With a week of reflection and hindsight since the 4-2 defeat to Tottenham closed out Leicester City’s season, what were the overall lessons learned from the 2020/21 campaign?
1) A more successful campaign ended on a disappointing note, but we can be pretty proud of this club
It’s the hope that kills you. Having come down to the last game of the season again to decide whether the Foxes would get Champions League or Europa League, the disappointment of failing at the last hurdle hurts. This season saw us finish on sixty-six points, a four point increase and twenty games won as opposed to eighteen the season before. We had some interesting outings in the Europa League, even if it fizzled out prematurely and then there’s the history made of us having won the FA Cup. With Europa League group stages guaranteed again, there’s many reasons we can be proud of what Brendan Rodgers and this Leicester City team achieved.
There’s also room to reflect and dissect that tinge of disappointment that we couldn’t quite finish it off having rather upset the traditional big clubs for portions of the season. Few things will feel better than the FA Cup winning weekend, but a Champions League spot would have helped the recruitment side of things. Both for helping keep our top talent and in attracting more. With the Euros set to put some of those players on a global stage again, especially the likes of Youri Tielemans, it could be a nervous summer.
FAカップの決勝で着用したレスターのユニフォームの内側には、ヘリコプターの事故によって志半ばでこの世を去った前オーナーのヴィチャイ氏の写真が貼られていました。— Leicester City Japan (@Leicester_CityJ) May 16, 2021
The FA Cup also made us aware that the players have a beautiful tribute to Vichai by having a photo of him on the inside of the shirts.
Hindsight is important. While the memes and internet were generally in full swing about us bottling it again, it doesn’t quite tell the full story, that despite the club’s reluctance to complain at any stage, the pressures of repeated absences on an already fairly lean squad did eventually weigh out. It was one game too far in the end for how resilient we could be.
Given everything that has happened in the last fourteen months with clubs and the Super League plan, it’s a reminder of how lucky we are as Leicester City fans to have good ownership and to know that our club is in safe hands.
Leicester City have spent 93% of the past two seasons in the top four. Yet finished both seasons in fifth place. (BBC MOTD).— Chris O'Falkirk (@chris___007) May 24, 2021
Such a pity, when trying to muscle in on their much richer rivals.
2) Resilience and adaptability can only carry you so far
When the only outfield players who played thirty plus league games are Youri Tielemans and Jamie Vardy, you know injuries have been a problem. To our credit, we got through the first half of the season relatively unscathed in terms of results despite the absences and the changes they required. We came up with solutions that worked, whether that was changing the formations accordingly, or dropping players into new roles. We didn’t complain about the position we found ourselves in, no matter how frustrating it may have been. You have to wonder though if the lack of consistency we had for lineups, especially in defense, did come back to bite us in the end.
A huge strength of this Leicester City squad over 2020/21 was the adaptability, the options the players gave Rodgers when plugging gaps for injuries and providing some rare opportunities for rest. Had James Justin not succumbed to an injury himself, we’d be talking about him being Player of the Year in more ways than one and we should have been looking forward to cheering him on at the Euros. He was the ultimate utility player, but almost everybody that isn’t Kasper Schmeichel or Jamie Vardy has had to step up and do something different for us since August 2020. And generally, they’ve all done it pretty well.
The first time it felt like it was visibly taking a toll was the Sparta Prague Europa knockout games. We looked tired and didn’t have enough options to shake things up in either leg. With a key FA Cup game looming, risks and decisions had to be made and across February and March, our bench often featured academy kids and not a lot of Premier League experience. Rodgers has also had to deal with the balancing act of trying to integrate key players back, James Maddison and Ricardo Pereira, who need fitness and match sharpness, with the club’s ambitions.
The Foxes’ mental resilience was questioned a lot after the events of the Premier League restart, and the analysis will happen again having been in the top four for so long, but we did look a maturer, more experienced side for larger portions of this season. It’s a purely hypothetical situation and it only serves to tease us, but it would have been so great to have seen what a fully fit squad could have achieved.
3) The recruitment was spot on again
Without the power of knowing the future, to know where we’d be short when injuries all hit at once, the recruitment for the 2020/21 season was spot on again. We didn’t lose anybody except for Ben Chilwell, at a price we could live with, and used that money very wisely investing in Wesley Fofana and Timothy Castagne to provide more options at the back. A stroke of genius given how many injuries we had in that area. It was understandably a quieter recruitment period than some years, but it does feel like we used our money wisely.
While not a direct result of recruitment for this season, this was the breakout season for James Justin too. The most consistent player of the campaign, injury or not. It proves that our general approach to recruitment is near perfect. The right type of player, the right type of personality and talent that our rivals aren’t necessarily wanting to commit to yet.
Fofana will make many people’s lists of transfers of the season and he deserves it. He’s been pretty remarkable given his age and how we basically had to drop him into it and just see what he could do. Yes, he’s shown his age and inexperience in some moments and games, but there’s a general air of calm in the way he approaches the game. An air of excitement in the way he approaches getting the ball back and charging forward. He’s the type of player we should enjoy while we can, as you’d have to expect he’ll merit a move to a bigger club in his future. Seeing him leave the pitch in tears to end his season was not what he deserved.
It’s harder to draw quite as many conclusions from Timothy Castagne, not that that’s his fault. He had one of the best debuts in recent memory bombing down the right-wing and scoring at West Brom on the opening day. It was unfortunate that injury forced a reasonable absence and once we had him back, we got to enjoy a few games of him back on the right, driving forward and delivering some smart crosses before he had to ply his trade at left-back and too often at centre-back to plug a Jonny Evans shaped gap. The latter being something few would succeed at. Castagne’s strengths are very clearly on the right and while we’ve not had the chance to see him overlapping with a fully fit and raring Ricardo, that’s a tantalising prospect for next season.
While the Foxes need reinforcements in some areas, a right winger, extra cover defensively, perhaps an up and coming striker, it feels like a summer that will be most important for keeping the players we want to continue to build around.
4) Kelechi Iheanacho’s change in fortune was the feel-good story of the season
If you try to claim that seeing Kelechi Iheanacho’s Leicester career turning around doesn’t warm your heart, then I can only conclude that you don’t have a heart. The way the Nigerian impacted the team and the results was akin to having a January transfer come in and add that little something that was missing. There’s an element of luck to how it happened, but it very much was a now or never feeling. Strange to think that only last October, Iheanacho may have topped a few lists for players most likely to depart Leicester, while he ended the season as one of the first names on the team sheet.
It’s been a pleasure to watch him become the player we all hoped we’d signed from Manchester City. It’s also nice that he chose the time to do it when their buy-back clause has expired. He’s the feel-good story of the season. Yes, his goals and contribution on the pitch were key but there’s something to be said for having somebody with his level of energy and enthusiasm around the dressing room too. Iheanacho’s post-match interviews are endlessly entertaining, as are the social media clips we get primarily courtesy of Wilfred Ndidi.
Minutes per goal in the Premier League 2020-21 season:— betPawa Uganda (@betPawaUG) May 28, 2021
Gareth Bale - 83.9
Kelechi Iheanacho - 121.5
Joe Willock - 122.5
Diogo Jota - 123.7
Harry Kane - 134.2
Edinson Cavani - 137.2#flashbackfriday #epl pic.twitter.com/BtxrgXVIKC
The rise of Iheanacho came at an ideal time, and provided the answer to the question of ‘what’s our Plan B for Vardy’. Quite how that answer has come about is the interesting part. Iheanacho was not asked to simply replace Vardy this campaign. Instead we got to see a real partnership, playing off one another’s strengths and subsequently providing both of them plenty of opportunities to score and assist. So much so that in a rare game where they didn’t start together, Vardy seemed to miss his partner. For so long we were a one striker team, but we’ve looked at our best with both. It’ll be fascinating to see how this impacts summer recruitment for a striker and how we’ll accommodate this partnership when the likes of Harvey Barnes are fit again.
5) Home form has to be a target for improvement and fans should play a part
Many clubs have referenced the absence of fans over the last fourteen months as something to have to adapt to, or a missing piece in a complex puzzle for success. Given our home form took a noticeable dip since fans were last allowed in, perhaps it serves a point. Having fans, even in a smaller number, at Wembley seemed to give our players a boost and for a little while against Tottenham, it had the same effect.
Spare a thought for Timothy Castagne, Luke Thomas and Wesley Fofana, whose outing at the King Power against Spurs is the first time they’ve seen fans in the stadium since either joining the club or breaking into the squad (in Thomas’ case). It may not have been a full King Power, but the noise was still there and it was the perfect way for the departing legends like Wes Morgan and Christian Fuchs to go out.
Rodgers and his team will likely already have some thoughts on areas for improvement not directly linked to recruitment. Home form absolutely has to be on that list. Despite the points haul improvement and the near match for goals scored, our home record was one of the more disappointing outcomes of the season. Even before 2021 had begun, we’d lost more home games in this campaign than the entire previous one. We looked vulnerable at home, sloppy. Admittedly, fans can hinder a team further should the away side notch an early goal, but we know how much players like Vardy feed off a crowd and that energy.
In theory, all being well, the 2021/22 campaign should be back to normal at least as far as home crowds are concerned. That feeling of being at a match just cannot be rivalled and having finally had a taste again against Tottenham, I cannot wait to be back.
Bonus Learn: The end of the season means retirement of one club legend, and Captain, Wes Morgan. It’s been quite the nine years for Wes and he deserved the emotional send off. It’s also the end of the road for the much loved Christian Fuchs and while he didn’t get the same goodbye appearance, Matty James too. The contingent of players who did the Championship and Premier League title double left is now down to Kasper Schmeichel. As we approach ten years of Kasper, and seeing how much it meant to lose Morgan, you can only imagine the eventual send-off our ‘keeper will receive.
Here’s to you Wes, thank you for all of the memories. I’ll remember the goals, you lifting trophies but I’ll remember you being dragged around Jamie Vardy’s kitchen by Marcin Wasilewski the most!