The Leicester City conundrum
It strikes me that Claude Puel has been oddly treated in his short time as Leicester manager. Though, this is only really the continuation of a pattern that began with the dismissal of Claudio Ranieri.
The demise of the ‘Tinkerman’ is where we'll begin. Following a summer during which the Foxes had done astonishingly well to keep the majority of their Premier League winning stars, Ranieri’s men began the season as defending champions. But they were never really revered as such. Of course, and quite rightly, they were celebrated. Their remarkable title success was held up as the footballing miracle that it frankly was. They were not feared though. The feeling in the water was generally that normal service would largely resume, and that one of the ‘big six’ would reclaim the title come the end of the season.
This suspicion proved correct, as Antonio Conte won the league in his first season at Stamford Bridge. By then, Ranieri was long gone.
Many asked at the time – how could Leicester possibly justify sacking their title-winning manager? Because they had Craig Shakespeare waiting in the wings, of course. Some even made the bold claim that ‘Shakey’ was due a significant part of the credit for the aforementioned title win. In fairness, Shakespeare worked. For a bit. He led Leicester to the quarter finals of the Champions League.
Then he too was sacked. Which begged the question – how could Leicester possibly justify sacking their Champions League quarter finalist of a manager?
Given that the Foxes began their title winning campaign as relegation favourites, the answer to both of those questions feels like it should've been ‘they can’t’.
The gut feeling was that Ranieri’s sacking was unjustifiable. However, at the time, Ranieri’s Leicester were only two points off the bottom. Had either of the Manchester clubs or Chelsea found themselves flirting with relegation places mere months after a title win I doubt their managers would have been shown any mercy either. In Chelsea’s case, they did sack Mourinho in similar circumstances, though the role of the Eva Carneiro situation cannot be forgotten.
In Leicester’s case however, it was widely viewed as a cold, unappreciative and disloyal gesture towards the man they owed so much. It is in that sense of this having been an unfair treatment of Ranieri that I argue that Leicester were never seriously revered as champions. To an extent, I feel that Ranieri is at fault for this. He began the season as reigning champion by declaring his initial ambition for the campaign as being avoiding relegation.
The first time around, on the way to an unprecedented title win, the Italian’s constant monitoring of expectations and focus upon the objective of survival worked to keep his squad grounded. This was never going to be the case with the follow up season. The first time he was addressing room of plucky survivors still relieved to find themselves in the top flight. The next year he was speaking to Premier League champions.
Premier League champions do not want to be told that their primary aim is to secure survival. Perhaps, in that moment, the dressing room was lost. So it was with Craig Shakespeare, who proved incapable of taming such a dressing room and managing expectations for the long term. When he took over, the Foxes were very much in a relegation battle within which his back-to-basics measures were effective. As a new campaign dawned though, I’d argue this dressing room were sticking lacking the more ambitious figurehead they felt they were due.
I can understand why that dressing room would be feeling frustrations in the weeks and seasons following their title win. They were required to come to terms with the fact that their finest hour had passed. Having been in paradise all too briefly, that can be hard to swallow and return to the grind. The idea of a successful title defence was always fanciful to say the least, but perhaps Ranieri might have been better served by shooting for the stars.
Now, essentially two seasons later, Leicester are safely ensconced in midtable but look sure to miss out on European competition next term. Grumblings are beginning to grow around Puel – despite him objectively having done a very decent job so far – and once more, reports that the dressing room is once again unsettled begin to surface.
What's particularly remarkable about the current Leicester situation is that the dressing room is pretty much the same one that won the league. The Foxes have gone to great lengths to retain their title winning stars.
Aside from N'Golo Kanté and Danny Drinkwater (both subsequently departed to Chelsea), the bulk of that successful side have remained at the King Power stadium. What's more, Kanté was the only stalwart of that team to leave during the summer immediately following that title win. Given that that was when that squad's stock as at its highest, Leicester did very well to retain so many of their star men.
Amongst those stars, of course, is Riyad Mahrez. The Algerian remains at Leicester to this day, not that he'd have it that way. For me, the Mahrez situation raises interesting questions about the responsibility a club has to work in their players' best interests.
This January just passed, Mahrez was the subject of a serious deadline day approach from then-champions elect Manchester City. Leicester did not countenance any reasonable offer before reportedly slapping a near £100 million price tag on their coveted Algerian. Much was then written about Mahrez apparently going AWOL in despair at the collapse of his dream move.
With this move failing to materialise, Mahrez has missed out on another Premier League medal and a League Cup triumph. I can understand why he was upset. He must also wonder what more he can possibly owe Leicester.
I understand that whilst Mahrez remains under contract, Leicester are well within their rights to deny him a transfer, but I wonder if there comes a point where they must concede they are now impeding Mahrez's career and that he has outgrown the King Power. They may well realise this already, and they are perfectly entitled not to care. The club comes first, and if keeping Mahrez at all costs is the best thing for the club then that is what must be done. However, was it that clear cut?
Perhaps, by selling Mahrez Leicester would have been gambling with their top flight status. To them, does Mahrez mean survival? If so, it's obvious why they'd value that above the reported £50 million on offer from Manchester. By denying the transfer though, they were also rolling the dice on Mahrez's commitment to their cause. After a bit of a wobble, the Algerian came good for Leicester again, proving it a good bet on the part of the board.
This is yet another example though of Leicester's odd status as both recent champions and potential relegation candidates. Leicester's league win was unprecedented, which is why they're now marooned in unknown territory without a map.
Europa League qualification is a genuinely solid for target for the current Leicester crop in pre-season, yet a suspicion pervades that this squad are only the loss of a few key figures (Mahrez and Vardy especially) away from being back down in the dogfight. This state of affairs surely cannot reflect the level of progress Leicester will have been hoping to make following winning the league?
It seems to me that Leicester feel that life without Mahrez will leave them in a situation - from a financial and footballing perspective - where they might as well not have won the league in the first place. Certainly, they'll have failed to capitalise on the massive opportunities their success afforded them.
I'm not saying Leicester should have consolidated themselves as top six/Champions League team. They should however now be in a position where they believe they have more than two or so players between them and a potential relegation scrap.
This reality is a consequence of how generally poor Leicester have been in the transfer market since winning the league. Mahrez, and more specifically his hopes for career progression, have paid the price for this. As I've said, Leicester are well within their rights to act as they have if they feel like they can't afford to lose Mahrez. But they shouldn't still feel like that by now. Mahrez's bitterness here is justified.
Leicester's treatment of Mahrez may also hinder their future recruitment efforts. The club must consider the message they are sending by standing between a player and a step up in his career. Mahrez moving to Man City cannot be equated to, say, Robin Van Persie switching Arsenal for Old Trafford. At that time Arsenal were striving to compete directly with Man United. Leicester are not a direct title rival of Man City. Allowing Mahrez to depart in January would not have been indicative of a lack of ambition or been perceived as the surrendering of a title challenge.
Up and coming talents may well consider the Mahrez situation before joining Leicester. Given what's gone before, how can they feel sure that if they play well that Leicester won't slam the door on a potential dream move?
In any case, Claude Puel has done well to effectively reintegrate Mahrez into the squad following the fallout of January. Leicester have played some good football this season and for a long time now have just looked very, very safe in midtable. Which is perhaps the problem with Puel. Life’s just much more thrilling at the bottom or the top, rather than somewhere in the middle.
Following their title win, Leicester have felt like a club suffering an identity crisis. They lack direction. Are they champions or survivors? When it comes to the table, should they be looking up or down? The club's inability to commit to an answer to these questions has been the root of the downfall of managers who deserved better, and is currently putting a ceiling on a player who can reach higher. For the good of everyone, Leicester need to work out who they are. To do so, they probably need to let go of their Mahrez-shaped mask. It's obscuring their vision of the bigger picture.