Leicester City had been one of the Premier League’s most enjoyable sides to watch prior to football’s suspension.
Brendan Rodgers had his side playing some fast, exciting, attacking (and, of course, honest) football, and it was bringing results and entertainment in equal measure.
After a post-Christmas dip in form, the Foxes’ final game before football’s three-month break saw them seemingly back to their best, as Jamie Vardy grabbed a brace in an emphatic 4-0 victory over Aston Villa.
The result left Leicester sitting comfortably in the Champions League spots, eight points clear of fifth place Manchester United. They also had a home FA Cup quarter final tie against Chelsea on the horizon.
Fast forward three and a half months worth of social distancing, NHS clapping and toilet roll hoarding, and the gap between the Foxes and fifth place has been cut to just three points (although Leicester do have a game in hand), they have timidly exited the FA Cup and Vardy is yet to find the back of the net.
Following the FA Cup defeat to Chelsea, Brendan Rodgers did what Brendan Rodgers does best – praising his side’s character – and insisted there was progress in the performance from their previous two Premier League fixtures.
And there was in the first half. But while Frank Lampard made three game changing substitutions at half time, Rodgers did little to affect the game as it began to slip away. After being on top in the first half, his side looked slightly devoid of ideas in the second.
Leicester did miss James Maddison. No one else on the pitch was quite capable of instinctively finding a Vardy run with a probing pass, or drifting in between the opposition back four and midfield and offering a creative sparkle. The absence of Maddison goes some way to explaining why Leicester felt like they were lacking a little bit of attacking impetus.
However, Maddison had been present as Leicester limped to drab draws against Brighton and Watford in their first two games back since Premier League resumed.
They were performances lacking a spark and an energy. In both games, the Foxes mustered just two shots on target. Having been the Premier League’s third highest scorers prior to lockdown, they have scored just once in three games since.
Arguably the bigger loss has been Ricardo Pereira. The marauding full back has been ruled out for the rest of the season with a cruciate ligament injury, and the Foxes desperately miss him marauding down the right flank. They feel flatter without him.
Is Leicester’s sluggish start simply due to football’s enforced three-month absence stunting their momentum?
On the contrary, the cracks had been beginning to show for some time, papered over by hitting four past the Premier League‘s leakiest defence.
Since New Year’s Day, Leicester have won just twice in the league – against relegation threatened West Ham and Aston Villa – and blew an excellent chance of silverware with a surprise semi final Carabao Cup exit to the latter.
In that time, they have lost to Norwich and Burnley, and prior to their comprehensive victory over Villa, Leicester had gone 270 minutes without scoring in the top flight.
The Foxes peaked very soon. After enjoying such a magnificent start to the season, teams have started to figure them out. Leicester’s unpredictability has gone.
The zip and intensity is draining away, with their confidence following. This is not Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester side that captivated the neutral at the start of the season. There are shades of the unimaginative outfit assembled by Claude Puel.
In November, when the Foxes were in an irresistible run of form, you would probably only have considered exchanging their forward line for the Liverpool front three. They were that unstoppable.
Suddenly, Manchester City, Chelsea, Wolves and Manchester United’s attacks look considerably more potent.
Having spent the first half of the season optimistically chasing Liverpool at the Premier League summit, Leicester’s final seven games will consist of anxious glances over their shoulder to the fast approaching chasing pack.