MUCH has changed for Leicester City since their incredible Premier League triumph five years ago. Many of the players from their title team have since departed, with Jamie Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel the only members of the remaining few who still occupy key roles at the King Power Stadium. They’re on their fourth manager since Claudio Ranieri masterminded their miracle season, and, of course, there was the tragic death of owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in 2018.
For all the turnover and upheaval, though, and despite turbulent form in the immediate aftermath of their title run, Leicester’s success this season is testament to their resolve not to be returned to a permanent position outside of the divisions established top six.
Third in the table and on course for Champions League qualification, Brendan Rodgers’ side have refused to sacrifice the pursuit of silverware in their efforts to rejoin Europe’s top table. While many clubs with designs on breaking into the top four in recent years have viewed their ambitions to do so as an either/or equation in respect of the domestic cup competitions, Leicester’s 1-0 victory over Southampton at Wembley on Sunday means they will rival Chelsea both for a top-four place and in the FA Cup final.
“We have the chance to create history,” Rodgers said after Kelechi Iheanacho’s goal gave his side their semi-final win. “That is what this game is about, creating a memory. I have been made aware, since I’ve been at Leicester, how important this cup is for the supporters.
“When we arrived here that was the ambition. We said we wanted to be competitive. We wanted to be able to compete and we have been able to do that. Now we have a trophy to genuinely go for.”
And Leicester’s ability to compete with the established powers of the English game has been founded on intelligent recruitment. Just as great praise was heaped on the club’s decision-makers for unearthing an array of comparatively inexpensive gems to construct their title-winning team – from picking up Riyad Mahrez from the French second tier to signing Vardy from Fleetwood and acquiring N’Golo Kante for just £5.6m – they also deserve great credit for at almost every turn replacing their self-made stars when they are sold.
Wilfried Ndidi, a £17m signing from Genk in 2017, has filled the void left by Kante’s £32m departure for Chelsea. James Maddison has replaced the final-third creativity lost with Mahrez’s sale to Manchester City, and the England international is likely now worth three or four times the £20m Leicester paid Norwich City for his signature in 2018. In the wake of Harry Maguire’s blockbuster £85m switch to Manchester United, Wesley Fofana, signed the following summer from Saint-Etienne for £36.5m, has been a revelation at centre-back.
Brendan Rodgers on Leicester City and the European Super League:
"My job when I came to here was to disrupt the market. I wanted to know what defined the top six, clearly it’s money."
"What we all have to do is protect the game, it’s about competing, and progressing, on merit." pic.twitter.com/MJIy8Mz6B1
— BBC Leicester Sport (@BBCRLSport) April 20, 2021
And for the first time since Ranieri’s tenure, Leicester have a manager with experience of operating within the echelons of the game to which the club aspire. What’s more, Rodgers is a proven developer of footballers. He is a safe pair of hand into which they can entrust their latest unheralded, rough-diamond signing and feel confident of repeating their trademark alchemy, with the in-form Iheanacho shaping up to be the latest star transformation.
The same is true of the gifted young players graduating from the club’s academy. Under Rodgers’ careful guidance, 19-year-old Luke Thomas has seamlessly stepped in at left-back to replace England international Ben Chilwell, who was sold to Chelsea last summer for £45m. And winger Harvey Barnes has made developmental leaps over the last 18 months to the point now where he is second only to Vardy for combined goals and assists (14) for Leicester in the Premier League this season.
Without the backing of a free-spending billionaire, it will be difficult for any club outside the Big Six to thrust themselves into title contention on a regular basis. Leicester have shown, though, that is it at least still possible to rub shoulders with the game’s elite through the application of smart, sustainable recruitment and good coaching.
"Our job was to disrupt the market,” Rodgers says. “What defines the top six? Clearly it must be money. We have tried to disrupt that in a football way.
“Throughout Europe, Leicester City is maybe not what is wanted, but the story shows what can happen in sport.”