Leicester City 2016/17 Season Preview: Can the champions defend their unlikely title?

Can Claudio Ranieri continue his stellar work at the King Power Stadium after the Foxes' miraculous title win last time out?

Leicester City 2016/17 Season Preview: Can the champions defend their unlikely title?
Will the Foxes' fairytale continue in the 2016/17 Premier League campaign?

Leicester City go into the 2016/17 Premier League campaign as defending champions, who would have thought that? Foxes supporters can only dream that their team can take home the title again and who could blame them?

However, last season does look a tough task to follow as Claudio Ranieri’s men strode home to claim their maiden top-flight title by an outstanding ten points.

So, the inevitable question is, can the Foxes’ fairy-tale continue for a second successive campaign?

How did they do last time out?

Going into the new campaign most will not have Leicester City anywhere near the favourites for the title again. Nonetheless, being placed at 5000-1 outsiders last season, Claudio Ranieri and his team defied all the odds to take home the most unexpected league title.

Fighting off the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Manchester United, the East-Midlanders amazingly hoisted the Premier League trophy in May.

Only losing three games on the way to becoming champions of England, the Foxes stole the imagination of probably every single fan not only around the country but around the world. Utilising defensive solidarity paired with quick counter-attacking play, Leicester stunned the majority of their opponents and will hope to have the same sort of impact in the upcoming campaign.

What can we expect this season?

In order to defend their title, Claudio Ranieri will have to not only continue the sort of exciting, high-octane style of play that made his team so successful last campaign but also find a new way of winning football matches. Towards the back-end of their title-winning campaign, teams were increasingly sitting back and not allowing the Foxes the space that they required to spring lethal attacking moves on the counter-attack.

However, it seems the experienced Italian does not plan on sacrificing any of the pace or endeavour that saw his team stride to their first-ever top-flight title. Bringing in speedy CSKA Moscow striker, Ahmed Musa to complement the likes of Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, Shinji Okazaki, Jeffrey Schlupp and Demarai Gray, it’s clear that pure pace and power is going to be a key aspect of the Foxes’ style of play yet again.

The Foxes were ruthless on the counter-attack last season | Photo: Getty
The Foxes were ruthless on the counter-attack last season | Photo: Getty

On the other hand, Ranieri has also made it known that he does have a “plan B” to implement if needed. Whether that be bringing in the considerable height and aerial strength of former Brighton and Hove Albion forward, Leonardo Ulloa, or calling on the youthful promise and technical brilliance of recent signing, Bartosz Kapustka, remains to be seen.

Nonetheless, with Champions League football a large aspect of the Foxes’ season for the first time, most fans will not expect Ranieri to utilise an unchanged team-sheet week after week. Making the least amount of total changes to his starting line-up last season, the former Juventus boss will simply not be able to adopt the same philosophy this time around. So, with the Foxes competing in four different competitions this campaign, supporters should expect the stereotypical Tinkerman to make an appearance.

There are also suggestions that the East-Midlanders could be forced to move away from the rigid 4-4-2 formation that was used so often last season. During pre-season, the team was too often over-run in the centre of the park. Therefore, Ranieri could be forced to use another midfielder this season in order to combat this and that might not be all that easy with the loss of N’Golo Kante.

What transfers have they completed?

It goes without saying, it was always going to be a busy summer in the transfer market for the Premier League champions. With Champions League football just around the corner, the need to bolster an already thin squad was imperative, and that is exactly what the Foxes have done.

Along with tying down numerous key players to new, long-term contracts, five new names have walked through the doors of the King Power Stadium. Starting their summer spending with the acquisition of goalkeeper, Ron-Robert Zieler, from Bundesliga outfit Hannover 96, he was soon joined by defender Luis Hernandez, a free transfer from Sporting Gijon.

However, it is in Nampalys Mendy and Ahmed Musa that the Foxes have spent the majority of their money. Forking out a reported combined fee of over £30m for the duo, the East-Midlanders have made a real statement this transfer window. In fact, upon his arrival at the King Power Stadium, Mendy smashed the club’s transfer record, only for Musa to take that title for his own a few days later.

Leicester City have smashed their transfer record to bring in CSKA Moscow forward, Ahmed Musa | Photo: Getty
Leicester City have smashed their transfer record to bring in CSKA Moscow forward, Ahmed Musa | Photo: Getty

Covering for the some would say devastating loss of N’Golo Kante to Chelsea, Mendy, a combative central midfielder has joined from OGC Nice and gives Claudio Ranieri yet more options in midfield. So, if he can replicate some of the performances of his countryman, most supporters will soon forget about the departure of Kante.

Nevertheless, it’s Nigerian striker, Musa, that has got the fans excited. Displaying terrifying pace and a sharp eye for goal, he provides plenty of competition for the likes of Jamie Vardy, Shinji Okazaki and Leonardo Ulloa in the forward positions.

Nonetheless, Ranieri’s spending hasn’t stopped there. Bringing in talented, young winger, Bartosz Kapustka from Polish outfit Cracovia for a reported sum of £7.4m, the Foxes have further enhanced on the flanks and the youngster looks a shrewd buy off the back of impressive performances at Euro 2016.

How did the Foxes do in pre-season?

Heading to various exotic locations, Leicester City had a real test during pre-season. However, their preparations got started long before their participation in the International Champions Cup commenced.

Travelling to the Kassam Stadium to take on League 1 outfit, Oxford United, goals from Demarai Gray and Jeffrey Schlupp saw the Foxes overcome an early deficit after Chris Maguire had given the hosts the lead with an outstanding strike from 20 yards.

Then it was a trip up to Glasgow and Celtic Park to take on Brendan Rodgers’ Scottish champions in the aforementioned International Champions Cup. With Riyad Mahrez opening proceedings with an eye-catching strike that curled into the top-right corner, the Premier League champions looked set to take their first three points in the competition. Nevertheless, Eoghan O’Connell soon replied for the home side with his own effort from distance to draw the scores level.

Although, taking the victory following an encapsulating penalty shootout, fans came home to the East Midlands happy.

Then taking on the likes of Paris Saint Germain and Barcelona, the Foxes preparations ahead of this season’s UEFA Champions League campaign really stepped up. On the other hand, the results probably weren’t those that Claudio Ranieri was looking for.

Falling to a 4-0 defeat at the hands of Unai Emery’s men, the East Midlanders then shipped another four goals to the Spanish champions. Nonetheless, the performance against Luis Enrique’s squad at the Friends Arena in Stockholm gave supporters reason to be optimistic. Seeing recent signing, Ahmed Musa, net two fantastic goals against the Catalans after falling three goals behind in the first half, fans were hoping this was only a preview of what the Nigerian could do in the royal blue of Leicester City.

Ranieri's men were given a tough test during pre-season | Photo: Getty
Ranieri's men were given a tough test during pre-season | Photo: Getty

The Foxes then concluded their pre-season with a trip to Wembley Stadium to take on Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United in the Community Shield. Only falling to a late Zlatan Ibrahimovic headed winner to lose the game 2-1, Claudio Ranieri lauded his team’s positive display ahead of the Foxes opener against Hull City on Saturday.

What players should you look out for?

After managing to amazingly take the Premier League crown last season, it was inevitable to see the Foxes’ star men linked with big-money moves away from the club. So far only N’Golo Kante has departed to Chelsea so it seems the majority of the title-winning squad should remain together.

So, supporters should again keep their eyes out for the likes of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. Scoring 24 and 17 league goals respectively, the duo were irresistible last campaign and were one of the main reasons as to why Ranieri’s men were able to lift the trophy.

With Vardy’s unwavering work ethic, lethal eye for goal and terrifying speed, coupled with Mahrez’s agility, eye-catching skill and ability to spot a defence-splitting pass, these two should be bothering Premier League back-lines for a good while longer.

Nevertheless, it’s one of the new recruits that have got the supporters excited. Announcing his arrival with two fantastic goals against Barcelona, fans were able to see why Claudio Ranieri had smashed the club’s transfer record to bring him to the East Midlands. Displaying wicked pace and a sharp eye for goal, most will hope that the former VVV-Venlo forward can strike up a great partnership with Vardy not only in the Premier League but the Champions League also.

What young player should the fans look out for?

Regardless of having on-average one of the oldest squad’s in the league last season, the Foxes have plenty of youthful promise coming through. Recruiting Bartosz Kapustka and securing the futures of the likes of Ben Chilwell to long-term contracts has shown Ranieri’s intent to look towards the future. However, there is one name to really look out for in this campaign.

Signing from Birmingham City in the January transfer window, Demarai Gray seemed to be a shrewd purchase considering the reputation that he’d built himself at St Andrews. Becoming known as one of the most exciting prospects in the Championship, the England U-21 international possesses great pace and fantastic presence on the ball. If he is able to improve his decision making and composure when in front of goal, the talented young winger could go on to be an extremely solid option in the Premier League.

So, with the Foxes taking part in various competitions this time around, now would be as good a time as any for Gray to stake his claim in the starting XI.

What are their strengths?

Much like last season, the Foxes have much the same positives this time around. Possessing much of their defensive solidarity along with the counter-attacking ability that saw them claim the title last season, they look in a good way ahead of the new campaign

Being able to keep opposing sides from scoring, Ranieri’s side have a more than decent platform to perform and hopefully take a few well-earned victories against most sides in the top flight. With experienced stalwarts Wes Morgan and Robert Huth still patrolling the back-line for the Foxes, the two will be a more than capable match-up against most, if not all strikers in the top-flight.

The forms of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth were key to Leicester's title triumph last season | Photo: Getty
The forms of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth were key to Leicester's title triumph last season | Photo: Getty

The speed that the East-Midlanders also possess will again be a main asset of their play. With the likes of Ahmed Musa, Jamie Vardy, Jeffrey Schlupp, Riyad Mahrez, Marc Albrighton amongst others, the pace that saw the Foxes saw far last season will surely be a huge aspect of their play again. So, by quickly gaining possession and immediately springing a counter-attack, the champions again will look to be a dangerous proposition.

Do they have any weaknesses?

The only weakness that the Foxes slightly displayed last season was the inability to keep the ball. Although, with N’Golo Kante patrolling the midfield, that didn’t seem too much of a problem as it was quickly won back again. However, with his departure, teams could capitalise on this slight chink in Leicester City’s armour. It will be down to the likes of Nampalys Mendy, Danny Drinkwater, Andy King, Gokhan Inler and Matty James to try and combat this.

Another possible draw-back of the Midlanders’ current squad could be a slight lack of strength in depth. As the old cliché goes, for Champions League football most squads need two quality players in every position. Despite assembling a strong squad, most would argue that there still needs to be a few more acquisitions if the club are to continue competing in Europe and the Premier League.

Where will they finish this season?

With so many top managers coming into the Premier League and the so-called big clubs all strengthening considerably ahead of the new campaign, it’s going to be difficult for Leicester to repeat their heroics of last season. However, Claudio Ranieri has made some very good signings of his own.

So, if the new boys can gel quickly and the Foxes can get a good start in the league with the Italian’s tactical knowledge, European football should again be in the offing for the King Power Stadium faithful. 6th