In the first piece of a new series called ‘The Opinion,’ I look at who I think is the most likely side who could steal into the recent monopoly that the ‘Big 6’ sides have held in the Premier League. They are a former champion and their manager is an ex-PL runner-up. So, would it be a surprise to Leicester City gate-crash the elite again?
Since the 2010-2011 Premier League season, the top six positions have commonly been filled by six clubs; Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool FC, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. In the last nine seasons, just four teams have managed to break into the top six. They are Newcastle United, Everton (twice), Southampton and Leicester City.
In the cases of the latter two, their time came in the 2015-2016 season when Liverpool were rebuilding under Jurgen Klopp and Chelsea had a dire title defence. Leicester of course went all the way. In a story the footballing neutral and most supporters (apart for Spurs fans probably) will always remember, the 5000-1 outsiders shocked world football to become the champions of England. Let’s face it, 2016 was generally a miserable year, so Leicester’s unique and sensational triumph is something to cherish forever.
After that surprising season, the Premier League’s elite regrouped, spent millions of pounds on new talent and began to dominate again. In the three seasons since that title success, Leicester have finished 12th and 9th (twice), whilst going through four permanent managers during that period too. So, why do I think they are the most realistic challenger this time around?
Skilful players and a prudent Vardy
Leicester have put together a team of skilful talent. Most of the 2016 title-winning squad have now departed. In fact, just Kasper Schmeichel, Marc Albrighton, Christian Fuchs, skipper Wes Morgan, Demarai Gray and Jamie Vardy remain around the first-team picture. Out of those players, only Schmeichel and Vardy are regular starting XI players.
Leicester had to rebuild after that title success. They have now come through that transitional process. In James Maddison, the Midlands team have one of the most exciting talents in the Premier League. Maddison is one of the best direct free-kick takers in the league and his game has developed immensely in recent months. The early days of 2019 when he was often sacrificed by Claude Puel around an hour into a game are a distant memory.
Ben Chilwell has come through the Leicester academy and is fast developing into a very capable left-back. Chilwell is now arguably first-choice for England in that position too. His performances have won admiring glances from many opposing managers.
Leicester had a great summer transfer window too. The permanent acquisition of Youri Tielemans was a no-brainer. Acquiring Ayoze Perez from Newcastle United was smart business. Yes, losing Harry Maguire was a blow but they got a world-record transfer fee for him from Manchester United of £80 million.
They did investigate potential replacements such as Lewis Dunk of Brighton & Hove Albion and Burnley’s James Tarkowski. However, they elected to save the cash and improve what they have already at their disposal. There’s a new centre-back pairing now of Jonny Evans and Caglar Soyuncu. Evans is a former title winner from his United days and Soyuncu has got the makings to be a surprising star of the future. He was an impressive figure during his two-season stay in the Bundesliga with Sport-Club Freiburg before moving to England last summer. Almost a forgotten player last season, Soyuncu is making the most of his regular opportunity this year.
Of course, the major driving force behind Leicester remains Vardy. In three of the last four seasons, he has finished in the top five for Premier League goalscorers. Last season, he was only beaten in the Golden Boot race by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Sergio Aguero. That is great company to be keeping and Vardy’s eye for goal has never vanished. He has demonstrated his remarkable 2015-2016 season and scoring run were not a flash in the pan. Having decided to stop playing international football too, he’s probably given himself a couple more years at least playing at the top level. He’s still fast, still a nightmare for defenders to come up against and very likely to push towards a 20-goal figure again this season.
The Brendan factor
2018-2019 was a harrowing season for Leicester City Football Club. The tragic helicopter accident outside their stadium in October 2018 that claimed the lives of five people, including much-loved owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha left the whole club in deep mourning.
Manager at the time, Claude Puel, showed real class in such a harrowing time for the club. He kept everyone together during an overwhelming sense of grief for the city, let alone the club. However, his tactical style of football was dull. He achieved some eye-catching results, including a Boxing Day victory over Manchester City but by February, he’d fallen out with some key figures in the dressing room, including Vardy. The fans had been left frustrated by their FA Cup exit at fourth-tier Newport County and a change in management was inevitable.
Brendan Rodgers was the right man at the right time. Rodgers had rebuilt his reputation at Celtic, winning all eight domestic trophies on offer during his spell at Parkhead. Feeling he couldn’t take them any further for a number of reasons, Rodgers elected to move back to England at the end of February. This gave him three months to assess what he had available at his disposal.
The Foxes were one of the form teams at the backend of last season and with a full pre-season behind him; Rodgers now knows what he has to work with. He did a great job at Swansea, made no mistakes domestically with Celtic and came within an inch of winning a Premier League title with Liverpool FC. True, his final 15 months at Anfield were not great but most managers will go through spells where tactics or teams just don’t click despite trying everything possible.
His achievements at Celtic were outstanding and he definitely has unfinished business in the Premier League. Leicester is the perfect club for him and it was a shrewd appointment. He will get the best out of all of his players.
Can they do it?
The Christmas and New Year period of 2018 summed up Leicester’s previous season in a nutshell. In 10 days, they beat Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton, yet inexplicably lost at home to Cardiff City who would be relegated by the season’s end.
You can’t see those kinds of slip-ups happening this season. After claiming eight points from their first four matches, Leicester did come up short at Old Trafford last weekend, losing 1-0 to Manchester United. The disappointing outcome of that match was David de Gea had a fairly quiet afternoon – not what was expected given the talents of Maddison, Vardy and the lively Harvey Barnes at Leicester’s disposal.
This weekend, they come up against Tottenham Hotspur and in a fortnight, they visit Anfield to take on league leaders Liverpool FC. We’ll know more about Leicester chances for the season then. However, with Arsenal making comical defensive howlers and still an unconvincing sense around Manchester United, there’s no reason to think why Leicester can’t break into the top six.
Free from the shackles of European football too, Leicester has got all the ingredients to gate-crash the elite again. While nothing will ever come close to that 2016 title win, pushing one of the elite sides out of the top positions at the end of the season would be a fine achievement.