What a difference a year can make; Leicester City Football Club, mired in a relegation battle at the end of the 2014-15 season, captured the imagination of the football world and took home the Premier League title in what could only be described as one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
Starting the campaign with 5,000-1 odds of winning the illustrious competition, Leicester and manager Claudio Ranieri stuck to their philosophy and hard-working approach to turn the entire league upside down.
Operating primarily out of a compact 4-4-2 formation, patience and a good defensive structure were the pillars of their title run.
Their penchant for 1-0 victories can be accredited to their backline with Wes Morgan always urging the defenders to perform to the best of their abilities.
New stars emerged seemingly from out of nowhere last season in the form of Jamie Vardy, N’Golo Kante and Premier League Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez.
Claudio Ranieri broke away from his “Tinkerman” persona that drew harsh criticism during his time in charge of Chelsea and found nothing but stability on his roster, as the Foxes trotted out the same lineup more often than any other club in the Premier League last year.
The magnitude of what they achieved can rightfully cause supporters and pundits to live in the moment and enjoy what an entertaining and inspiring ride that was. But as preseason training and friendlies get underway, we look at what can be expected from the darlings of the East Midlands in 2016-17.
One of the most crucial pieces to Leicester’s championship puzzle last year was an astonishingly effective avoidance of injuries.
It can be incredibly rare for players to remain in the lineup week in and week out, and Ranieri was fortunate not to find many of his players on the injury sheet last season.
In that regard, depth will be an important area to address in this summer’s transfer window. With the team set to feature in next season’s Champions League, thanks to their League exploits, the club will most likely not have the same luck with player health and fatigue.
The transfer of young Nigerian international forward Ahmed Musa from CSKA Moscow should greatly help the Foxes attack throughout the season.
With 42 goals in 125 appearances for the Russian Premier League club over the past four seasons, Musa has shown excellent goal-scoring instincts and a blistering pace in the open field.
With the counterattack being a major part of Ranieri’s success last season, Musa should fit in well with the team and the formation.
Spanish centre-back Luis Hernandez comes on board from La Liga’s Sporting Gijon and brings along with him some good experience from his time in the La Liga.
His signing provides great depth and will likely see plenty of action during the periods of the season when the fixture schedule becomes heavily congested.
Perhaps the most significant signing this summer, thanks to the departure of one of last season’s stars, is 24-year old defensive midfielder Nampalys Mendy, arriving from Nice in France’s Ligue 1.
Having brought up Mendy from AS Monaco’s youth team in 2010 during his time there as manager, Claudio Ranieri knows the young player well and understands what can be expected of him.
With such an emphasis on the holding midfielder role to allow for attacking players to get forward, the French international will be expected to cover large spaces in the defensive half of the pitch and win the ball from opposing players quite often.
Transfers out of Leicester City are what make Mendy’s signing so crucial to the team’s success this year, as midfielder N’Golo Kante signing with Chelsea leaves a major void in Ranieri’s championship lineup and formation.
Leading the Premier League last season in both tackles (175) and interceptions (156), Kante’s non-stop motor and relentless defending will be tough to replace.
Playing most of the season alongside Danny Drinkwater in midfield, his play allowed attackers like Mahrez and Vardy to hold a high line and be prepared to strike as quickly as possible.
Kante’s departure has also led to significant speculation about the future of Riyad Mahrez. Reports pointing to mutual interest between the player and Arsenal could see Ranieri with an even greater hole to fill in his midfield.
Leicester will certainly try to do all they can to keep the talented Algerian international in the squad.
A “bend but don’t break” approach miraculously brought Leicester to the top of English football last season, but many seem to think it may not work with the same success again.
With a greater understanding of Ranieri’s tactics on the radar of other managers and the loss of Kante in midfield, the same gameplan may not yield the best results.
Utilising a 4-4-2 formation, the two forwards (Vardy & Musa) and two attacking midfielders (Mahrez & Marc Albrighton) will wait for their moment to strike on the counter.
With team captain Wes Morgan, Robert Huth and Christian Fuchs anchoring the backline in front of goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, Leicester can play the ball quickly out of the back and score before the opposing team can get back properly.
One of the most jaw-dropping examples of this took place this past February against Liverpool when the Vardy Party left everyone stunned with an incredible long-range effort.
The most arduous task for the team will be replicating success without having to break from this style of play that they are so comfortable with.
Expectations for Leicester this year would all depend on who you ask. Supporters are still basking in the championship glow from last season and are certainly excited about the prospects ahead.
To expect them to win the league again would seem to be a bit of a stretch, but strong showings in the Champions League and the EPL would be an excellent start.
Qualifying for the Champions League again should be one of the primary objectives, as gaining the revenue from that competition is critical for clubs to remain on top.
A cup run should also be expected at some point in the campaign but I, just like many around the world, have learned not to count the Foxes out until it’s all over.