They were nasty, aggressive and awkward, but they had to be because they were 5000/1 and nobody gave them hope. Leicester City started off the most politically seismic year in recent memory by giving the English football establishment a bloody nose and winning the title. Societal changes in the United Kingdom and United States later on in 2016 would change the context around the achievement somewhat, but it really felt like they turned the world upside down.
Prior to that season, the Foxes, who completed a ‘great escape’ from the clutches of relegation the previous May, were being written off to the extreme. Nigel Pearson, their fiery, authoritarian manager who masterminded their late survival, was replaced by Claudio Ranieri. Instantly, the assumption that a man known for his tactical approach and desire to change formations regularly would upset the applecart set the press, neutral fans and, most importantly, the bookmakers into a frenzy of negative predictions. Leicester were favourites to go down, and Ranieri wasn’t expected to be in place to oversee their prospective return to the Championship.
Everything fed into the siege mentality which ultimately led to English football’s greatest ever story. Ranieri evolved the team from the position Pearson left them in, proving everybody wrong; the relentlessness of Jamie Vardy’s work ethic and Riyad Mahrez’s creativity meant they remained the star attractions, but N’Golo Kante’s arrival from Caen, and the unexpected heights reached by the likes of Kasper Schmeichel, Danny Drinkwater and Wes Morgan made the real difference. It wasn’t pretty to watch, but it was beautiful to see. The hard work and desire of Leicester helped them overcome limitations and took them to the very summit of English football as they won the Premier League title.
Five years on, things are very different, even if Leicester are still riding the wave. The novelty and momentum originally dissipated at the King Power Stadium; just nine months after their success, Ranieri was sacked with relegation seeming like a very real possibility. Perhaps they’d become too predictable; their counter-attacking 4-4-2 with incredibly high energy and pressure hadn’t developed, and they needed a rethink. Claude Puel was eventually brought in to oversee a transition to a more possession-based game, replacing Pearson’s close aide Craig Shakespeare who had stepped in after Ranieri. He never proved to be particularly inspiring, but laid some of the groundwork for what was to come.
During Puel’s reign, the tragic helicopter crash after a home game in 2018, which killed club owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and four others, leant perspective to Leicester’s situation. He was someone who had bought into the club and community and was determined to make sure that the Leicester title triumph wasn’t solely an anomaly. There was genuine ambition to place Leicester City among the very best as a regular fixture at the top of the table. Although they are unlikely to repeat their previous success, there is something more tangible about the club these days; they are in Europe and pushing a much more aware and competitive pack of teams and this time there is nothing surprising about them.
Since Brendan Rodgers arrived, himself having something to prove after a disappointing end to life at Liverpool before setting Celtic off on a run of unprecedented dominance in Scotland, Leicester’s hard work and strategic planning has bore fruit. Rodgers had adapted his stoic ball-keeping philosophy to marry it alongside Leicester’s previous guise as a counter-attacking team. Mahrez and Kante are long gone, but James Maddison, Wilfred Ndidi, Caglar Soyuncu, Youri Tielemans and Ricardo Pereira have formed a new core alongside Vardy. Harry Maguire and Ben Chilwell are just two players sold on for big profits, proving Leicester have a perfect balance off the pitch as well as on it. They are smart enough in the transfer market to create a talented team without over-stretching financially, but understand that without a bigger punch in that regard, it is difficult for them to keep players at the club.
Once a sale goes through, the money is reinvested into the squad or infrastructure. Leicester have only recently unveiled a brand new state-of-the-art training ground, cementing their ambition to become permanent fixture at the top table.
Their transformation from the ugly ducking riding the underdog wave to the model Premier League club is extraordinary. It hasn’t been plain sailing; they let a seemingly unassailable points difference slip in the race for Champions League qualification last season, but they are back there fighting right now. Another title win is unlikely, but certainly not out of the question for Leicester at this stage.
For clubs like Everton, West Ham United and Newcastle United in particular, who have either been in similar positions or harbour ambitions to get there, Leicester are a real example of how to do things right. The idea that having to sell players means a club cannot compete is only true depending on the context; with the right command of the market and an insistence that a player will only leave on their terms has given them a good basis. Rodgers is the right manager and everything is working like clockwork. While West Ham and Everton have struggled on the buying side of the equation, namely finding the right players, Newcastle haven’t shown the same ambition to build on the talent they have and instead make it clear that they have a desire to sell at the right price.
Leicester are there once again, fighting for the title and stinging the egos of the elite. Only this time they have found a way to stay there, and are continuing to set the tone for other clubs who hope to emulate their success.
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