It’s been almost three years since Leicester’s miraculous 15/16 season, what’s changed since and what does the future hold?
It’s been 1067 days since Leicester City were confirmed Premier League champions for the stupendous 2015/2016 season. A 5000-1 miracle was turned into reality on the 2nd May 2016 as Tottenham players lost their heads against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, and the Leicester squad could begin to celebrate the craziest Premier League surprise ever. As a result, bookies faced their biggest ever payout, £25m, almost half the amount Leicester paid to assemble that squad, £54.4m. To put this into perspective, Manchester City paid around £55m for Kevin De Bruyne at the beginning of that season. Perhaps, this is the Moneyball effect at its finest. Nevertheless, with almost three seasons gone since these heroics that saw Leicester write their name in history, they have solidified themselves as an upper mid-table team. We take a look at how the identity and players have changed as well as a look into the future.
Managers & Identity
Despite signing a four-year contract in August 2016, Ranieri was the first piece of the title-winning team to be dismantled. He was dismissed in February 2017 with Leicester hovering just a point above the relegation zone, in what seemed a “back to reality” season domestically. Ranieri’s counter-attacking style was continued with Craig Shakespeare, Ranieri’s right-hand man during the title win. Shakespeare managed to provide some stability as he guided Leicester to a 12th place finish on 44 points and a Champions League quarter-final. Ultimately his quality was found out and he failed to leave an imprint on the squad, with Leicester pretty much the same as before, both in terms of style and performances. Only this time, they were actually left in the relegation zone. Leicester had become one dimensional, relying solely on counter-attacking. However, during the 16/17 campaign, Premier League sides had learned their lessons not to play a high-line and dominate possession, as this was when Leicester could penalise you the most. Instead, they sat off offering Leicester more of the ball, this showed Leicester’s lack of ideas as they struggled to break teams down, and results dipped.
In came Frenchman Claude Puel. Despite a winning percentage of only 34.3% throughout his tenure, he managed to lead the foxes to an impressive 9th place finish in the 17/18 season. What disappointed fans and players alike was the negative football on display week after week. It quickly became apparent that the pragmatic approach and dour personality were not going to be sustainable. Now to today, Brendan Rodgers. He joined Leicester whilst being on course to win the “Treble Treble” in Scotland. (Yeah, apparently that’s a thing up there). Leicester fans might finally get their wish of free-flowing attacking football, as Rodgers management style heavily revolves around ball movement and retaining possession. He will want players to get the ball forward much quicker than was previously seen under Puel. But more than anything, Rodgers has a young squad and he will be eager to implement his ideas as quickly as possible. Three wins and a loss from four games isn’t the worst possible start.
The beating heart and dynamism of that famous 15/16 team, especially in midfield, has long gone and been replaced. N’Golo Kanté had left at the end of the campaign, going on to win another Premier League title and World Cup since then. Whilst Drinkwater stayed for one last campaign before joining Chelsea mainly as a backup. Riyad Mahrez finally relished his dream of joining Manchester City last summer, leaving Marc Albrighton as the last one standing. Currently, Leicester have a midfield trio of Wilfred Ndidi (22), James Maddison (22) and Youri Tielemans (21). These three not only bring youth to this team but individual qualities that complement each other very well. With Ndidi sitting back, Maddison playing furthest forward and Tielemans in between dictating the tempo.
Again, the whole back four, apart from Wes Morgan (35), have changed and for the better, one could argue. Harry Maguire (26) has become a fan favourite since his £12m move from Hull City in 2017, providing a basis for the development of this team from the back. Ben Chilwell (22), an academy graduate has displaced Christian Fuchs (32), with his form leading to rumours of a summer move away from the King Power Stadium. And lastly, Ricardo Pereira (25) brings European experience and versatility in place of Danny Simpson (32). The man between the posts and the frontline haven’t seen such drastic changes, with Jamie Vardy (32) still the main man in terms of goals, with 13 so far this campaign. But what is clear is the age of this squad is considerably lower. This Leicester team is only going to develop and become better with time, and if they can take on the ideas of Rodgers and avoid any big summer departures, they can go a long way.
Whether Rodgers can resurrect the Leicester legend is going to be a test of time. But Leicester are making strides in the right direction. As I mentioned, the youthful-looking squad is a big bonus for Rodgers, who hasn’t had a transfer window yet to make any adjustments he might think are necessary. Only last year, Leicester announced plans of a state-of-the-art new training ground facility costing near £100m, which had long been an ambition of the late chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Believing this would not only attract new talent to the King Power but help develop the player at Leicester’s disposal. Following in the footsteps of academy graduates, Ben Chilwell, Harvey Barnes, and Hamza Choudhury.
Following a few mid-season finishes, the Foxes next goal should be to claim a trophy, an FA Cup or EFL Cup run are the obvious choices but don’t be so naive to write off the PL again. This is pivotal in giving the fans and players proof of the progress that is being made, as well as evidence that the PL wasn’t going to be the last trophy they won for the foreseeable future. They made it two consecutive EFL Cup quarter-finals this season, going out to Manchester City on penalties, so it’s just about those small margins. Going one step further, a position in the Europa League would be invaluable in climbing the football ladder of Premier League status. In fact, a 7th placed finish is still on the cards this season, as Leicester are 3 points adrift from Wolves. Bearing in mind this can only occur if Manchester City claim the FA Cup.
Without a doubt the 15/16 campaign was an anomaly and will be near impossible to ever repeat. That doesn’t mean that Leicester fans cannot dream again, however. Many of the title-winning squad are past their peak and have contracts running out this summer. The task Rodgers faces is to transition this talented Leicester side into a regular top 8 finishing team as well as taking them further in domestic cup competitions than they have been used to recently. The squad itself is more than capable if the communication and direction is clear from coach to players, it’ll be a work in progress but results will follow. Until then Leicester fans can continue to be nostalgic about the past knowing that success is not too distant in the future.
In memory of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha