No longer an underdog, Leicester City faces new obstacles in its title encore
- After overcoming the longest odds to win the Premier League title, Leicester must adapt to personnel changes and Champions League play as it aims for a shock repeat.
How do you follow that?
Leicester City’s Premier League-winning coach Claudio Ranieri has been asked. He's laughed, shrugged, said it was impossible and that avoiding relegation is once again the primary target. But, remember, this is the man who said his team was still not thinking about winning the league only six weeks before the end of last season.
So let’s re-frame the question: how well can Leicester do this season? The first transfer saga of the summer went its way as Jamie Vardy rebuffed interest from Arsenal for a move before Euro 2016. This was a different type of rejection from others we have seen: Vardy is 29, this will likely be the last big contract of his career and he still turned down a so-called "bigger" side.
Just as significant was highly rated left back Ben Chilwell turning down Liverpool to stay at the club and challenge Christian Fuchs for a starting spot. As of now, Leicester is winning the battle to hold onto Riyad Mahrez, though that story may have a few twists to come before the end of the month.
The big loss is the littlest man in the squad: N’Golo Kante, the heartbeat of the team in the midfield, sold to Chelsea for £32 million.
“Last season we lost Esteban Cambiasso and everybody was crying," Ranieri told reporters last month. “Now we are crying because we lost Kante. Don't worry. Football in Leicester will keep going.”
That showed in the Community Shield match against Manchester United. The more storied side won the game 2-1 but Leicester gave it a fright: Shinji Okazaki hit the crossbar and Ahmed Musa’s pace as a substitute gave United’s defense a headache.
There are plenty of reasons why Leicester can stay in the upper echelon of the table. One is its recruitment: it may have lost three members of the backroom team as a result of its success, most notably recruitment head Steve Walsh, gone to Everton, but not before it bulked the squad with smart acquisitions this summer.
Kante’s replacement will be Nampalys Mendy, who was Nice's captain at 22 and played under Ranieri at Monaco. He may not be as eye-catching, but he is a worthy partner to Danny Drinkwater in the center.
Elsewhere, Leicester has improved Ranieri’s options, so even if Mahrez is sold, cover is already in place. Last January it bought Demarai Gray from Birmingham, a talented English winger who earned a winners’ medal with some disciplined substitute appearances to help close out games last season. He has had more chances in pre-season, and impressed with his dribbling and shooting from distance.
Leicester broke its transfer record to sign Musa, a speedy Nigerian who can play on either wing and is ready-made for Ranieri’s counterattack system. Musa could either play out wide, alongside Vardy or instead of him. Ranieri could also bring in Bartosz Kapustka, Poland’s highly-rated teenage attacking midfielder. Last season, the Italian made the fewest changes to his lineup out of any coach in the league. Now, at least, he has options.
There is also greater depth at the back, where Ron-Robert Zieler is a real challenger to Kasper Schemichel in goal, and Sporting Gijon defender Luis Hernandez can offer cover at center back.
The biggest task for Ranieri will be to get the balance right between league and the Champions League, where Leicester, as English champion, will be a top seed. Getting through the group stage would be a huge achievement, and as for league finishes, anywhere in the top eight would have to be considered as decent.
We should know pretty soon how things are looking; Leicester’s first 10 matches include games against Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, Southampton and Chelsea and Tottenham. Twelve months ago, we might have tipped the Foxes to be in the drop zone after those games. Given some of them are against teams with new coaches getting used to new systems, they could find themselves in the top four again.
Why not keep the dream alive for a little longer? As Ranieri himself might say: “Dilly ding! Dilly dong!”