Leicester City back in the shadows of the English Premier League after thrilling run to title
Foxes open new season at Arsenal on Friday having finished 12th in defence of their title last season but also reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League
This time last year, Leicester City’s players were returning to the Premier League as defending champions and getting ready to launch the club’s first-ever foray into the Champions League.
Twelve months on and they are little more than afterthoughts in England’s fast-changing narrative.
The whirlwind of the last three years, an unlikely escape from relegation in 2014-15, winning the title at odds of 5,000-1 the following season, then reaching the Champions League quarter-finals, has now given way to mundanity. Leicester is once again in the shadows of the country’s top teams ahead of the new campaign.
Manager Craig Shakespeare spoke this week of being “competitive” this season. He had to field questions about the potential departure of star winger Riyad Mahrez and midfield enforcer Danny Drinkwater.
It’s a dose of reality for a modest team from central England that produced one of England’s greatest fairy tales.
“The roller-coaster, the highs and lows,” Shakespeare said, “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
What will the latest chapter of the Leicester story bring? Consolidation, while hardly exciting, would be a good start.
Staying up used to be the club’s main target, but it can aim for better than that. Leicester recovered from a dreadful start to finish in 12th place last season in a year when playing in the Champions League was the clear priority.
Therefore, the top 10 should be reachable, especially as the squad has been strengthened by the off season signings of striker Kelechi Iheanacho from Manchester City, midfielder Vicente Iborra from Sevilla and centreback Harry Maguire from Hull City.
It will hardly match the thrill of a title chase, but for a club that was in the third tier as recently as 2009, the value of becoming an established Premier League team should not be overlooked.
“Premier League survival is good,” Shakespeare said. “But I look at the squad and the players we’re trying to attract, I want to be better than that and I think the players want to be better than that.”
Shakespeare took over in February from title-winning manager Claudio Ranieri and restored some of the values and tactics that helped Leicester deliver possibly the most improbable title triumph in English soccer history.
A pragmatic coach, Shakespeare is unlikely to veer too much from the tried-and-tested approach but some things might be about to change.
The arrival of Iheanacho could lead to the break-up the established attacking partnership of Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki.
Maguire may replace Robert Huth as the partner for captain Wes Morgan in central defence, and young leftback Ben Chilwell should get more games this season.
Then there’s what to do with Mahrez, who put in a transfer request at the end of last season. Leicester is still waiting for a reasonable offer for the winger, England’s player of the year in 2015-16.
“I can only speak of how I have found him so far coming back, and I have to say he has been very focused,” Shakespeare said. “He hasn’t given me one problem of pulling him to the side and saying, ‘Oi, pull your finger out.’
“We know he came out and said that he wants to leave. Until we get a bid, and a bid is accepted that is reasonable for Leicester, then he stays. While he stays focused, he’ll be considered for selection.”
Leicester visit Arsenal on Friday for the opening match of the Premier League season, and then plays Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool in their first six fixtures.
“If we can be strong as a group and pick up some serious points,” assistant coach Michael Appleton said.
“It’ll give us a massive sense of confidence going forward knowing that we can compete with the big teams in the league.”