On the 7th May 2016, Leicester finally realised the impossible dream, as they lifted the Premier League trophy, the first league title in 132 years. In what is the greatest sporting achievement/story of the 21st century, a team of underachievers scaled the top of English football. A team that only lost 3 games all season, and cost less than £60 million to put together, and led by their manger Claudio Ranieri. Ranieri was rightly awarded many individual manager of the year awards, from the Premier League and FIFA.
On the 23rd February, 9 months after taking Leicester to their greatest ever achievement, Claudio Ranieri was sacked as the first team coach of Leicester City, with the club 1 point off the relegation zone, and having not scored a goal in the Premier League this calendar year. The decision to dispose of Ranieri was made less than 24 hours after Leciester lost 2-1 against Seville. Their Champions League success had covered up their Premier League failings. However, despite a battling performance from Leicester, the result was not enough to keep Ranieri in a job.
How did the champions go from an unlikely winners, to on the verge of becoming the first champions to be relegated since Manchester City in 1938?
The 3 star men for Leicester in their title winning season, were Jamie Vardy, PFA Player of the year Riyad Mahrez, and N’Golo Kante. In order for Leicester to compete after winning the title, it was imperative they kept hold of these 3 players. Vardy was subject to a bid from Arsenal, and turned down an offer to play for them, in favour of signing a new £100,000 a week deal with the champions. Mahrez was also subject of a lot of speculation around his future, but like Vardy committed to a 4-year deal, making him the second highest paid player at the club behind Vardy.
However, Leicester were powerless to stop, perhaps the unsung hero of Leicester’s achievement, N’Golo Kante leaving to move to Chelsea. He reportedly had a release clause in his contract, and Chelsea stumped up the £30 million to make the move happen. The loss of Kante has been the most serious blow. His loss is summed up by how well his new club are doing, compared to where his previous club sit. While much like at Leicester, Kante has players like Eden Hazard and Diego Costa at Chelsea at the top of their game, his Premier League record speaks volumes about his contributions to his teams. Kante, to date, has made 61 Premier League appearances, won 41 games, and only lost 6.
Kante was the glue that held Leicester together. His tenacity and work-rate were vital to winning the ball and providing the ammunition for the counter-attack, while simultaneously providing a valuable protective screen in front of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth. That centre-half pairing has looked so much more exposed and weary without him.
The Foxes have tried to fill the void that Kante left, using Daniel Amartey and new signings Nampalys Mendy and Wilfred Ndidi in his central midfield position. While Kante has long been noted for his energetic style and ability to cover so much ground, his replacements have more or less matched – and in Mendy’s case bettered – his workrate.
But it is Kante’s ability to disrupt the opposition’s play that they simply have not been able to replace.
Kante’s loss has been combined with second season syndrome for the other 2 members of the title winning trinity, Vardy and Mahrez. Jamie Vardy scored 24 goals last season, and he was named Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year and shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or and Fifa’s own player of the year award. He also was called up to the England squad, for the European Championships.
This season he has only five league goals, three of which came in one game against Manchester City, and has scored in only one league game since 10 September – a run of 18 matches. The problem for Vardy is he is simply not getting the chances, he is averaging one chance every 2 games, compared to 2-3 every game last season.
For Mahrez his form this season, is also not touching the heights of last season. From 17 goals and 11 assists last season, he has only managed 3 goals (all penalties) and 2 assists this season.
Ranieri himself, had earned the nickname the tinkerman during his career, but last season this was not the case. Ranieri only used 23 players during the course of the run to the title. The least of any team in the Premiership, with Ranieri making a total of 33 changes to his starting line-up over the course of 38 games, also the least in the league.
While you can point to other factors behind Leicester’s fall, ranging from Ranieri feeling obliged to revert to tinkering with his line-up, to opposition teams upping their efforts to take the scalp of the champions, the decline in potency of Vardy and Mahrez illustrates perhaps the biggest problem Leicester have faced this year.
In essence, it’s a psychological one: when you’ve already achieved the impossible, it must be extraordinarily difficult to find the motivation and energy to attempt to do it again — and harder still if you discover, early on in the season, that the best you can hope for is mid-table mediocrity.
Retaining a title is a mighty test for all but serial winners, and Leicester have no tradition of being that kind of club, which is also why, despite being champions of England, they were always likely to fall short in their efforts to improve their squad with the recruitment of marquee names.
A relegation this year would be seen as calamitous and a pure disaster. The fairy-tale and with the magic in which they won the Premier League last season, feels like it happened in some other parallel universe or reality by now. Therefore, it appears this is why the Leicester board have acted now, amidst rumours of player discontent, and a lack of faith in the manager.
In a statement, Vice Chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha stated:
“Claudio has brought outstanding qualities to his office. His skilful management, powers of motivation and measured approach have been reflective of the rich experience we always knew he would bring to Leicester City. His warmth, charm and charisma have helped transform perceptions of the Club and develop its profile on a global scale. We will forever be grateful to him for what he has helped us to achieve.
“It was never our expectation that the extraordinary feats of last season should be replicated this season. Indeed, survival in the Premier League was our first and only target at the start of the campaign. But we are now faced with a fight to reach that objective and feel a change is necessary to maximise the opportunity presented by the final 13 games.”
Whoever comes in next has a hell of a job to get his team firing again. Fellow relegation battlers Swansea kicked into gear with a 2-0 win over the Foxes, making crystal clear the threat of relegation no longer being a hypothetical one for the champions, but a very possible reality.
Ranieri should feel hard done by, although this is football and money talks, the fact is he delivered the greatest achievement in the history of English football. He was given reassurances less than 2 weeks ago that he had a future at Leicester, yet he was not even given the opportunity to see out the Champions League campaign he delivered. There will be another job available for him at some point, and the saving grace of leaving Leicester now, is if they do go down, he won’t be the man that takes them down.
By Rich Lee @RichLee2202