester’s season so far:
The Juxtaposition of This Season and Last
Sure, last season’s title probably had a lot to do with the universe’s sudden affinity for ending seemingly eternal (or actually eternal) championship droughts (see: Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Cubs, Clemson Tigers) and N’Golo Kanté becoming the human equivalent of the Energizer Bunny. Neither of those factors are still in play.
But the expectations for this year’s edition of the champions were still incredibly high. Many major publications predicted that the Foxes would finish in the top eight, and frankly, anything less would have sounded a bit insulting.
What has actually transpired, however, is an unexpected return to traditional Leicester form and a historically bad title defense. To go from hoisting the Premier League trophy to sitting - at the moment - just one point above the relegation zone is jarring.
Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez
Yes, there are probably more detrimental factors than the subpar play of these two Leicester deities, but this is about frustration. When you’ve seen what they are capable of at their best, it’s hard to judge them by reasonable human standards.
So often last season it was Vardy and Mahrez who were the authors of the spectacular.
While others provided the necessary grit, they provided the sparks. They tore apart defenses and they did it with swagger. They bagged countless goals, picked up a couple of awards, and even broke records. So to see Jamie Vardy turn into a dive-first striker and Riyad Mahrez rely on set pieces for goals is more than disappointing.
Worse is that they’ve each had their moments this season too. The Manchester City game, for example, displayed both a ruthless Vardy and a silky-smooth Mahrez.
Clearly the talent is still there, but what’s missing is harder to say, and what’s left is monumental disappointment.
The Talent Level
In terms of personnel, the Foxes are almost exactly the same team they were a year ago. While they did lose one superhuman in N’Golo Kanté, they also maintained the other 10 starters.
They even bolstered their roster with several club record signings in the form of Nampalys Mendy, Ahmed Musa, and Islam Slimani. In addition to that they signed a starlet in Bartosz Kapustka and a workhorse in Tall Kanté (Wilfred Ndidi).
Conventional wisdom would tell you that making these changes to a league-winning roster would, at the very least, keep the club in the top half of the table. All of this is to say that the whole squad - not just Vardy and Mahrez - is playing well below their full capabilities. To think otherwise would be to accept last season’s triumph as little more than a miraculous fluke.
Although, abiding by conventional wisdom does not appear to be a strength of Leicester City.
Claudio Ranieri is an enigma. As the man in charge of “big clubs” such as Valencia, Chelsea, and Juventus he never won a top-flight title. Winning his first with Leicester City is not just a remarkable achievement, but a legendary one.
And the way he did it was incredible too. Claudio fought the “tinkerman” label he had been given and stuck to a more consistent approach. He picked his preferred XI and used them as much as humanly possible. He also managed to inspire not only those 11, but the entire club, and perhaps the entire city of Leicester.
This is in stark contrast to the events of the current season. Granted, it is easier to stick to a preferred XI when they are performing well. But Claudio has not only deviated from last season’s starting lineup and tactics, he has yet to find any consistency with either at all this season.
Claudio appeared to have bucked the trend that plagued him earlier in his career, only to return to it after his greatest success.
But again, conventional wisdom does not appear to be a strength of Leicester or its manager.
At times this season the Foxes have shown the kind of form that won them the title - albeit rarely. The Manchester City game is the most obvious example of this as nearly everything that made Leicester so magical was on display.
Explosive attacks and thrilling finishes were regular occurrences for the Foxes then. Now we’re left with tiring goal droughts and little excitement.
The most frustrating part of this is that the flashes of last year’s form even appear in poor performances. Brief attacking moves have shown the kind of inventiveness we’re so desperately missing. Each instance in which they appear, especially in the case of the complete game against City, provides a painful sort of hope for fans.
The flashes hurt as much as they do because they simultaneously remind us of how good we can be and how good we currently are not.