Despite slow start, Leicester are still a threat to the elite
Expectation is a funny thing, and Leicester City have fallen victim of it. Their Premier League title win stands as one of if not the greatest sporting upset in British history, after narrowly avoiding relegation the previous season. Five years on, with Brendan Rodgers building a talented young team filled with energetic and hungry players, success has begun to be taken for granted.
The thing is, though, nobody quite realises it. Money spent by Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United, strengthening their already impressive squads, caused many to declare the top four a closed shop this season. Leicester have been battling for Champions League qualification for two seasons now, only falling short with a drop in form at the end of each campaign.
But their overall consistency, and the identity Rodgers has clearly instilled, has given the Foxes a kudos with pundits. Officially, they’d be punching above their weight if they were to challenge the elite again, but after a difficult start to the season both domestically and in the Europa League, questions began to land at Rodgers’ door.
Perhaps a reality check was needed. Leicester were in mid-table when Rodgers arrived two years ago, in desperate need for inspiration after the steady but rather dull reign under Claude Puel. Youri Tielemans, James Maddison, Ricardo Pereira and Timothy Castagne have driven the club on to new heights; despite never really troubling for the league title since, they are consistently in a better place now than they were in 2016; they’ve had to be smart, simply because they do not have the resources to threaten on brute financial force alone.
Bearing that in mind, it is unreasonable not to give them some leeway when things get tough. Lets not forget their greatest day since lifting the Premier League crown, at Wembley in May. They added the FA Cup to their collection; although Chelsea were favourites going in, it was hardly an earth-shattering event, seeing Kasper Schmeichel and Wes Morgan lift the trophy after Tielemans scored the only goal.
Last Saturday might just have changed perceptions over where Leicester are now, though. A big part of an increasingly unfair narrative was that their ironclad recruitment had suddenly deserted them. Ryan Bertrand and Jannik Vestergaard were budget signings from Southampton and they’ve struggled to make any sort of impact; Ademola Lookman, a loan signing from RB Leipzig, has been a rather unexpected success, but everything hinged on their big name deals; Boubakary Soumare, signed from reigning French champions Lille, and RB Salzburg striker Patson Daka, who scored at the weekend.
Leicester toppled a Manchester United side who can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t right. But the manner of the victory, poetic for the Foxes in that it involved a below par performance from Harry Maguire, their most expensive sale and proof of concept for their business model, was emphatic; it showed them back at their best. They were fast, aggressive and hard to handle.
The best thing Rodgers has done is evolve the club. There has been no drastic changes; Schmeichel and Morgan, at least at the early stage of his reign, were vital cogs in the machine, while Jamie Vardy has always been their talisman. When Claudio Ranieri won the title, he did so with a 4-4-2 system and an aggressive counter-attacking style, led by Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.
Rodgers has switched the emphasis completely to a possession-based approach, but has been clever enough to instil a counter press with a highly energetic midfield. N’Golo Kante was obviously hugely important under Ranieri, but Tielemans, Wilfried Ndidi and Soumare this season, really enforce the idea that Leicester have the best of both worlds, and the transition has been seamless.
Now could see the Foxes reach a different gear, which would ease the seemingly growing pressure on Rodgers. That shows just how much is now taken for granted outside the King Power Stadium.
Just as Arsenal and Tottenham, two clubs apparently named in the ‘big six’ who tried to instigate the breakaway European Super League six months ago, haven’t been able to maintain their push, Leicester will face difficulties. They should be allowed to do that without the sort of scrutiny which, in reality, is fabricated in order to create a story.
Rodgers has committed himself to Leicester again amid links to a post-takeover Newcastle United. Although he was seemingly as certain at Celtic before crossing the border, there is more building to do where he is; there is certainty, backing and collective belief in a project. These are things that lead to success and that is too precious to give up right now, especially for the relative uncertainty at St James’ Park. He has also distanced himself from Arsenal and Spurs in the past.
This is a club built in his image; his reputation is arguably better than at any other point in his career. There are going to be tough moments; recruitment cannot be perfect every time and momentum is a rare and delicate commodity. If Leicester finish eighth this season, it should be seen as a natural dip after years of pushing, but Saturday proved they are still a threat to the very top clubs, and that should be enough to let them get on with it.
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