A tired argument: was fatigue to blame for Leicester’s decline this season?

Leicester City’s season ended in the cruellest way possible against Watford last Sunday in the second leg of the Championship play-off semi-final.

With the tie delicately poised at 2-2 on aggregate and seemingly heading to extra-time, Anthony Knockaert, who had won a penalty in the 96th minute of the match, saw his spot-kick saved by the feet of Manuel Almunia before the Hornets flew down the pitch in devastating counter-attacking style and scored just seconds later through Troy Deeney to stamp their ticket to Wembley in two weeks’ time.  It was a fantastic spectacle for the neutrals, many of whom would suggest that justice had prevailed for the soft manner in which the penalty had initially been awarded by referee Michael Oliver – although Leicester fans will feel hard done by, and be wondering where their club goes from here after another season without promotion passes them by.  Like the play-off defeat to Cardiff three years ago, this one will hurt for some time.

There’s no getting away from the nosedive in Leicester’s form at the beginning of February through to the end of the season, and people will have theories and opinions about why the Foxes stumbled into the playoffs (albeit in dramatic fashion) after five successive wins in January saw them second in the league.  The club looked well-placed for automatic promotion just over three months ago, but now faces a fifth consecutive season in the Championship.

It is likely that fatigue played a huge role in Leicester’s dip towards the end of the season.  Something fans may never understand, especially when footballers are paid such high amounts, is that tiredness can be a factor.  Nigel Pearson’s starting eleven against Watford on Sunday included four players who had made significantly more appearances this season than last (Michael Keane, Ritchie De Laet, Matty James, Andy King), and two more in key roles who also played noticeably more during 2012/13 (Wes Morgan and Anthony Knockaert).

Starting XI against Watford Appearances in 2012/13* Appearances in 2011/12
Kasper Schmeichel 53 52
Jeff Schlupp 22 26
Wes Morgan 51 44
Michael Keane 27 (on loan from 11/2012) 1
Ritchie De Laet 48 7
Lloyd Dyer 48 44
Matty James 30 0
Andy King 48 32
Anthony Knockaert 47 39
Chris Wood 44 (Millwall and Leicester) 48
David Nugent 49 48

*stats from www.lcfc.com

This is not a criticism of Nigel Pearson’s team selection, who gave the club the best chance to pick up points in every game this season – even during the difficult second-half of it.  Good footballers don’t become bad footballers overnight.  No matter how hard you train, tiredness will eventually catch up.  The younger players who formed part of this season’s squad will become better and fitter because of this, and the team will be stronger as a result.  It is so important that the nucleus of this team stays together over the summer.  The manner in which Anthony Knockaert’s teammates picked him up and consoled him after his penalty miss on Sunday indicates that a strong bond exists between these players.