This time a year ago Leicester City was still celebrating the most unlikely of triumphs, but that’s a story we all know. Now, however, these same Foxes won’t be seen parading through the streets equipped with a shiny new trophy. A full season and 44 points later, the heroes of the 2015/16 season finished in a forgettable 12th in the table.
But was this season a success?
Finishing 11 places and 37 points off the pace of last year, as well as sacking the historic figure that is Claudio Ranieri, would seem to point towards only one answer: a resounding no.
But is that assessment entirely fair?
There is a lot more to consider given full context.
Yes, reigning Premier League champions don’t often find themselves in the positions Leicester did this season. But Leicester is unlike any other defending champion. This is something that supporters of the club (and readers of this blog) will be fully aware of.
As Marc Albrighton wisely put it, “to expect us to go and win it a second year was a bit naive.”
We are, after all, still Little Leicester, a minnow swimming amongst the giants. But even with that in mind, it is valuable to look at the final table and realize that the Foxes finished just two points out of 8th.
The clubs who finished first through seventh are, of course, the most recognizable names in English soccer. Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, and even Everton are the perennial powerhouses of the Premier League. Though Leicester may have aspirations of eventually challenging them on a regular basis, doing it once with the current foundation of the club is more than what should be expected.
Even the major publications and pundits - who likely had to err on the side of cautious optimism, given how fantastically wrong most were about the 2015/16 Foxes - predicted a finish behind these clubs before the season began.
Granted, we finished below even these expectations. But even through a season of chaos and turmoil, Leicester City surpassed what historical precedent might suggest they would. Removing the title from the equation, a 12th place finish in the Premier League is better than most in the club’s recent history.
Of course it is still fair to say that the title changed the expectations for Leicester, as it rightfully should have. No longer should the Foxes be battling to stay in the Premier League, as they were for much of this season. Leicester should also have been good enough to avoid the need to fire the manager who brought them great success.
These are both undeniable stains on the 2016/17 campaign.
Still, glossing over some of the incredible successes of this season would be unfair. After Craig Shakespeare’s takeover, Leicester won an impressive 7 league games out of 13 played, and 8 out of 16 total. A full season at this pace could have meant very different things for Leicester City.
The slow start prior to his appointment, though disappointing, is understandable. The group of “misfit toys” that some have referred to the Leicester squad as, was coming off of a success none of them could possibly have envisioned, or even hoped to replicate. Showing up with less hunger and drive is simply human nature.
The Foxes were also adjusting to many new factors. For one, the world had learned their tricks and had a whole summer to adjust. Teams began to play deeper lines, preventing the kinds of blistering counters from Jamie Vardy that were so lethal. This forced a different approach from Ranieri, one where steady buildup play was more important. This, evidently, is not a major strength of the squad.
Leicester also had to deal with injuries that they had luckily previously avoided. Kasper Schmeichel and Wes Morgan (among others) missed large stretches of game time, forcing unwanted changes to the starting XI. Though injuries are not unusual for most teams, the two aforementioned players were ever-present fixtures a year ago.
The Foxes were also dealing with the adjustment to a slightly tweaked roster, including a few big-money signings and the loss of apparent title-magnet N’Golo Kanté.
The rotation at the spot of second striker alongside Jamie Vardy never seemed to settle, with the club cycling through the use of Shinji Okazaki and new signings Islam Slimani and Ahmed Musa.
This was also true of the hole left behind by the 2017 PFA Player of the Year. For much of the season, the second central midfield position next to Danny Drinkwater was a rotation between Nampalys Mendy (when healthy), Daniel Amartey, and Andy King. It wasn't until the January signing of Wilfred Ndidi that the role was truly solidified.
Despite all of this, the club still managed to do the unthinkable: reach the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League. This, I believe, will be the defining aspect of the 2016/17 season for Leicester City.
A little club from the East Midlands went toe to toe with some of the most respected clubs in Europe. They tore through the group stage - finishing atop the group, above FC Copenhagen, Club Brugge, and Porto - and bested the Spanish force that is Sevilla, only to lose a hard-fought close battle against old European rivals Atlético Madrid.
It was a thrilling journey that supporters of Leicester City will never forget.
March 14, 2017
With all things considered, the season was a mixed bag, but one that I would consider a success. Whether or not it actually was, of course, lies in the eye of the beholder.
What do you believe?