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What Happened To Leicester City?

How (and Why) Did The “Model Club” Fall From Grace?

Leicester City v West Ham United - Premier League - King Power Stadium Photo by Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images

With the matches this weekend postponed, now seems as good a time as any to have this discussion. Leicester City are currently 20th on the table with just 1 points from 6 league matches. This is largely the same team that spent more time in the top four over the 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons than any other club. How does this happen? The Foxes have the reputation of being clever in the transfer market and of fostering a terrific team atmosphere in the boot room. You may ask yourself: “Well, how did they get here?”

Spoiler alert: “Suddenly” is the wrong way of framing it.

That’s a great question. The current situation is one that has been 2 12 years in the making and it’s not just the manager, it’s not just the players, and it’s not just the front office. If we want to arrest this fall, we need to understand how we got here and what has gone wrong.

The High-Water Mark and the Beginning of the Fall

The peak of the Brendan Rodgers era was reached on 9 March, 2020. In the final match prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, Leicester City destroyed rivals Aston Villa by a score of 4-0. Braces from Jamie Vardy and Harvey Barnes solidified the Foxes hold on a Champions League spot, giving them an 8-point lead over Manchester United with only 9 matches to play.

Flush with cash from the sale of Harry Maguire, Leicester had brought in James Justin, Youri Tielemans, Dennis Praet, and Ayoze Perez the previous summer and it looked as though it was, for the most part, money well-spent. If there was ever a time to think that Leicester would have a chance at cracking the hold the Big 6 had on the league, this was it.

Only, it wasn’t. Two unrelated events cast a pall over the team and the Foxes have never fully recovered from either of them. The first is that Jack Grealish, in his frustration over the heavy defeat, took out Ricardo Pereira’s knee late in the match. This caused the Portugal fullback to miss an entire year and he’s still not the player he was. It’s easy to forget just how good Ricardo was: rated him as the best right back in all of Europe at the time.

Ricardo got his revenge in the most Ricardo way possible.

The other thing, obviously, was the COVID-19 lockdown. Not only did this halt Leicester’s momentum, but it also put an enormous dent in revenues from which the club are yet to recover. This was a problem in 2019/20; it would snowball and become a massive concern years later. We finished 5th, our second-best Premier League finish, but the seeds of our demise were already in the soil.

The End of the 2019/20 Season

Had the remainder of the season simply been cancelled, the odds are good that we would be writing a very different story. Instead, the FA determined that play would resume in late June and that all 9 remaining matches would take place.

For whatever reason, Leicester City seemed less fit and a step slower than their opposition when play resumed. The first match was against Watford and it looked as though the Foxes would take all 3 points when Ben Chilwell scored a wondergoal in the 90th minute. Defender Craig Dawson snatched an equaliser for the doomed Hornets on the 93rd minute, setting the tone for what was to come.

Watford FC v Leicester City - Premier League
Because it had to be Watford again, didn’t it?
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

A capitulation against Bournemouth meant that the Foxes would need to win their final match, at home to Manchester United, to qualify for the Champions League. With Chilwell and James Maddison out with injuries and Çağlar Söyüncü suspended for his straight red card against Bournemouth, City went to war with Wes Morgan, Hamza Choudhury, Luke Thomas, and James Justin in the starting lineup.

We lost 2-0. Coming into the season, finishing 5th would have seemed like a triumph, but instead, it was crushing. In addition, the loss of the Champions League money when the team lost all revenue from ticket sales was brutal. The snowball was starting to pick up speed.

Summer of 2020

Having determined that neither Demarai Gray nor Ayoze was “the answer” on the right wing, the Foxes went back into the market for a replacement for Riyad Mahrez. The recruitment team settled on a loan move for Turkish winger Cengiz Ünder.

Chilwell threw a spanner in the works, requesting a move to Chelsea, but City reacted decisively, purchasing centre-half Wesley Fofana and right fullback Timothy Castagne. Castagne’s arrival was a little odd, in that he was going to be asked to play on the left, but he was clearly a quality addition.

All of which is to say, there was no lack of optimism going into the new campaign. We’d just missed out on the Champions League, but the team looked stronger and potentially better balanced. Surely we wouldn’t have the same injury and suspension problems at the end of the season again.

The End of the 2020/21 Season

The end of this term was so close to matching the end of 2019/20 that it was uncanny. After a disappointing draw against 10-man Southampton, the Foxes relived the Bournemouth nightmare by going down 4-0 against a poor Newcastle side before clawing back a couple of consolation goals.

The defeat left us 3rd on the table, so we were still in control of our own destiny. After defeating Manchester United, we had to face Chelsea immediately after our FA Cup triumph over them and they were in A Mood. Still, all we had to do was win the final match. We carried a 2-1 lead against Tottenham Hotspur into the final 15 minutes only to collapse and fall to a 4-2 defeat. We fell one point shy of the Champions League.

Winning the FA Cup for the first time was glorious, but it doesn’t pay like the top flight of European competition. Once again, revenues were down, and we missed out on a massive boost on the last day of the season. People were starting to get nervous, especially when the manager started suggesting that we were lucky to be where we were and that perhaps we shouldn’t expect to break into the top four. We needed a big summer.

Chelsea v Leicester City: The Emirates FA Cup Final
“Glorious” may have undersold it.
Photo by Michael Regan - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Summer of 2021

The Foxes had identified four areas where they wanted to improve the squad and, on paper at least, they did exactly that. Patson Daka was identified as the long-term replacement for Vardy, Boubakary Soumare would strengthen the central midfield, Ryan Bertrand would give us depth at left back, and loanee Ademola Lookman would at long-last be The Answer on the left wing. Importantly, no key player departed; this was a huge throw of the dice by ownership to push this team up the table by that one, crucial spot.

In the final pre-season friendly, Leicester were leading Champions League side Villarreal 3-0 and looking very comfortable in the process. There were smiles all around and the new signings looked lively. Then, it all fell apart. Fer Nino took umbrage at being embarrassed by the Foxes and petulantly scissor-tackled Fofana, snapping the defender’s leg. In a panic to replace Fofana, Jannik Vestergaard came in on a three-year deal for 20m.

Expectations for 2021/22 (and the Reality)

To say that expectations were high for the season wouldn’t be quite right; the club desperately needed to build on the previous two years’ finishes. From a financial standpoint, the club had invested heavily without any offsetting sales. Just as importantly, the team had to throw off the ghosts of back-to-back seasons of falling just short of the prize on the final day.

Right from the moment Fofana went down, it all went pear-shaped. Jonny Evans got hurt. Wilfred Ndidi got hurt. Timothy Castagne got hurt. James Justin and Ricardo missed most of the season. The defence was a disaster. Çağlar Söyüncü was our most-used defender, but he need a steady presence next to him to shine. Without the steadying influence, he became increasingly, and visibly, frustrated and his form suffered.

The summer signings didn’t work, either. Patson Daka was the lone bright spot. Ryan Bertrand suffered a knee injury. Jannik Vestergaard and Boubakary Soumare were (unsurprisingly) deemed too slow and left unused. Lookman was excellent once they moved him off of the right side and returned to his natural role on the left. What had looked like a laser-focused recruitment period provided wound up being an expensive failure. That failure was likely what led to the departure of Lee Congerton, the head of recruitment.

31/08/18.CELTIC TRAINING.LENNOXTOWN.Celtic manager Brendan Rodger with Head of Recruitment Lee Congerton at training
It’s not that clubs outside the big six can’t spend money; it’s that they can’t miss when they do spend it.
Photo by Ross Parker/SNS Group via Getty Images

By the time spring rolled around, the club got healthy, and the results improved. Leicester City finished 8th on the table, which was the 4th-best finish ever in the Premier League for Leicester City, but it was a soft 8th and unquestionably a tremendous disappointment to have completely missed out on European competition.

Summer of 2022

Rodgers commented he felt the composition of the club had grown stale and a big refresh was needed. This was his expectation, and the supporters shared it. Unfortunately, there were several factors at play that made Leicester City the last club in the top European Leagues to make a signing.

The first reason was that it was becoming increasingly clear that the club’s finances were in bad shape and that players would have to be shipped out before any new signings were made. Not only was the balance sheet worrying, but the number of players on large wages was unsustainable.

The belief was that Youri Tielemans would be the first out the door. The Belgian indicated that he was open to leaving and would not be signing a contract extension with Leicester. Arsenal were heavily linked, but no bid for Youri ever came in. Soumare and Vestergaard both turned down moves as they would have entailed significant pay cuts. Söyüncü, who had been frozen out of the squad at the end of the previous season, was another player for whom no bid ever materialised.

To make matters worse, Fofana, who had just signed a 5-year extension, decided that he wanted to move to Chelsea. The London club were interested and reportedly had agreed to personal terms, but they took forever to make any bids and they were desultory when they arrived. The deal was finally done at the end of the window, leaving the Foxes little room to manoeuvre.

He said he wanted “Champions League football,” not “winning Champions League football.”
Photo by DENIS LOVROVIC/AFP via Getty Images

The icing on the cake was that City spent the entire summer without a director of recruitment. The Foxes announced that they would be adding Martyn Glover from Southampton, but the Saints insisted that he couldn’t start with his new club until the window was closed.

The result of this was that only one signing, defender Wout Faes from Reims, was added during the window. The manager was vocally upset with the lack of action. Since the season started a month before the window closed, the players were trying to perform on the pitch with a manager who didn’t feel the squad was good enough and was at war with ownership.

Start of 2022/23 Campaign

Welcome to rock bottom. The Foxes suffered a disappointing draw in the curtain-raiser, and that has been the best result of the season thus far. City have 1 point from 6 matches, a pace that would see them end the season with 6 points.

Unlike the “Great Escape” campaign of 2014/15, the performances have matched the point tally. The players have been openly at odds with each other on the pitch. The team and the tactics don’t seem to be suited to one another. The fans are calling for Rodgers’ dismissal. If only it were that simple.

The Inevitable Question: Rodgers Out?

The problem isn’t just the manager. The club have no true left-back, no right-winger at all, no solid central defensive partnership, a new goalkeeper who is flailing, and three brilliant strikers who seldom see the ball and when they do, it’s not in a dangerous position. The cost of not making the Champions League in spite of heavy investment is crippling. This club has deep problems that are going to take time to address.

I don’t have any strong opinion as to whether Rodgers should go or not. His method of dealing with adversity isn’t the one I would choose: He prefers to try to put his best XI on the pitch at the same time and build a system around them. This can work, but when it doesn’t, it’s ugly: You see things like James Maddison on the wing or Wilfred Ndidi in central defence. But, it also means you have as many players who can win a match through individual brilliance as is possible.

Leicester City v Brentford - Premier League - King Power Stadium
Pictured: The primary source of said “moments of brilliance.”
Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

So, people who see the club at a level we can’t from the outside are the only ones who can answer these questions. Has he lost the players? Has he lost the confidence of Top? Has his message grown stale now that he’s had essentially the same squad for three years now? I don’t know. What we can say with some certainty is that what he’s doing now isn’t working. Even if there are other factors at play, from our vantage point he doesn’t seem to be making the situation better.

Conclusion And The Future

Leicester City have gone from being the “model club” to being a shambles in a remarkably short time and with remarkably little turnover in playing staff. The club narrowly missed qualifying for the Champions League two years in a row, in part due to circumstances beyond their control. Ownership invested heavily to get the team over the hump and, thanks to injuries, disappointing recruitment, and just not being quite good enough, it didn’t work out. This Summer we paid the price, not having the money to invest in improving the squad.

So, how bad is it?

At the risk of being accused of seeing everything through Fox-coloured glasses, not as bad as it looks. These players have been here so long that the squad seems a lot older than it really is. In the loss to Brighton and Hove Albion on Sunday, the older outfield player was Jonny Evans at 34 years old. After him? It was the Seniorman himself at...25. We started 9 players who were 25 and younger.

We have a director of recruitment now, and a good one. It’s almost certainly a good thing that we didn’t splash more cash on deadline-day deals and saved it for January. It’s going to be painful trying to get through half the season with a talented but awkwardly-constructed squad, but if we don’t dig too deep a hole, we should emerge in a much better position by next summer.

This goes for the financial state of the club as well. With attendance and revenue getting back to something approaching “normal,” and by suffering a painful summer window where we sold but didn’t really buy, our footing should be much more stable in the near future. This is no fun: As a fan, I don’t want to have to consider the club’s fiscal realities, I just want us to buy all the best players. We’ll never be able to do that, but should be back on our feet by next summer.

The job now is to right the ship, identify the system and the players who can grind some results and get us moving up the table. I’m not sure what the answer is, but it’s probably going to hurt. I cannot think of a system that involves playing Vardy, Daka, Iheanacho, Barnes, KDH, and Youri all in their best positions, so

I stand corrected.

So, in our humble opinion, there’s still plenty cause for optimism in the long run. The immediate future is going to be tough. In the short term, figuring out the ideal personnel and tactics should get some wins. It’s amazing how winning can smooth over problems between the players and the manager. It will take time to rebalance the squad, but in theory, even with the huge loss for the previous year, the club’s finances appear to be on the road to stability. We’ll probably lose some players who want to win immediately. This happens. This is part of football. In the long run? We’re Leicester, and we’ll be back.

That’s our take on how we got here, what went wrong, and where we are now. What do you think? Let us know in the comments, and thank you for your support.