Our Premier League scribe takes a look at the rise and fall of Leicester Football Club.
A year is a long time in sports.
One of the oldest adages in the fickle world of sports, true, but given the ferociously competitive, high-pressure environment of the contemporary sportsman, it seems as if that particular truism carries a fair degree of heft. But the demise of Leicester City has elevated the saying to hyperbolic dimensions. A year ago, Leicester were brazenly defying all odds and en route to an incongruous Premier League title. They now languish precariously above the drop zone with murmurs of insurrection abounding. What has happened?
Claudio Ranieri’s appointment last season was met with a fair degree of scepticism, especially following an abominable showing with the Greek national side. Leicester fans feared that the so-called ‘tinker-man’ lacked the fortitude necessary to outwit the rigours of a Premier League survival battle. What was perhaps most surprising was the fact that the ‘tinker-man’ moniker completely failed to materialise. He largely operated with the exact same 4-4-2 formation throughout the year, and only rotated his players when completely necessary (his relative lack of injury crises also playing a key role in this continuity). The roles of the players became fundamentally ingrained, creating a side with a homogenised sense of purpose.
Jamie Vardy’s pace terrified defences while Riyad Mahrez’s trickery drew lofty comparisons with the likes of Robben and Messi. Huth and Morgan became a retro-fitting central-defensive combination while N’golo Kante silently negated disparities in class with his ‘2 in 1’ work ethic. They played swift counterattacking football that dispelled contemporary notions of ‘tika-taka’ possession.
First things first. N’golo Kante’s departure was monumental to the club. The likes of Amartey and Ndidi really had the devil’s own job in trying to fill that chasm. His ability to read the game and break up opposition possession was the chief catalyst in their ability to break quickly. Secondly, opposition defences have clearly dropped ten metres deeper when defending against the Foxes this year. Vardy’s electric pace has been nullified, echoing some of the sentiments of Michael Owen last season. The former English star - much to the chagrin of many enthusiastic Leicester converts - often said that Vardy was not a natural finisher. Riyad Mahrez was the PFA Player of the Year last year, and understandably drew the attention of various clubs in the summer. The ongoing transfer saga with Arsenal clearly had a detrimental effect on the Algerian. His inability to land his desired move resulted in an anaemic start to the season that stank of professional soccer sulks.
In a related vein, the entire squad seems to have got caught up in the mythical manner of their victory. Rumours surfaced of a film being made to chart the rise and fall of the Foxes (before last season was even over). Motivation has clearly waned in the league, with the Champions League the natural next chapter in their self-fulfilling narrative. A solid sixth-placed finish could not suffice for a club who defied 5000/1 odds a season past.
Huth and Morgan went the way of many central defenders around the age of 34 and 35: south. It just seemed to happen at exactly the same time.
And that takes us to the most important factor in charting their demise: the 2015/2016 zone of possibility. Look at every single major side last season. Jose Mourinho’s nuclear fallout with Chelsea had the defending champions nowhere. City thought it wise to announce Pellegrini’s successor halfway through the season. Klopp’s first full season saw epic runs to the League Cup and Europa League finals - diverting their attention from the league. Arsenal’s perennial inability to win the league rendered them obsolete, while United’s period of Van Gaal-inspired mediocrity reached new levels of ‘bleh’. Only Spurs were left to really compete, and this is a Spurs side that has about as much title-chasing experience as Leicester. So if there ever was a season for the truly remarkable to transpire, last season was it.
This wasn’t a remarkable Leicester side last season, and nor is it this season. Perhaps Ranieri’s biggest fault is that he isn’t the type of dogmatic disciplinarian that could keep this team grounded. He has also been forced to tinker more extravagantly due to European commitments, damaging the cohesion that really allowed this squad to flourish last season. But for players or fans to suggest that it is somehow Ranieri’s fault is just ridiculous. As Jamie Carragher said, this is a manager who has managed some of the top sides in Europe. This was a Leicester side who had barely avoided relegation under Nigel Pearson.
Ranieri gave these players self-belief and elevated the profile of the club to unexpected heights. It’s the players who are to blame, players who have bought into the hype created by Ranieri’s success. They just have to accept the harsh truth. None of them, monsieur’s Vardy and Mahrez included, were ever as good as the machine Ranieri assembled.
Written by Damien Kayat