In the final match of the 2019/20 season, Leicester City welcomed Manchester United to the King Power Stadium, with the Foxes in need of a win to ensure qualification to the Champions League for the first time since 2016. Leicester would go on to lose 2-0, finishing four points behind fourth-place Chelsea, who had defeated Wolves at the Stamford Bridge that same day.
As such, Leicester will play Europa League football for the first time since 2000 — when the competition was still named the UEFA Cup, when then manager Peter Taylor’s Foxes crashed out of the tournament in the first round to Red Star Belgrade. On paper, it’s been quite an impressive season for Brendan Rodgers’s side. On the pitch, it’s been nothing short of a historic collapse in which Leicester blew a 14-point gap on Manchester United for Champions League football.
After a hot and cold managerial spell at Liverpool, Rodgers took charge of Celtic, where he would amass seven trophies between 2016 and 2019. He arrived at the King Power in February 2019, with the mission of restoring a new outlook to a team that had grown stale under Claude Puel. Rodgers immediately transformed Leicester’s formation into a possession-heavy 4-1-4-1 shape, with Wilfred Ndidi operating as the holding midfielder, surrounded by two interior midfielders in James Maddison and Youri Tielemans, the latter of which having arrived from Monaco on loan in January.
Rodgers managed to impress his tactical ideas upon the team, as they climbed from 12th to a respectable 9th place within the final three months of the 2018/19 season. Things were looking up for the Foxes, who brought in Dennis Praet, James Justin and Ayoze Pérez in the summer, as well as securing a permanent transfer for Tielemans. But their aspirations of breaking into the top four took a nosedive on August 5, when Manchester United announced the signing of Leicester’s defensive behemoth Harry Maguire, with United paying a world record fee for a defender at £80 million.
Photo: Manchester United via Getty
Leicester were rumored to be looking at bringing in a Maguire replacement during the final week of the transfer window, with Getafe’s Djene Dakonam, Bournemouth’s Nathaniel Aké, Burnley’s James Tarkowski and Juventus’s Merih Demiral all being mentioned as potential reinforcements. However, they ended up not signing a new defender, instead choosing to rely on 23-year-old defender Çağlar Söyüncü, who had joined from Freiburg the prior summer.
Nevertheless, their gamble on Söyüncü gradually paid off with the Turkish international forming an imposing duo in the heart of defense with veteran defender Jonny Evans. Leicester rode a wave of hot form throughout the first half of the season, although their form took a nosedive following the crowded holiday period. Still, when the Premier League season came to a freezing halt in March, Leicester sat a comfortable third in the table, eight points clear of Manchester United with nine league games left to play.
It’s true that Rodgers often missed several of his key performers during the home stretch of the season. Ricardo Pereira, a creative dynamo at the right back position, has missed the entire Premier League restart with sustained knee ligament damage, whilst Ben Chilwell, James Maddison and Çağlar Söyüncü were unavailable during the last three games due to injury or suspension.
Now, Leicester will need to hang onto key performers such as Chilwell, who’s been linked with a big-money move to Frank Lampard’s Chelsea. They’ve sent a strong message with the renewal of Maddison, who recently extended his contract to 2025, and who will now earn an eye-watering £95,000-a-week at the King Power. But in order to be able to compete in domestic competitions as well as Europa next season, they’ll need to not only keep their essential players, but improve in depth as well.
Moreover, they do have plenty of fringe players that they’ll need to offload in order to free up space in the wage bill as well as give them more funds to reinvest into the transfer market. Demarai Gray has failed to live up to his potential since joining from Birmingham City in 2016, and with one year left on his deal, it may be time to cash in.
Leicester have been shipping other deadweight on loan such as Bartosz Kapustka (Freiburg and Leuven), Islam Slimani (Newcastle, Fenerbahçe, Monaco) and Adrien Silva (Monaco) since that ill-advised summer 2016 transfer window, and with each of those players’s contracts set to expire in 2021, it’s time to cut their losses.
Photo: Leicester City
Leicester will also need to work on arranging transfers for Rachid Ghezzal, Fousseni Diabaté, Daniel Amartey and Matty James, as they seek to add depth to the squad, the team’s current weakness. The gap between Leicester’s starters and backups is far too steep for a side that aims to compete both in domestic and international competitions, and club chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, Director of Football Jon Rudkin and Head of Senior Recruitment Lee Congerton will need to deliver in the transfer window in order to give Rodgers a squad he can depend on, not just a starting line-up.
One only has to look at the drop-off in quality between the first-choice and second-choice players. When Pereira missed the rest of the season due to a knee ligament injury, Rodgers was forced to rely on James Justin, who, despite his impressive performances for Luton Town in their League One-winning 2018/19 season, still has a long way to go before reaching the Portuguese’s levels.
Leicester fans will be expecting more from their recruiting department after a cursed January transfer window in which Wolves’s backup center back Ryan Bennett was the club’s sole reinforcement. Bennett made just five appearances for Leicester and looked dreadfully out of place, causing Leicester to decline their £5 million purchase option.
As a result, Leicester were left shorthanded when key players such as Ndidi and Chilwell were sidelined, causing them to relinquish a seemingly permanent lead on Manchester United and fall short of Champions League qualification. With Bennett returning to Wolves and Wes Morgan approaching 37 years of age, Rudkin will need to bring in another center back who can provide competition to Söyüncü and Evans. An attacking midfielder who can take some of the creative burden off of Madison — Adam Lallana was linked as a potential reinforcement but instead joined Brighton — and a winger that can provide dynamism and creativity from the flanks will also be top priorities for the Foxes this summer.
Regardless of the individual quality on display or the Europa League football that will be played next season, the 2019/20 season will go down as one of the most painful experiences for Leicester fans to have ever witnessed. But instead of backing down, Leicester now need to rebound, rebuild and prepare to stake their claim in an increasingly competitive top six.
By: Kola Sekoni
Featured Image: @GabFoligno