Leicester’s is a classic example of how quickly things can change in football. A season after scaling the heights of clinching their first ever Premier League title, the Foxes were down at the nadir, struggling to look for anything that they could hold on to climb out of the dreaded red zone. Claudio Ranieri’s axing from his position as the manager did nothing to dispel the gloom that surrounded a club whose fall from grace seemed inevitable after the miraculous triumph, but the extent to which it had happened was certainly unexpected.
Amidst controversy that accused Leicester players of getting the Tinkerman sacked, it was the state of the club that mattered and the extent to which it had keeled over was a cause of concern. A game against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool beckoned and the Leicester board had a decision to make. It was about to be a decision that could make or break what lied ahead. It could have kept the Champions in the division or it could have condemned them to the dreaded red zone. The appointment of Craig Shakespeare as the head coach did raise some eyebrows, but the 53-year-old Brummie steadied the ship from day one itself.
The game against the Reds at an expectant King Power stadium was reminiscent of the Leicester that achieved the unthinkable mere months before that. It was a dominant performance, that characterized the grit and determination that the Foxes have earned a reputation for. The 3-1 win saw Danny Drinkwater score a cracker and Jamie Vardy, who was largely out of form last season, grab an impressive brace. Vardy’s return to his best wasn’t the only thing that was suggestive of a change in aura, but how the win came about proved a lot too.
Ranieri’s reluctance to stick to the same side and the formation that won them the title was one reason for the Italian’s downfall, but Shakespeare brought it right back into the picture. The 4-4-2 saw Danny Drinkwater and winter acquisition Wilfred Ndidi start in the heart of the park and the duo of Riyad Mahrez and Marc Albrighton start out wide.The hardworking and incredibly underrated Shinji Okazaki started with Vardy up front, making it look like the Leicester we know from the 2015-16 campaign. The style was direct and resembled the archetypal no-nonsense one that we know Leicester for.
The triumph over Sevilla in the Round of 16 of the Champions League followed. It was a compact 2-0 win and it seemed like the better Leicester again, with the King Power crowd pumping and the the Foxes fan backing their side to the helm. The much-cliched sporting statement about the crowd playing the role of the 12th man was soundly relevant. The game was won. History was created. But above all, it began to seem all too relevant.
Four wins in the Premier League saw the club climb back close to the top half, despite the ousting from the Champions League on the hands of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. It was hardly a performance to be ashamed of. The challenge was a gargantuan one, but Shakespeare’s men gave Atleti a run for their money and kept the clearly superior Spanish opposition on their toes throughout the game.
The club finished 12th, well clear of relegation. Damaging defeats to title chasing Tottenham and top four chasing Manchester City kept them outside the top half, but the job that Shakespeare was appointed to do was complete. Leicester City had avoided relegation. And a new season beckoned. It was time to kick on.
Shakespeare’s success hasn’t been down to coming up with something new, but more down to bringing the old system back. Ever since the Englishman came in, there seems to be an assurity about how things will go. The 4-4-2 hasn’t budged any bit. The club now sees familiar faces knock about the King Power doors and the inclusion of Matty James in the line-up on the opening day game at the Emirates shows how much trust Shakespeare has been willing to lay trust in a tried and tested system and in tested players as well.
The fans still have players that they can associate themselves with, despite the club now not being a one with considerably less financial resources. Shinji Okazaki still strives to give his all for the side by operating behind Vardy and apart from the recent inclusion of Matty James, the experienced Andy King still is very much a part of the structure. Kasper Schmeichel still guards the sticks and the duo of Christian Fuchs and Danny Simpson plays at full-back. And it is in lack of belief in the same squad that ended up costing Ranieri his job, when Shakespeare is doing what he did when the side won the title. The new signings that came in last summer did play a role last season, but one can expect them to play a lesser role this season. Shakespeare knows what is the best for this club and the signings he has made, be it the impressive Harry Maguire, Vicente Iborra or Kelechi Iheanacho, will be trusted but only a certain extent. The experienced campaigners will be handed an equal say in how things go about.
We saw Ranieri fiddle about with all sorts of formations before he got the axe, be it the 3-5-2 or the diamond 4-4-2, but it was the flat 4-4-2 that worked best. And the in-charge English will do just that- play the 4-4-2, use Vardy’s energy up front and knock the ball towards him to play direct football.
The Foxes have won one of their first three Premier League games and the ones that they have lost have been against Arsenal at the Emirates and against Manchester United at Old Trafford. They are places where a side like Leicester would need to be lucky to get anything from. Against Arsenal, Shakespeare’s men led till quite late in the game, only to succumb to a double strike to lose 4-3. Against United at the Theatre of Dreams, they looked solid at the back and made it tough for Mourinho’s men to break them down. If they were a bit lucky, they could have scored one themselves. There were doubts about the defensive capabilities of the side during the open game at the Emirates, but the showdown in the North West of the country proved otherwise.