What comes after the greatest upset in Premier League history? How can Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City side possibly follow up what happened last season?
Indeed, after the Foxes’ title-winning hangover cleared and the ticker-tape settled, there are some sobering questions being asked of English football’s shock champions. Have they flown as close to the sun as is possible?
With the 2016/17 season fast approaching, most are presuming so. But most presumed Leicester would fall away after an astonishing start to the last campaign. Most assumed they’d stumble short of upsetting English football’s established order. Instead, it was blue and gold ribbons tied on the trophy.
Nonetheless, mounting a successful defence of their Premier League crown would eclipse all that Leicester achieved last season. Ranieri might have gone down in English football folklore by going the distance just a matter of months ago, but finishing top of the pile for a second successive campaign would be the real making of his legend.
This summer hasn’t just reshuffled the Premier League pack, but dealt an entirely new hand. While Leicester benefited from a decidedly weak field last season, England’s top flight could now be at its strongest for a number of years. If the Foxes find a way to hold their own, they will have performed above all expectations once again.
Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United are all overhauling their squads to the specifications of their new managers. With the money being spent and the effort being exerted, the top end of the Premier League will surely be a tougher place this season. Leicester, and even Tottenham Hotspur, could find themselves squeezed out.
The Foxes’ squad has changed as well, although not for the better. The trio of N’Golo Kante, RiyadMahrez and Jamie Vardy were considered the trinity of Leicester’s Premier League triumph last season.
Those three players provided the core around which the rest ofRanieri’s side revolved. Without them the identity of the Foxes would have been very different. Now, with one gone and another rumoured to be close to exiting too, we’ll find out just how different.
Indeed, the loss of Kante to Chelsea last month was a body blow to Leicester’s chances of lodging a credible title defence.
The Frenchman is the closest thing to a modern Claude Makelele football has seen, so perhaps it was natural he should end up at Stamford Bridge, but with Kante gone, Ranieri will have to establish a new midfield platform. He must find someone who can act as a central destroyer and a creative force all at the one time. Those players are hard to come by.
Mahrez’s departure would also be a tough one to take, with the playmaker reported to be moving closer to joining Arsenal this summer, according to Algerian newspaper Le Buteur (h/t Lewis Winter of the Daily Star).
Ranieri recognised his importance to the Foxes and how difficult it would be to replace the creative edge the 25-year-old provided around the edge of the opposition penalty area.
“Riyad, maybe he is distracted from all these rumours and speculation, but that is also experience for my players,” the Italian said recently, per ESPN FC. “It is important he understands, stays with us and improves his fitness. He has to play for the team like last season.”
Vardy will be a Leicester player when the window closes at the end of the month, but he, too, was offered the chance to make a move elsewhere, with Arsenal again keen on robbing one of the Foxes’ brightest jewels, per Stuart James of the Guardian. But even with the England international staying at the King Power Stadium, the core of last season’s Premier League-winning team has been decimated.
However, Ranieri might reflect on how the fundamentals remain the same for his side. Leicester still can’t compete at the top end of the transfer market and are counting on making shrewd signings, just like last summer. It’s just that slightly more focus will be paid to what the Foxes are doing this year, and it might be somewhat more difficult to fly under the radar.
Per Mark Crellin of Sky Sports, Ranieri said:
I think the same as it was last season with [Esteban] Cambiasso. It was difficult to replace but we replaced. It is the same, football keeps going, doesn’t stop.
Football can lose me, Wes [Morgan], everybody, but the other people will continue to play football.
I think we are a very good squad and we will see, if something more we need, our chairman is ready to buy.
It might be somewhat unrealistic to expect Leicester’s replacements to meet the standard set by their predecessors, but by spending £32 million on Ahmed Musa,Nampalys Mendy, Ron Robert-Zieler and Luis Hernandez, the champions will hope to have bought smartly, just as they did last summer. Their transfer strategy hasn’t changed, even if their budget has been inflated ever so slightly.
But it remains a shame that the team that swept to Premier League glory last season won’t have the chance to prove they can do the same in the Champions League. The side that takes on Europe’s best this term will be very different to the one that finished atop the pile in England just a few months ago.
How the Foxes’ best-ever team would have fared on the continent will go down as one of football’s great unanswered questions.
A top-four finish and Champions League qualification might be the best Leicester can hope for this season, but predictions of a dramatic slide down the table might be overly pessimistic. The Foxes have given themselves a platform to build upon, even without Kante and maybe Mahrez.
Perhaps Ranieri should focus on simply establishing and cementing Leicester’s place among the Premier League and European elite, making the Foxes just another team capable of winning major honours even if they don’t come again this season. Stick around long enough and ultimately you will be accepted as part of the natural order.
The Foxes should take encouragement from how Atletico Madrid have managed to make Spain’s predominant duo a trio and sweeping to a shock Liga win two years ago. Diego Simeone’s side are now considered one of the country’s perennial challengers.
The Premier League will most likely have more of a familiar look and feel to it this season, but Leicester shouldn’t be completely discounted. They might be well down the bookmakers’ lists to win the title again, yet they have already shown once their resilience in proving their doubters wrong. They don’t need to keep the trophy at the King Power Stadium to do so again.