Many people thought N’Golo Kanté was unlucky to miss out on the individual awards at the end of last season. His contribution to Leicester’s overall efficiency was immense, even if it was not as eye-catching as some of Jamie Vardy’s goals or as silkily impressive as Riyad Mahrez’s support play.
The French midfielder has much more chance of recognition this time around. Not just because Chelsea winning the league would bring him a second champions medal in successive seasons, or make his £32m transfer fee look a relative bargain, but because Leicester are in such imminent danger of relegation. Kanté was the only prominent member of Claudio Ranieri’s title-winning squad to leave last summer, and look at the difference. Danny Drinkwater seems lost without him.
Wes Morgan and Robert Huth have reverted to looking tired and showing their age, and while Kanté’s absence cannot directly explain the lack of goals from Vardy and Mahrez this season it is easy to see that Leicester have lost an important steadying influence while Chelsea have gained one.
Congratulations to Chelsea then for perspicacity in the transfer market, even if their influential signing did not come cheap. But what about Leicester? If they go down, and at the moment it is still an if even though Kasper Schmeichel’s “unacceptable” verdict at the weekend will have alerted any remaining optimists to the direness of the situation, would Kanté stand as the missing ingredient that has seen title success turn into relegation freefall? Can one man really make that much difference?
Plenty of Leicester watchers seem to think so, to judge by some of the comments posted on these pages after the Foxes’ tame surrender at Burnley last week. They say that Kanté is the one player Leicester should have fought hard to retain, the basis of the team’s defensive stability as well as the springboard for many of their attacks, and that he is now proving his world-class credentials by providing the same service at Chelsea.
The last bit is certainly true, Kanté with Eden Hazard and Diego Costa at Chelsea looks every bit as impressive a triumvirate as Kanté, Mahrez and Vardy at the King Power last season, but can Leicester’s slide from heroes to zeroes really be the result of losing a single player?
Instinctively one feels doubtful, and here’s why. First, football is a team game. It is always about 11 players, or sometimes nine or 10 of those players plus the odd passenger. It is never about one player and 10 passengers. Ask yourself this question: had Kanté been injured last season and missed a few games, would Leicester have missed out on the title through turning into this season’s pallid version? It is hard to imagine.
Second, the Leicester without Kanté have made it into the last 16 of the Champions League. So they must be able to play a bit without their departed hero, even allowing for the fact that they were not in the toughest of groups. Leicester’s form in Europe has been quite tidy, it has just been some of their league performances that have been, to quote Schmeichel again, embarrassing.
You can argue all day long about whether Leicester have been deliberately picking their games this season, or whether they have subconsciously prioritised Europe and paid the price for taking their eye off the ball at home, but the awkward fact remains that some results without Kanté have been quite good. Leicester might miss him, anyone would, but they have shown they can play without him.
Third and last, supposing Kanté was still at Leicester. Does anyone imagine the Foxes would by now be on course for a second title in two years? The overwhelming consensus at the end of last season was that the title going to Ranieri and his team was a glorious one-off, a never to be repeated fairytale.
Even the players appeared to accept this version of events, especially with the amount of team-strengthening and managerial changes within the present top six before the new season, and this seems to be a far more damaging factor in the present equation than the loss of a top-class player.
Strengthen when you are strong, is what Bill Shankly used to advise. Respond to winning by trying to win better, and more often.
Leicester were never going to do that. For players and manager, nothing was ever going to top last season – an improbable peak had been scaled and the onward journey could only be in a downward direction. This could explain why Leicester have saved their best for a different competition this season, but it is a dangerous mentality to take into a division as competitive as the Premier League.
Leicester probably knew they would not be climbing anywhere near as high this time, but if the assumption was that they could bump along comfortably in mid-table it was a mistaken one, and might have been even if Kanté had stayed.
In conclusion, Leicester are not in danger of losing Premier League status because they lost Kanté, his departure is something of a red herring. Anyone who has witnessed recent performances will know that since last season Leicester have lost a lot more than just a defensive midfielder. They have lost drive, appetite and identity. They are woefully short on confidence and conviction, exactly the qualities that teams below them such as Hull and Swansea are beginning to show.
There are now only two points separating the bottom six, and it is fair to say, following Sunderland’s remarkable result at Crystal Palace, that anything could still happen, even including Bournemouth or Southampton dropping into the mix.
None of that eight are too good to go down, despite the fact that two of their number have been in Europe this season, and the defending champions still are. Leicester spent £60m last summer attempting to replace Kanté and upgrading their squad to cope with the demands of the Champions League.
In theory, they have the strongest squad of all the relegation candidates. But what does that prove, if a team as underfunded as Hull can sell Robert Snodgrass and still manage to take points from the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool?
Ranieri insists Leicester are still “together”, but at the moment it does not appear they are as together as Swansea and Hull, and that could spell trouble. Leicester showed last season that you do not have to have the biggest names on the pitch as long as you have a way of playing and everyone understands it well enough to pull in the same direction. Less than 12 months later, they are now facing the prospect of being cast adrift through other relegation candidates putting the same principle into operation.
Leicester could find themselves in the bottom three by the end of this weekend if results go against them, though the important thing to remember is that they have been there before. This time two years ago Nigel Pearson’s side were nailed-on relegation certainties. It is being widely remarked that Leicester have no idea how to claw their way out of a relegation battle, though in fact that is only true of their manager. Not only do the players themselves have recent and relevant experience to bring to bear, when they survived in 2015 they did so without a player who was still largely unheard of outside France: Kanté.
The Guardian Sport