From champions to Championship: The fall of Leicester City as Premier League relegation is confirmed
As the half-time whistle sounded at Craven Cottage on May 8, a cacophony of boos rang out from the away end. Leicester's travelling support had just watched their team gift Fulham three goals, while scarcely venturing into the opposing penalty area themselves. This was supposed to be the turning point in a dire season. Instead, it was the moment when the campaign slipped away - with relegation finally confirmed on Sunday.
Seven years earlier, those same supporters were packed inside the King Power Stadium, waiting for Andrea Bocelli's rendition of Nessun Dorma - the perfect prelude to them getting their hands on the Premier League trophy. More recently than that, these fans had also been treated to a Champions League quarter-final, regular Europa League matches and an FA Cup final triumph at Wembley.
Now, Leicester are set to swap night outs at the Wanda Metropolitano for a brief layover at Taunton Dean services en route to Plymouth Argyle. Their downfall has been spectacular, and although expectations were not sky-high heading into the current campaign - with the long-promised summer rebuild failing to materialise - no one was expecting them to be dropping into the second tier. How has it come to this?
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Leicester's modern-day success was built on having the best recruitment record in Europe. Their most recognisable title-winning XI cost just under £30 million. That's astounding value for money considering it contained the likes of N'Golo Kante, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.
The mastermind of this success was revered scout Steve Walsh, and there were fears that the Foxes would not be able to replicate this smart transfer policy when he left for Everton in 2016. However, even without Walsh at the helm, Leicester continued to make inspired signings. Harry Maguire was flipped for a near £70m profit in 2018, while the likes of Youri Tielemans, James Maddison and Ricardo Pereira were all purchased for well under their market value.
More recently though, it is harder to identify a single transfer success. The 2021 summer window was a particular disaster. Patson Daka, Boubakary Soumare, Jan Vestergaard and Ryan Bertrand were among the players who arrived, and every single one has been an abject failure.
Their business this season has been equally poor. The arrivals of Wout Faes and Harry Souttar in the summer and winter windows respectively has done little to tighten up their porous defence. Meanwhile, young full-back Victor Kristiansen looks a million miles away from being Premier League ready, and the inconsistent Tete has only sparingly showed flashed of quality.
In the most competitive division in the world, you are only ever a few poor transfer windows away from sliding down the table, and this is exactly what has happened to Leicester.
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This recruitment farce has played out amid a backdrop of financial strife at the King Power Stadium. The reasons for their reduced spending power are numerous. For starters, they are owned by a Thailand-based duty free company, which understandably endured a challenging period when airports were closed during the pandemic.
There's also the natural inflation of their playing budget. The longer you stay in the Premier League, the harder it is to avoid handing out inflated contracts, and back-to-back fifth-placed finishes meant the squad wanted to be rewarded for their success.
Nothing has had a bigger financial toll than the club's state-of-the-art training facility, though. Reported to have set Leicester back to the tune of £100m, the club spared no expense for their new home, even including a golf course.
These factors resulted in the Foxes announcing a record £92.5m financial loss in March. Although that figure did not include Wesley Fofana's £75m transfer fee, it does still help us understand why Leicester signed just two players in the summer, despite the club long promising supporters a major revamp of the squad.
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Too much loyalty shown
Leicester's financial strife is partly self-inflicted, too. During Brendan Rodgers' time at the helm, mis-steps were made in the contract department, with players clearly on the decline handed extensions which would have included pay rises.
Jonny Evans was handed a two-and-a-half year deal in December 2020, and has spent more time injured than available since. Bertrand, another high earner, has given the club just 12 appearances in his two seasons too, while another transfer flop, Vestergaard, still has another year left to run on his deal.
The failure to move Tielemans on when he was at the peak of his value over the past two seasons was another mistake. His form has tailed off badly since scoring an unbelievable winner in the 2021 FA Cup final.
That should have been his cue to leave as a club legend. Instead, he stayed, breaking Leicester's long-held tradition of making one high-profile sale each summer to balance the books. He's been a fine servant to the Foxes, but at times in 2022-23 it's felt like he's been dragging his heels waiting for the summer when he can finally depart for free.
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They needed a new goalkeeper
Leicester's decision to not properly replace Kasper Schmeichel when he left for Nice in the summer always seemed like an odd one at the time. In retrospect, it was worse than that. It was completely brainless.
Watching the Foxes in the first half of the season, it was pretty clear that Danny Ward did not have control of his backline. Communication mix-ups were a common occurance and, if that was not bad enough, his shot-stopping also left a lot to be desired.
The Wales international's post-shot expected goals minus goals conceded figure - generally accepted as the most reliable metric indication of shot-stopping - stands at a measly -5.5 this season. Only four goalkeepers have registered worse, at the time of writing.
Daniel Iversen has fared a little better since being drafted in to finish the campaign, but his distribution is not of a Premier League standard. His costly error against Fulham recently, which set the tone for a dismal day in Leicester's modern history, also suggested he may not be mentally ready for regular top-flight football.
The Foxes had pretty much the entire summer transfer window to draft in Schmeichel's replacement, but they put their faith in Ward. With the slimmest of margins set to decide who stays up and who goes down this season, it could prove to be a fatal mistake.
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It's not just in the goalkeeping department that Leicester have been lacking this campaign either - their defending generally has been among the worst in the Premier League. This is partly a personnel problem.
The Foxes have long had a problem with mental pressure, as their eight errors leading to goals over the past two campaigns and shocking penalty record indicates. Individual performances have also not been good enough this season. Faes started strongly, but has since been inconsistent, and pretty much every other Leicester defender has gone through periods of poor form at times.
But Rodgers must shoulder some of the blame, too. His team conceded a ridiculous 20 goals from set-pieces last season, and although things have improved slightly this time out, supporters still exhibit a collective intake of breath whenever the referee points to the corner flag. Rodgers' failure to correct this during his spell at the club made the problem snowball and does not reflect well on his coaching, as set-pieces are one of the rare 'controllable' moments in football.
Their openness in transition has been a real issue too. Wilfred Ndidi used to be the king of stifling such counter-attacks, with his octopus-like legs providing the backline with plenty of cover. However, his displays have dropped off alarmingly over the past two years to the point where he is no longer a guaranteed starter. Since his drop off, no player has been able to pick up the slack.
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In Leicester's defence, they have suffered several momentum-sapping injuries over the past two seasons. It seems crazy to think now, but Pereira was once one of the best right-backs in Europe, before an ACL injury on the eve of the pandemic robbed him of the peak years. Just when he threatened to be back to something resembling his best, he ruptured his Achilles, meaning he's been a bit-part player again for the Foxes this season.
It's a similar story for James Justin. He stepped into Pereira's shoes admirably after his first injury and might have even been in the England squad for Euro 2020 had he not ruptured his own ACL in February 2021. Eerily, just like with his team-mate, his own return to form was then hampered by an Achilles injury partway through this season.
Their issues extend to the forward line too. Kelechi Iheanacho has enjoyed incredible runs of form during his patchy Leicester career and would have been a huge boost in their relegation fight. But his involvement in the remainder of the season is in serious doubt due to a torn groin he picked up while setting up Vardy's goal against Leeds.
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Do the players even care?
This is the thing that hurts the most for Leicester fans. There is increasing sentiment within the Foxes faithful that the current squad are simply not fighting hard enough to preserve their Premier League status. Attendances have not dipped, but the atmosphere has soured.
The booing at Craven Cottage was not the first time the fans have aired their discontent, as jeers have also been heard at several home games this season. A lack of desire was even something that Maddison hinted at after the Fulham defeat, with the midfielder claiming that the team "was not hungry enough to want to win the game".
The question supporters were asking after these comments was: why the hell not?! This was the make-or-break game in Leicester's season. If you can't motivate yourselves for that, what chance do they have of beating the drop?
Although Maddison would attempt to clarify his comments on social media after the game, there probably is some truth in the accusation that some Foxes players simply weren't as motivated as their Premier League relegation rivals. Maddison certain to move on, with Newcastle looking like his most likely destination.
The aforementioned Tielemans has reached the end of the road too, as has Atletico Madrid-bound Caglar Soyuncu. It's hard to see the out-of-contract Daniel Amartey getting a new deal, while the likes of Harvey Barnes, Faes and Soumare will have no shortage of suitors now Leicester are relegated. The same applies to several others in the ranks, too.
With so many set to move on, it is understandable that they were not running through walls for each other. This is a recipe for relegation, and better management on and off the field was required earlier on to avoid it.
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'We'll be fine'
There were also an aloof arrogance emanating from the King Power Stadium all season long. A notion that as former Premier League champions, FA Cup winners and Champions League qualification contenders, they were surely 'too good to go down'.
Maddison himself seemed to exude this attitude back in March, when he quote-tweeted an article from respected local journalist Rob Tanner. In his piece, Tanner suggested that "all the ingredients" were there for Leicester to get relegated, following their dismal 1-0 defeat to Southampton.
Maddison's surefast reply read: "Rubbish. Watch and analyse the game properly and stop writing headlines like that which you know makes fans pile on with negativity. Play like that and we’ll be absolutely fine. Created numerous brilliant chances and win comfortably on another day."
In the 11 games that followed that tweet, Leicester took just six points. Perhaps Maddison was right to take exception to that particular piece of analysis, as his side were unlucky to lose on that day. Then again, his relaxed response to the situation maybe reflects a wider ambivalence that has helped create this disastrous situation.
They likely held on too long to relieve Rodgers of his duties when acting earlier might have arrested their slide down the table, while interim boss Dean Smith has also presented a relaxed front in his press conferences.
The scale of Leicester's predicament did finally seem to dawn on him after the Fulham result, as he admitted: "I was certainly very worried in the first half today. It got better in the second half. That’s the first time I’ve seen (a lack of fight) with these players. I hope I don’t see that again and I’m sure I won’t."
The problem is, he did see it again. Leicester fans deserve better than what they were served up this season - and it's depressing that many of the players that made them suffer the ignominy of relegation will ride off into the sunset this summer.