The thrill of winning the Championship in the 2013/14 season followed by promotion to the Premier League for the 2014/15 season appeared it would be short lived for fans of Leicester City. On April 4th, 2015 the Foxes entered a match with West Ham having lost six of their last eight matches, sitting firmly in 20th place in the table, seven points from safety with only nine matches remaining.
Seven wins later, Leicester City finished the season in 14th position, six points clear of the relegation zone. The Foxes fortunes appeared to be on the rise.
Then the offseason hit. Manager Nigel Pearson was fired. Esteban Cambiasso, fresh off receiving the club’s Player of the Year award, turned down a contract offer to remain with the Foxes and left to play for Greek club Olympiacos. As if things couldn’t get any worse, the man chosen to replace Pearson, Claudio Ranieri, was viewed as a head-scratching hire, at best, and a move that ensured relegation at worst. Most believed it would be the latter.
We all know how that 2015/16 season turned out.
Following the Premier League title triumph, rumors started that seemed to suggest Leicester’s fortunes would be short lived. Arsenal supposedly wanted Jamie Vardy. There were rumblings that Riyad Mahrez wanted to move on. And the Foxes lost arguably their midfield key to the title when Chelsea met N’Golo Kante’s release clause. While relegation wasn’t bandied about as much as it was before the title, the club was thought to be on the verge of a downward spiral, especially if both Vardy and Mahrez joined Kante on the way out.
Luckily, for Leicester, both stayed. However, the Foxes fortunes indeed took a turn for the worse. Leicester City lost six of the club’s first 12 matches and found themselves sitting in 14th place in the table, a mere two points from the relegation zone. As unbelievable as it may sound, the noise started that Ranieri might be on his way out months after delivering a title. The Foxes performance in the Champions League most likely delayed the manager’s departure as Leicester won its group and advanced to the knockout stage of the tournament.
Following a Match Week 25 loss to Swansea City that left Leicester only one point clear of the relegation zone and a 2 – 1 first-leg loss to Sevilla in the Champions League, Ranieri was sacked. The talk of the club’s demise hit full force as Leicester was not only on the verge of being knocked out of the Champions League but of also potentially being the first team to win the title one season only to be relegated the next.
The appointment of a holdover from Pearson’s staff, Craig Shakespeare, temporarily calmed these fears. Leicester came back to knock out Sevilla and advance to the round of eight in the UCL, rattled off five straight wins in the Premier League, and ended the season is 12th position. Not good compared to the previous season, but 10 points clear of relegation and definitely trending upward.
In the off-season the Vardy rumors persisted and the Mahrez rumblings grew stronger. But, again, both stayed while another starter from the title-winning club, Danny Drinkwater, left for Chelsea. Since the star players remained and the club finished the previous campaign on a bit of a hot streak, the 2017/18 season began without relegation fears and even aspirations for a top-half-of-the table finish.
But once again the season did not get off to a good start for the Foxes, as Leicester managed to win only one out of its first eight matches, leaving the club 18th in the table. Craig Shakespeare was fired, and Leicester City appeared to be at a crossroads once again. Another poor start to the season, another new manager, who would be the club’s fourth in as many seasons in the Premier League, and no idea under whom the Foxes future would lie.
Enter Claude Puel. Another questionable pick that received some scorn but not as much as the Ranieri hire, since Leicester City had at least earned the benefit of the doubt when it came to hiring the right manager at the right time.
And management indeed appeared to have make the right move again, as at the season’s halfway mark Leicester City sat in 8th, a position that could very well lead to European football the following season, should the club manage to keep it.
But the halfway mark precedes the winter transfer window, and this time the Mahrez rumors became reality as the player handed in a transfer request. A move to league leaders Manchester City seemed to be almost certain. Only the transfer never happened, much to the player’s chagrin.
After the window closed, Mahrez was nowhere to be found. He made it clear that he wanted to leave, yet he still remained. Then the club went on what can be described, at best, as a poor run, winning only five games over the second half of the season, and going literal months without anyone outside of Vardy scoring a goal. Rumors began that Puel could be sacked. Mahrez would surely leave, perhaps to be joined by future phenoms Harry Maguire and Wilfred Ndidi.
Now here we sit a month or so away from the 2018/19 season. Puel is still here. Mahrez is not.
And the demise of Leicester City talk is creeping back into Premier League conversation. Which is why it was so important to take this walk down memory lane before we arrived at the present state of the club.
In April 2015 Leicester City sat in 20th position in the table. Relegation was certain. The Foxes finished 14th.
Before the 2015/16 season began, after losing their manager and their player of the year, Leicester City was sure to be relegated. The Foxes won the Premier League.
At the start of the 2016/17 season the doom and gloom talk was gone. Winning a title will do that. It will also lessen the sting of losing a vital player like Kante. But the negativity returned with the sacking of Ranieri, and the seemingly inevitable departures of both Vardy and Mahrez. Leicester City finished 12th.
At the start of the 2017/18 season everyone but Drinkwater remained. The Foxes finished the previously season strong, but started the current season poorly. Relegation talk crept back in after a questionable managerial hire. A high position in the table put that relegation talk to rest, but the downward slope reappeared when it seemed Mahrez was gone in January. Now it’s July, he’s gone, Maguire’s World Cup has fans worried he might be, too, and Ndidi has already spoken about playing for a bigger club. Expect the relegation talk to resume shortly.
But to fully appreciate the current state of Leicester City one needs to also look at clubs that have actually been relegated. At the end of the Foxes first season in the league (14/15) Aston Villa finished 17th. The club sold Chrisitan Benteke and Fabian Delph and were promptly relegated the following season.
The same season Villa finished 17th, Swansea City finished 8th. The Swans fired manager Garry Monk, then sold Wilfried Bony and Jonjo Shelvey before dropping to 12th at the conclusion of the next season. Nine players were released at the start of the 2016/17 season and four players were sold, notable among them Andre Ayew and Ashley Williams. Swansea finished the 16/17 season in 15th. A staggering 18 departures occurred before the close of the summer window at the start of the 2017/18 season, notable among them Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente. Then, a mere three season after finishing 8th and barely missing out on the Europa League, Swansea City was relegated.
This brings us to Stoke City, a team with Jack Butland, World Cup game winner Xherdan Shaqiri, and seemingly ageless Peter Crouch. A team not lacking in talent that kept most of the players it wanted to keep with the exception (?) of Marko Arnautovic. The Potters finished 9th, 9th, and 13th, respectively, at the conclusion of Leicester City’s first three seasons in the Premier League. Then came last season.
FT: The Potters have lost. Defeat means we will be playing Championship football next season (1-2) #SCFC— Stoke City FC (@stokecity) May 5, 2018
And where has Leicester City finished in all this?
14th, 1st, 12th, 9th.
The club was definitely in danger of relegation at points late in various season, none more so than 2014/15. But at the end of every season Leicester City was firmly safe. Even after the departures of Pearson, Cambiasso, Kante, Ranieri, and Drinkwater.
Now Mahrez is gone. And now the relegation and downward spiral talk will resume.
The problem is this talk has no basis in reality.
Leicester City has shown beyond any doubt that while it may lose some players it can keep others that are just as good. Mahrez was magical. Vardy holds a Premier League goal-scoring record, and a club just as big as Manchester City wanted him. But he stayed.
The Foxes had ten players on World Cup rosters, among the most of any club in the World.
After Mahrez left, the club still has those ten players on its roster. Could Maguire be gone soon? Or Ndidi? Sure. But what about the club’s history in the Premier League should make any Leicester City fan assume the Foxes won’t be able to find their replacements? After all, it was Leicester City that found Kante and Mahrez. Not one of the so-called bigger clubs. And not many teams were too keen on signing Maguire after Hull City were relegated just one season ago.
But it’s not just players from previous seasons who remain that give supporters reason for optimism. Look at the club’s incoming transfers. New signing and World Cup starter Ricardo Pereira specifically mentioned Puel as a major reason he signed for Leicester City.
The Foxes beat out several other clubs to sign Jonny Evans and James Maddison this offseason. With the Mahrez money coming in, and a top-half-of-the-table finish to attract players, expect more signings to come.
Yes, Mahrez was a great player for Leicester City. And, yes, the club would rather have him on its roster than on the roster of another team. But there is nothing in Leicester City’s recent Premier League history that suggests the club is incapable of dealing with losing Mahrez. Especially when contrasted with the similar situations and much different fates of Aston Villa, Swansea City, and Stoke City over that same timeframe.
So Mahrez is gone, and others may soon follow. But fans can trust in the club to not only find their replacements, but perhaps to find players that are even better. Leicester City has shown repeatedly that it can find talent where others don’t, and see something in players that other clubs miss. Foxes fans are rightly sad that Mahrez is gone. But they should be equally excited to see who the club discovers next.