Leicester City’s approach to building on their unforgettable title triumph has slowly begun to take shape. The first summer transfer window following the 2015-16 campaign was marked by attempts to supplement the squad of aging stars rather than rebuild it. The signings of Islam Slimani, Ahmed Musa, and Nampalys Mendy signaled a team aiming to bolster their ranks with players who had proven their level elsewhere in Europe. Most would consider that summer a failure as Slimani is currently out on loan with no apparent future at the club, and Musa was sold to Al-Nassr without having made much of an impact in Leicester.
The club floated through the next season-and-a-half (give or take) seemingly clinging to their previous success with a familiar model. They went from Claudio Ranieri to his former assistant Craig Shakespeare, aimed to sign overlooked talent from other European leagues, and aimed to expand the infrastructure of the club. Whether this approach was viewed as a success or failure was relative to expectations. Some may have been satiated by the remarkable journey to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Others may have been disappointed by a 12th place Premier League finish followed by a 9th place finish.
Since the appointment of Claude Puel, however, the approach has undoubtedly changed. When the hire was announced there was an emphasis on his “long-term vision.” At the time it wasn’t entirely clear what this vision was, but it now appears to be a movement centered on finding and developing young talent.
All that remains of the old-guard is Jamie Vardy, Wes Morgan, Marc Albrighton, and Kasper Schmeichel as consistent contributors. Andy King, Robert Huth, Leonardo Ulloa, Danny Drinkwater, Riyad Mahrez, and N’Golo Kanté have all moved on, while Danny Simpson, Christian Fuchs, and Shinji Okazaki have slowly been phased out despite remaining at the club.
The current core of the squad is comprised of promising young players such as James Maddison (22), Ben Chilwell (22), Wilfred Ndidi (22), Demarai Gray (22), Kelechi iheanacho (22), Youri Tielemans (21 - loanee), Harvey Barnes (21), Hamza Choudhury (21), and slightly older players who arguably have still not reached their primes such as Harry Maguire (25), and Ricardo Pereira (25).
Not only has the club assembled a squad bursting with exciting young players, but more importantly Puel has given extensive playing time to them as well. In fact, no Premier League team gives a higher percentage of their minutes to players between 21 and 22 years old than Leicester City, which separates their current plan from what others have done.
This approach to team-building seems like a sensible path forward for the club. Leicester will likely never have the money to compete with the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, and the rest of the “Big Six” in the transfer market, but by identifying top talent early in their career and developing them at the club they may have a legitimately competitive model. A similar approach has propelled Tottenham Hotspur into consistent European place finishes, and made Borussia Dortmund a European giant (though there are less “big clubs” in Germany).
This plan, however, carries with it an inherent risk. How long should Leicester City’s young talent be expected to stay at the club without achieving much more than mid-table finishes? Would it even be fair to expect more from such a young group? Will Puel even be around to see the project through?
Surely this promising squad is full of individuals with ambition to compete at the highest level; Harry Maguire has already admitted as much amid public courtship from Manchester United. But if this group were to stay together for a few more years it is easy to see how they could compete with England’s elite. Unfortunately, the longer it takes for these players to reach that level, the less likely it is that City is successful enough to keep them at the club. Such is the paradox of the Foxes’ youth movement.
So despite the ambitious project, the risk remains. The plight of the “smaller clubs” has long been the inability to keep their best talent away from “bigger clubs” (see: Mahrez and Kanté), and City’s new approach will still likely hinge on how long they can keep the sharks at bay. If rumors are to be believed, James Maddison and Ben Chilwell are already being circled by Tottenham and Manchester City respectively.
There are potential countermeasures the club could lean on, however. City should aim to convince the players to stick around and maximize their playing time as a way to hasten and further their development. The promise of consistent minutes and the cautionary tale of Riyad Mahrez should be primary pitches to any Foxes thinking of moving on.
Another selling point should be the imminent expansions in infrastructure. There have long been rumors of a stadium expansion in the works at the King Power, but even more exciting are the plans for the new “world-class” training ground. Such a feature should be enticing to players looking for the best place to further their careers.
As things currently stand, the Foxes sit 12th in the Premier League with no trophies left to play for. This doesn’t bode well for the prospects of keeping those who may already have one eye on the exit door (looking at you, Harry Maguire), but European competition isn’t completely out of reach. Depending on the results of the FA Cup, seventh place could be good enough for a Europa League spot.
The Wolverhampton Wanderers currently sit in that spot with 39 points, seven ahead of the Foxes, but the upcoming run of fixtures for both squads differ heavily. City doesn’t face a top-six side until April 27th against Arsenal, while Wolves could have three such games from now until April 6th, as well as an FA Cup tie with Manchester United.
This could provide a massive opportunity for Leicester City. The prospects of Europa League qualification could be a substantial boon in the fight to keep hold of the brightest talents. Not only would European competition be appealing as a tangible endeavor, but as a symbolic marker of the club’s progression.
Leicester City’s youth movement could prove to be what ushers in a new era of success, but they are likely facing a race against the clock. With every passing season the shine of the Premier League title dims a little bit and the team is forced to look forward before its effects completely wear off. The next few years could be paramount to the future of the club as they must find success before the advantages of their previous triumph and current youth movement fade. The clock is ticking.