Why Leicester will Challenge the Top 6 Next Season21st February 2018
On this day two years ago, Leicester City topped the Premier League table. They led Tottenham and Arsenal by two points; their last game was a 2-1 away loss to the latter, the third of only 3 Leicester losses in the entire 2015-6 Season.
On this day last year, Leicester City languished in 17th place. They were just one point above relegation. They had just suffered their 5th consecutive defeat, 2-0 against Swansea. Their next game, a Champions League loss to Seville, sealed the fate of Claudio Ranieri who was sacked the following day.
Retrospectively, this extraordinary turnaround from fairy-tale rise to tragic decline is hardly surprising. No team has won consecutive Premier League titles since Manchester United under Ferguson in 2008. The 10th place finish of previous champions Chelsea in that 2015-6 season served as a stark reminder that success does not last season to season. And given just how remarkable Leicester’s ascension was, it figured that its fall would be equally spectacular.
But again, looking back, there original win was perhaps not so surprising either. Leicester City had already, subtly, assembled a winning football team: this prowess was just unrealised until the crucible of their 2014-15 relegation battle. Leicester thrillingly won 7 of the last 9 games of that season, rising from 7 points adrift of safety at 20th – where they had sat since late November – to 6 points safe at 14th. Anyone looking to pinpoint Leicester’s rise need look no further than this fledgling underdog team, which already include architects of the league-winning team: Schmeichel, Morgan, Simpson, Drinkwater, Albrighton, Mahrez and Vardy. Six of these remain with Leicester two seasons on.
That summer Leicester would sign Christian Fuchs, Robert Huth, Shinji Okazaki and N’Golo Kanté, completing their title winning squad. But if 2015 was a case study in efficacious spending, summer 22016 was quite the reverse. Nampalys Mendy, Ahmed Musa, Islam Slimani were signed for a combined £57 million: in the following 18 months, they have had a meagre 57 Leicester appearances between them and all are now out on loan. 2016 constituted an unnecessary and uncharacteristic splurge which weakened the club, not strengthened it: for this Leicester paid in the following season.
Leicester first flourished by scouting low-ranking European clubs – thus bypassing the exorbitant English transfer rates – and identifying talent. For all his managerial incompetence, this was something at which Ranieri’s replacement, Craig Shakespeare excelled, rectifying some of 2016’s mistakes in his four months in charge. Which brings us to 2017 and the shrewd summer signings of Vicente Iborra, Kelechi Iheanacho and Harry Maguire. Iborra has invaluably contributed to Leicester’s midfield, Iheanacho has currently scored more goals than any other Premier League striker in the FA cup, and Harry Maguire is widely touted as one of the Premier League’s best summer signings. More recently, January brought Fousseni Diabaté and a belated Adrien Silva. That thepreviously unknown Diabaté is already being hailed as a replacement for Mahrez demonstrates that Claude Puel has the same aptitude for astute signings. And this return to perspicacious signings ought to herald, as it did in 2015, a return to winning ways.
Riyad Mahrez’ January transfer fiasco provides another insight into Leicester’s growth as a club. Pundits divided into two camps: one characterising Leicester as usurious money-grubbers who put profit over their star player’s happiness, the other characterising Mahrez as a treacherous egotist who, not getting his desired transfer, petulantly took a month out. In reality, neither of these portrayals is entirely accurate.
Although Leicester’s widely lambasted refusal to release Mahrez for City’s final £75 million offer dogged throughout February in matches and the media, it was entirely the right decision. In a record-breaking transfer window which saw van Dijk and Coutinho transfer for fees of £75 million and £142 million respectively, to sell Mahrez would be to demonstrate a lack of ambition and clout as a club. This especially as Coutinho has scored fewer Premier League goals – 28 to the 31 – and made fewer assists – 18 to 20 – than Mahrez since the 2015-16 season. In their pertinacious handling of the affair, Leicester’s management have stood against the perennial Premier League talent drain, setting themselves above clubs such as Everton and Southampton who, infamously, blithely sell star players year after year and with them any genuine aspiration to match the Top Six.
It is said that Ranieri was sacked after losing the support of the dressing room, while the inexperienced Shakespeare simply lost the backing of the owners after Leicester slipped to 18th eight games into this Season. It is testament to the transformation that Claude Puel has wrought in the ailing club that their poor performance just 4 months ago seems like the work of another season. Their recent string of defeats notwithstanding, Leicester are close to regaining their league-winning form. They arguably achieved it in their 0-0 draw against Chelsea, in a match in which Leicester looked much the better side. They are also through to face The Blues again in the Quarter Finals of the FA cup, courtesy of a revitalised Mahrez in a seamless return to club and form. If Leicester can emulate their performance at Stanford Bridge, the Semis, Final and a cup win are eminently achievable.
Leicester won the Premier League 3 years more recently than United, 12 years more recently than Arsenal and decades more recently than Liverpool and Tottenham. Even in its lacklustre 2016-17 season, Leicester progressed further in the Champions League than any other English team. In an era in which the schism between the big and small clubs is bigger than ever, this matters. Leicester has proven itself to be one of England’s strongest teams: since its squad largely unchanged, it necessarily remains so. The Deloitte Football Money League recently ranked Leicester the 14th richest club in the world, and the 7th richest in England. Current positions aside, it is widely accepted that Leicester is at least the 7th best team in the Premier League, with multiple world-class players. If recent matches had gone Leicester’s way they would currently be nudging Arsenal in terms of points. Leicester’s progress is still in flux, but the overwhelming movement is upwards.
Courtesy of his recent return to form – scoring in the last 5 games – Vardy is now the 5th highest scorer in the Premier League. Mahrez has the joint 6th most assists (in the company of Dele Alli, Mesut Özil and Mo Salah) and Albrighton the 10th most. Schmeichel has made the 5th most saves, Albrighton the 3rd most crosses and Ndidi the most tackles at 113. Significantly, this is 32 more than predecessor Kanté has made this season at Chelsea. All of these players measure up with and in cases better their Big Six compatriots
Looking back again, Drinkwater and Kanté were the only meaningful departures from Leicester’s 2015-6 squad. That gap has been replaced by Ndidi, Iborra and now Silva. An on-form Vardy is set to stay and, at 31, still potentially has years of goalscoring to give. Ben Chilwell and Demarai Gray are promising England U21 talents who are already seeing extensive League action and have years of potential ahead of them. Though Mahrez will leave this summer, Leicester’s scrupulousness in not underselling him to Manchester City is set to pay dividends. With a controlled sale, they will have the time and funds to invest in a worthy and genuinely quality replacement. Money from the inevitable sales of Slimani and Musa will also help in this regard.
Leicester’s current team is arguably stronger than it was in 2015-16, has a strong shot at the FA Cup, and the promise of a summer of further consolidation. They are still a team of Champions who have also proven themselves capable in Europe. If all goes well, in 2018-19 the Big Six could and should become the Big Seven.