A 2-1 aggregate defeat to Athletico Madrid on Tuesday night saw the conclusion of Leicester City’s European furore, a journey characterised by pride, passion and an overwhelming belief to defy the odds.
Whilst the last 18 months has seen odds defied in every sense of the word for Leicester City (5000-1 for the 2015-16 title), a coveted semi-final spot in the UEFA Champions League was one step too far, Jamie Vardy’s goal at the KingPower proving to be in vain as Athletico’s crucial away goal through Saul saw Leicester crash out to Diego Simeone’s men: a defensive masterclass over both legs from the prestigious La Liga outfit.
This marked the end of Leicester City’s season: relegation moving further from the realms of possibility and no FA-Cup representation. This has been a season of mass turbulence for Leicester City off the back of their title-winning heroics, though Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha; Leicester’s owner, decided in February 2017 that enough was enough: Claudio Ranieri packed his bags and saw his contract at the KingPower terminated.
Upon hearing the news that Leicester City’s owners had decided to sack Claudio Ranieri, I was somewhat struck with both shock and surprise.
A title-winning manager, forever etched in the history books of Leicester City, sacked within 9 months of winning the clubs maiden league title.
Perhaps loyalty based on sentiment is simply a non-existent entity in the modern era of Premier League football.
The owners of each 20 Premier League teams must be unafraid to make changes at the helm of their football clubs, Stan Kroenke and the Arsenal board have backed and continue to back Arsene Wenger as their manager, though the stagnant progress of the team coupled with growing unrest within the fan-base suffices as an example as to why unjustifiable managerial loyalty can negatively impact a football club both on and off the pitch.
Therefore, upon sacking Ranieri there was a fork in the road with two contrasting fates – an unenviable Premier League relegation or a cry to battle for Leicester to rise up table once more and cement their status as a Premier League team for the 2017-18 season.
The latter was swung into motion, and Craig Shakespeare has overseen an upturn in form that has raised eyebrows not only up and down the country: Leicester have been a different proposition post-Ranieri.
There are a number of explanations as to why Leicester became only the 2nd ever Premier League team to lose 5 consecutive Premier League fixtures (the last marking Ranieri’s sacking) and then to win the next 5 consecutively too.
This is the definition of a turn around in form that Leicester’s Thai-based consortium of ownership will be beyond thrilled with – they made a decision based on factual pragmatism and it has duly delivered: Leicester City look set to remain a Premier League team once more.
In the wake of Ranieri’s sacking, British tabloids widely reported that 4 senior Leicester players; Kasper Schmeichel, Wes Morgan, Mark Albrighton and Jamie Vardy, met Leicester’s owners after a 1-0 first-leg defeat to Sevilla in the Champions League quarter-final: the reports suggesting that this meeting had been poignant in the demise of Ranieri and pivotal in the decision to end his historic tenure with the club.
This lead to Vardy and Schmeichel publicly denying all involvement, Schmeichel in a Sky Sports interview and Vardy speaking out via his Instagram account. The players alleged to have played a part in Ranieri’s sacking were defiant in their innocence, though something has clearly clicked since Claudio departed the KingPower stadium, so was the portrayed act of proclaimed innocence from Leicester’s senior cohort legitimate? Or a false account that can be seen in the vast up-turn in form since Ranieri was sacked.
In the first game after Ranieri’s departure, Leicester played a tremendous 90 minutes against Liverpool, a 3-1 victory and three valuable points in their quest for survival. The Shakesperian precedent had been set, and home victories against Hull, Stoke and Sunderland followed, alongside an away win at West Ham: 5 games. 15 points. 13 goals scored. 4 conceded. The form that arose in the wake of Ranieri’s departure was in fact title-winning, and Leicester’s only league defeat under Shakespeare was a 4-2 defeat at Goodison Park, a stadium very few teams will go and take even 1 point from this season.
Jamie Vardy’s form cannot be ignored either; a man at the centre of the accusatory storm by which Ranieri departed Leicester, and whilst players undeniably go through phases of form and failure, there is a stark contrast in Vardy’s form particularly.
In the 25 fixtures leading up to Ranieri’s demise, Vardy scored 5 Premier League goals in 25 games; 3 of those coming in a hatrick against Manchester City, and therefore in 25 games Vardy scored in three games. Post-Ranieri, in 7 games Vardy has scored 6 goals and registered 3 assists, the scintillating form that captured the hearts and minds of the British public on course to Leicester’s title win.
This is the form of an England international, a man who rivalled Harry Kane for 2015-16’s Golden Boot: he has pedigree, and he knows it.
So why has it taken nearly 70% of the season and a managerial sacking to be bringing out the best in Vardy? Jamie claimed to have no involvement or motive to engineer Ranieri’s departure, though the inverse correlation of Ranieri gone = Vardy back in business is interesting nonetheless.
£28m Slimani, £17m Musa, £15m Ndidi, £14m Mendy. Leicester vastly invested in their playing squad in the 2017 Summer window, their owners will be far from content with this seasons results despite probable Premier League survival and a Q-F appearance in the UCL.
Financial investment requires footballing performance to justify its spending, and therefore Shakespeare has an opportunity at Leicester to rejuvenate a squad with undoubted ability and to perhaps not challenge for the title, but to become a stalwart top-10 team and to begin a charge into Europe once more: Leicester’s ambition requires this to be their aim.
Loyalty is scarce in the modern game of football, though the sacking of Ranieri left a bitter taste in the mouth. Leicester’s players proclaimed their innocence, though regardless an upwards trajectory of form has ensued.
The trials and tribulations of Leicester’s 2016-17 season will be remembered by many, though this tale with a Shakespearian author bears the ability to write one more chapter. Its title? The gravitas this team will hold once more? Though most importantly, will a 5000-1 odds-defying occurrence ever present itself again? Only time will tell.