What’s gone wrong at Leicester City?
Leicester City, it’s fair to say, are not the most remarkable of football clubs. Their 133 year history is littered mostly with mediocrity, with the odd play-off triumph and a handful of League Cups thrown in for good measure. I myself am a lifelong supporter of the club, but can’t claim to have especially good memories of Matt Gillies’ double-chasing “Ice Kings” of ’62-’63, nor of Gary Lineker’s top-flight 24 goal haul in ’84-’85 – I’m only 20, so get off my back for heaven’s sake.
Instead, you will have to trust in me when I say that Leicester, historically, have been a bit of a yo-yo club, like the Hulls and the Burnleys of the modern world. They share Manchester City’s record of second division titles, which essentially proves the point. Reliably excellent in the second tier, but not quite up to scratch at the highest level – if David Nugent were a football club, he would be Leicester City.
Martin O’Neill’s arrival in 1995 sparked a period of success for the club, including two League Cup wins and a couple of brief flirtations with European football. But O’Neill, whose Wikipedia page reliably informs me that he is an avid fan of criminology, left for Celtic in 2000. His replacement, Peter Taylor, is perhaps best known for being the first manager to hand David Beckham the England captaincy. Unfortunately, his other notable achievements include spending £5m on Ade Akinbiyi and leaving Leicester well and truly up shit creek without even so much as a hint of a paddle.
What followed in the next decade was, for the most part, utterly soul-destroying. The arrivals of such esteemed football giants as Milan Mandaric, Gary Megson and Barry Hayles brought about a downwards spiral, culminating in Ian Holloway masterminding the club’s first ever relegation to the third tier. Then things started to get a little more interesting.
Enter Nigel Graham Pearson; former Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough captain, owner of several spectacular military buzzcuts, scourge of ostriches and taker of absolutely no shit. A 96-point romp to the League One title was followed by an agonising play-off penalty exit to Cardiff, best remembered as the time Yann Kermorgant went for a dink and ended up looking a dick.
Pearson left for Hull. His replacements, rejected Armani model Paulo Sousa and bespectacled lothario Sven-Göran Eriksson, succeeded only in making an almighty and expensive cock-up of things. Pearson came back, and after another demoralising episode involving a penalty and a Frenchman – this time everybody’s favourite heartthrob Anthony Knockaert – the Foxes finally made their way back to the Premier League.
It’s a reasonable assumption that you will be familiar with the two seasons that followed – an improbable escape from relegation, followed by the single greatest sporting achievement of all time. Leicester City, Premier League champions. Where next?
Where next indeed. Today, Leicester sit 16th in the table, one point clear of the dreaded drop zone. Four straight league defeats, yet to score a league goal in 2017. It is, to put it lightly, an omnishambles. Jamie Vardy, record-breaker and scorer of 24 goals last season, has netted in one of his last 24 games for Leicester. His fellow Ballon d’Or nominee, PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez, has scored just three league goals, all from the penalty spot. Wes Morgan and Robert Huth look to have aged 20 years each over the summer. Danny Drinkwater passes the ball about as effectively as the constipated pass solids. The team are in disarray, with energy and performance levels dropping by the week. Rumours have begun to circulate of a dressing room revolt against Manager of the Year and World’s Nicest Man Claudio Ranieri. What the blazes is going on? How exactly have the Premier League champions managed to squander such a unique and promising opportunity to take their club to the next level?
In truth, it began in the months following the title win. The club’s participation in the International Champions Cup, essentially a sightseeing tour of Europe and the USA with the occasional game of football thrown in for good measure, may have been something of a money spinner and a fantastic commercial opportunity but was a far cry from the low-key but effective pre-seasons of old. Hammerings to PSG and Barcelona in the baking hot sun could not have been beneficial for morale nor for fitness, and the team looked desperately short of both in the opening weeks of the campaign.
The club’s transfer business also deserves a mention. The departure of N’Golo Kanté, last season’s surprise package, was almost inevitable due to a release clause in his contract but came as a bitter blow nonetheless. So too did scouting wizard Steve Walsh’s move to Everton in order to take up the position of director of football. Leicester’s current incumbent in that position is Jon Rudkin, a man with no experience in the role and whose ability to perform it effectively is doubtful at best.
None of Leicester’s summer signings have fully convinced: record signing Islam Slimani has looked capable when given service but injuries and the Africa Cup of Nations have limited his opportunities. Nampalys Mendy has similarly struggled for fitness and barely featured Ahmed Musa still looks to be coming to terms with the physicality of English football. Ron-Robert Zieler has looked decent if rather underwhelming in his appearances, whilst young Polish talent Bartosz Kapustka had to wait until February to make his full debut against Derby in the FA Cup.
After a thoroughly awful first half to the season, the club had an opportunity to solve its glaring issues with regards to defensive and creative deficiencies in January. Instead, Luis Hernández, the only defender signed by the club this season, returned to Spain. Wilfred Ndidi arrived from Genk and in fairness has looked promising thus far, but the loan signing of 4th choice Udinese centre back Molla Wague did little to instil confidence in the Foxes faithful.
But ultimately, it is neither transfers nor a lack of preparedness that has brought about Leicester’s almighty downfall. Instead, it is a fundamental issue with the mentality of these players, and perhaps also with the staff. They have, essentially, achieved the impossible. They have done something in their careers they never conceived they could have done. Journeymen like Morgan, Vardy and Drinkwater have risen from relative obscurity to global fame. They have earned their shot at continental football and written themselves into folklore. Claudio Ranieri’s tactics and methods have increasingly come under question this season, allegedly from his own players and staff too, but he is not the man responsible for this almightiest of downfalls.
Sadly, those in the Leicester squad are not serial winners in the way that the likes of Roy Keane and John Terry have been, and do not have the belief or desire necessary to do it all again. An unnamed member of the squad commented that “winning the title was like climbing Mount Everest. Then you get back down, receive a pat on the back and you’re told to climb up it all over again.”
Now, Leicester have a different sort of mountain to climb, and it is one of their own making.