There’s nothing quite as polarizing in football as change.
A winning team fears change, anything that might upset the delicate equilibrium within which their hot streak is precariously balanced is shunned. Alternatively, a losing side welcomes change of any kind with open arms. Often a team that replaces a losing manager enjoys a bounce in form, the addition of a quality player can also embolden a side.
Seldom if ever have the intricacies of the impact of change been brought more sharply into focus than at Leicester over the last 18 months.
Former manager Nigel Pearson (a divisive figure to put it mildly) was sacked by Leicester after a disagreement with club officials over the sacking of his son James following a controversial episode involving a number of Thai ladies. Pearson had just pulled off an unlikely relegation escape, his resurgent side finishing 14th in the end. With the foxes having finished the season so strongly his leaving was seen as a disaster. The subsequent appointment of ‘tinkerman’ Claudio Ranieri was met with widespread indifference.
Recognizing he had inherited a side on a steep upward curve Ranieri changed very little, Leicester took up where they left off surprising everyone who had them tipped for relegation. Players bought in the summer under Pearson, Robert Huth, Shinji Okazaki and N’Golo Kante were integrated, making the squad stronger. Kante in particular was a revelation. Ranieri’s men stormed the opening stages of the season with Kante, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez the stand-out performers.
Ranieri heaped praise upon his players, famously describing Vardy as ‘some kind of fantastic horse’. The former non-league striker was unstoppable, breaking the Premier league record for most consecutive scoring appearances. He hung on the shoulder of the league’s defenders like the Grim Reaper. The archetypal Leicester goal was Kante winning the ball, giving it to Danny Drinkwater who immediately looked to release Vardy who homed in on the ball like a scud missile before slotting it away. It was basic and predictable but it was nigh on unstoppable.
Ranieri very seldom made changes to the side. This was a squad that could quite feasibly have flourished under the old rules of having just one match day substitute. As the season wore on, the flow of goals was stemmed slightly but the back four counteracted that by becoming water tight. Like the trademark Vardy goal, the back four had their own patented defensive method. Attackers were forced out wide. If they managed to get off a decent cross, Huth and captain Wes Morgan were backed to win it in the air. A simple trap that opponents fell into time and time again.
Having only avoided relegation with a late run of victories one season earlier, they managed to capture the title with minimal changes the next.
So far this season could not have been more different. Leicester did well to hold onto all of their stars bar Kante. Nobody was realistically expecting them to retain the title but the level to which they have regressed is remarkable.
With Kante gone, Drinkwater looks like a Championship player again. Having both been handed massive new contracts to stay at the club, Mahrez and Vardy’s form has fallen off a cliff. Teams are leaving no space for Vardy to tear into. Without it he’s impotent. Full backs aren’t buying Mahrez’ chop so readily either. Neither player is able to perform the tasks that seemed second nature to them last season, neither guaranteed a starting place in Ranieri’s ever changing side and system.
The ‘tinkerman’ is back and Leicester’s players don’t like it, they want a change in the dugout.
The Italian has received a vote of confidence from the board but not from the men he sends onto the pitch.
There’s only one feasible way this can end, even if the club avoid the relegation their once again hurtling towards, the rift between players and management looks irreparable. A change will come, the anomaly of last season will seem like a dream and Leicester will be back hovering around the relegation zone.
Either that or they’ll get relegated and win the Champions League in the same season.