Leicester City are capable of a lot of things. They’re capable of looking the best team in the Premier League and the worst in the space of a month. They’re capable of going out of one cup before Lincoln City and going as far in another as Barcelona and Bayern Munich. They’re capable of spending £7 million on Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté, and more than £60 million on Nampalys Mendy, Ahmed Musa and Islam Slimani.
The one thing Leicester seem incapable of is having a dull season.
Despite a hangover from last year, even this season has still had the highs of a five-game winning run, a Champions League group topped, and being the first team in over four years to knock Sevilla out of a European competition.
There never seems to be a moment’s rest at this club. But where, realistically, do things go from here? Leicester all but sealed safety with a win at West Brom at the weekend and now have four games left. They are 1500/1 to be relegated from here, although if any club knows how to beat the odds, it’s this one, so there will be some not resting quite as easily as they ought to be.
There is ambition at Leicester. A growing mentality that the Foxes will not roll over and go back to being the also-rans they have spent the bulk of their history being. This ambition stems from the owners and trickles right down to the fans. Leicester have had a taste of success, and they want more.
But it is easy to talk, and Leicester need to back that ambition up.
Leicester are stuck at a crossroads right now. Manager Craig Shakespeare has the job until the end of the season. He was brought in for Claudio Ranieri in February and has turned things right around.
Many neutrals think “Ranieri would have kept Leicester up”. Having watched every minute of Leicester this season, I can safely say that if the decision to sack Ranieri hadn’t been made, then there would be no relegation battle. Leicester would be down there, probably between Middlesbrough and Sunderland, and nearer to Sunderland at that. This was a team that had totally lost its way, one that was devoid of absolutely any positive.
Shakespeare was the natural short-term replacement. It took just one game to get that swagger back. Liverpool turned up and were sent packing with relative ease. Leicester won the game 3-1, having been 3-0 up. “Disgraceful” cried average Joe. “They don’t try under Ranieri, but as soon as he’s gone they do!”. This went on for many weeks, and still does even now to an extent; a widely held belief that Leicester’s players simply stopped trying under the Italian in an attempt to get him out.
An interesting theory is psychology. When you are being set up to fail, are you going to lose that bit extra?
Ranieri had set Leicester up in a number of formations this season. Leicester started the season in a similar shape to last year, but soon realised without the inspirational Kante it wasn’t quite as effective. The failure to strengthen in midfield, along with the injury to Namplays Mendy, left Leicester short in this area.
Ranieri eventually started trying plenty of new things. The problem is, none of it made any sense. The greatest examples to be found are in the 3-0 defeats to Southampton and Chelsea in January. The set up at Southampton saw the usual flat back four, a midfield quartet of Mendy, Drinkwater, Ndidi and Okazaki, with Gray and Vardy up front. A midfield diamond with full-backs who weren’t instructed to get forward. It was scarcely believable. Even now, it’s hard to work out what the game plan was, going to a side who had lost four in a row prior.
When you are being set up in such a way, you are going to lose that bit extra in your game that can make the difference. Not trying? Or realistically knowing in your own head that you are being set up to lose?
Although the sacking appeared harsh, it was absolutely the right move. It was sad to see it end – but as a fan, it would certainly have been sadder to see the unlikeliest of champions follow up the best season imaginable with relegation. That was the only way it was heading.
No goals in 6 games prior to the sacking, just 3 goals in 10, 3 points away from home in 13 games, defeats at Hull, Sunderland, Bournemouth, Watford, Swansea, thumpings at Anfield, Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford, no win against Middlesbrough (arguably lucky to draw both). The Champions were dropping like a stone.
Compare this to Shakespeare’s 9 league games so far. 19 points (which is just two off what Ranieri achieved this season in 25 games), five wins in a row, 18 goals, two away wins, maximum points at home, survival all but guaranteed with four games to spare when the situation looked very precarious at one point.
Shakespeare knows this squad. He was a big part of the building of it and if this season is to go by, he was a big part in what happened last year as well. The only player in the squad who has been at the club longer than Shakespeare is Andy King, should you include the first time he was there before a year at Hull.
He hasn’t got everything spot on. There were question marks over his selection at Everton and his approach at Arsenal – although it could be argued Leicester had their one of their biggest games ever just after the Everton game and were one deflected goal away from a respectable point at Arsenal. The Atlético games themselves posed questions – were Leicester too negative in the away leg? Were they too slow to really get at Atlético in the home leg?
But given everything, he has done a fantastic job. He has rediscovered that efficiency of last season and has gotten people dreaming again.
But where do Leicester City go from here? There are arguments for and against extending Shakespeare’s contract.
It is fair to say many interim managers have gone on to fail. Many have impressed for a short period at a club before landing the job permanently and ending up back out of work within a few months. Mike Phelan the most notable example of recent times.
Despite all of the positives, he still doesn’t have the reputation. It could be argued that Leicester have gotten by well enough without “reputation” (don’t forget the stick Leicester got for appointing Ranieri) but it is quite well documented that the ambitious owners want a higher profile name leading the club. They could be swung by what has happened under Shakespeare, but do not be surprised if they go after a bigger name.
At the same time, it would be quite refreshing if Leicester were to hand Shakespeare the permanent role. In a Premier League where image and profile has been as high as ever, it would be great to see a less fancied name get a well-earned crack at what is becoming quite a rapidly established Premier League club.
What can be banked on regardless of who gets that job, if the last few years is anything to go by, is that it won’t be boring.