Leicester City are in a place we haven’t visited in a long, long time: we are comfortably mid-table in the Premier League.
With five games to go, the challenge for Europe is realistically over and we’re safe from relegation. That leaves the club with little to play for, but many questions that need answering over these final five fixtures.
There are plenty of other questions that will have to wait until the summer. Which veterans are on their way out? Can we keep our young stars like Wilfred Ndidi and Harry Maguire? Will we finally find a backup goalkeeper who can challenge Kasper Schmeichel for the #1 shirt (probably not). We can’t know the answers to these questions yet, and there’s very little we can learn about them over the last month of the season. Let’s instead focus on what we can learn between now and the end of the term
Will the club commit to Claude Puel for next season?
This is the single biggest question and the answer to it affects all of the others. If Puel’s job is safe, he can experiment with both shape and personnel. If his job security is in doubt, he may feel the need to play his best XI every match.
Has he done enough to deserve a level of security? That’s a divisive question with no easy answer. After an initial run of great results, opponents seem to have learned how to nullify his tactics. But, this team is clearly not well suited to his preferred tactics of playing short, quick passes. There’s reason to hope that, with a couple of shrewd buys, City will be able execute this style more effectively and the results will improve.
What will life without Riyad Mahrez look like?
After trying to engineer moves away from the King Power, it seems almost certain that Mahrez will finally get his wish. He can be a frustrating player, but there’s no questioning his quality and his ability to single-handedly conjure something out of nothing.
It is unlikely that the Foxes will be able to replace him with anything like a similar player. His departure will necessitate a change both in personnel and tactics. This is doubly concerning because, of all the players in the squad, the Algerian is theoretically the best-suited to playing Puel’s preferred style.
The gaffer has five matches to try to find a mix of players and shapes. Assuming Puel will be back and Mahrez won’t, there’s really no reason to start the former Le Havre except perhaps for the final home match of the season on 9 May. He deserves the opportunity to come off to applause during his final match with the club.
Which young players can be counted on to contribute next year?
City have an wealth of young talent, but much of it has spent the majority of the season on the bench. Demarai Gray, Kelechi Iheanacho, Fousseni Diabate and now Hamza Choudhury are all exciting players for whom big things are expected. Unfortunately, we have learned very little about whether or not they’re ready to contribute on a regular basis.
With five near-friendlies to end the season, Puel can give them an extended run in the side to determine if they should be included in the 2018-19 plans or if we need to start looking for replacements. Their playing time will have to come at the expense of Marc Albrighton, Shinji Okazaki, and the aforementioned Mahrez, but we already know what we have with each of them. It’s time to learn what the youngsters can do.
Should Aleksandar Dragovic’s loan be made permanent?
The situation with the Austrian international is a little different than that of the young players, in that he’s only on loan with City and he’s not a youngster brimming with potential. Dragovic is the finished article, and he looked promising when Wes Morgan was sidelined for an extended period.
The questions, then, are “Is he worth bringing in as a permanent signing?” and “Should he be considered for the starting XI, or is he just a reliable reserve?” The only way to find out is to give him games.
What formations will allow us to best use the players who will be here next year?
To some degree, the manager’s hands have been tied in terms of tactics. The best XI players work best in a very specific shape, a 4-4-1-1, and every attempt at changing this has led to unsatisfactory results. Now that the results aren’t (or shouldn’t be) of primary importance and, in theory, new players will be getting a chance to play, it’s a perfect time to try out new shapes and tactics.
Iheanacho, in particular, seemed largely out of sorts in the 4-4-1-1. His ability to poach goals and to play clever short passes in the box is minimized by his having to play behind the main striker. Fortunately, he is exactly the kind of play who should thrive under Puel’s preferred tactics and should be given an opportunity to play as a true second striker nearer to the opponents goals.
Can we play three at the back? Let’s find out! Is Adrien Silva capable of being the central playmaker we lack? Try him in a 4-5-1 or 3-5-2. How well does the offense work with both Gray and Diabate terrorizing the wings? I have no clue, but I bet it’d be fun to watch.
This was not the “Here’s how we can qualify for Europe” piece I was hoping to write. With that disappointment out of the way, I started to get excited about 2018/19 while writing it. Let’s go ahead and get a head start on preparing for next year since we have the opportunity!