Leicester Emerge From Chaos Ready to Write New Premier League Story
It says much about the way that Leicester City are operating these days that their transfer plans extend well beyond this window. Forward-thinking is at the heart of an active approach to recruitment that has seen Leicester bring in three new faces already and break their transfer record with the sort of signing that suggests the club who gave us one of the great sporting fairytales of modern times could be ready to ruffle a few feathers again.
Three years have passed since that incredible Premier League title success and, realistically, there was always going to be a tricky period of readjustment for everyone at Leicester. For a while the club were trying to find themselves again and, perhaps more than anything, work out where they belonged in football’s pecking order once the Champions League music had stopped playing and the memories of Andrea Bocelli bringing the house down at the King Power Stadium had started to fade.
In truth, it has been a little chaotic at times. Three managers were sacked in the space of two years and Leicester brought 23 players to the club in the three seasons that followed their 5,000-1 triumph. Across that period, Leicester finished 12th and ninth twice, which makes those campaigns sound a lot more serene than they were.
Now, though, there are clear signs of stability as well as renewed ambition and hunger, partly because of the appointments that have been made and the signings that have come in but also through a collective desire within the club to build on the legacy of their former owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who was one of five people killed on that awful evening last October, when a helicopter crashed outside the King Power Stadium.
Aiyawatt, Vichai’s 33-year-old son, conducted himself with great dignity in the days, weeks and months that followed and he also vowed that he would do everything in his power to “carry on his [father’s] vision and dreams”.
Appointing Brendan Rodgers as manager in February and sanctioning the £40m signing of Youri Tielemans from Monaco this week is not a bad start.
Tielemans was a class act while on loan during the second half of last season and Aiyawatt, more commonly known as “Top”, was resolute in his determination to bring the Belgium international back on a permanent basis, backing Jon Rudkin, the director of football, even when Monaco were digging their heels in over the finances.
Aged 22 and prodigiously talented, Tielemans attracted interest from Manchester United this summer but they never made a formal offer and the midfielder was not going to wait around and find out whether that could change if players left Old Trafford or Ole Gunnar Solskjær missed out on other targets. Tielemans wanted to come to Leicester and made that clear.
Crucially, Leicester were decisive when they needed to be with Tielemans and the same has been true with the signings of Ayoze Pérez and James Justin. With both those transfers, clubs tried and failed to hijack the deals at the last minute, after Leicester had stolen a march.
Having an owner who is prepared to back the judgment of his manager and staff helps Leicester greatly in that respect and prevents them from being reactive in the market.
In the case of Pérez, who had been attracting interest from Valencia, Napoli and Monaco, Leicester had no intention of joining the queue and playing a game. They triggered the buyout clause straight away and by the time that Monaco made a late attempt to sign Pérez, who can play wide on the right or as a second striker, the Spaniard was at Leicester’s training ground and ready to complete a £30m transfer from Newcastle. Something similar happened with Crystal Palace and Justin, who was signed from Luton for an initial £6m and will start as understudy to Ricardo Pereira, the Portuguese right-back.
Identifying the right players as early as possible is key to a process that ultimately revolves around three key figures at Leicester: Rudkin, who has the trust of Top and acts as a conduit between the football side of the club and the owner; Lee Congerton, who was appointed head of senior recruitment in May after following Rodgers from Celtic; and the manager himself.
Rodgers knows the characteristics he is looking for in each position and the staff deliver accordingly. That includes Callum Smithson and José Fontes, a multilingual Portuguese who swapped investment banking for the football industry. Those two oversee the technical scouting operation and, while they may not get much of a mention outside of the club, they are highly respected within.
There is a collective drive at Leicester to discover, improve and recruit exciting young talent. Harvey Barnes, Hamza Choudhury, James Maddison and Demarai Gray are England Under-21 internationals. Tielemans (22), Justin (21) and Pérez (25), the three acquisitions so far this summer, are at an age where they have the potential to get better and better. Ben Chilwell, the England left-back, is 22; Pereira, the rampaging full-back on the opposite flank, is 25.
Throw in the experience and quality of Jonny Evans, Kasper Schmeichel and Jamie Vardy and it is easy to make a case that Leicester have a genuine chance of breaking into the top six, especially now they have a manager in Rodgers who knows not only how to get the best out of players but also how to get them playing with a clear identity – something never apparent under his predecessor, Claude Puel.
The one curveball is Harry Maguire and it would be fair to say that Leicester’s prospects of reeling in Manchester United or Arsenal will be considerably stronger if they can hold on to the England international. That appears unlikely on the face of it, although Leicester are adamant that Maguire will depart only on their terms, which is believed to be for a fee in excess of the £75m that Southampton received for Virgil van Dijk.
If that valuation is met, Leicester have a decision to make as to whether they pursue a replacement or invest the money elsewhere in the squad, bearing in mind that they paid £19m for the Turkey international Çağlar Söyüncü and £13m for the Croat Filip Benkovic last summer, both of whom are centre-backs.
No matter how that Maguire saga plays out, though, it feel as if Leicester are in a good place again. There is a real buzz about the state-of-the-art training ground that will be ready to move into next summer, an ambitious manager with a proven track record of developing youngsters, an exciting group of players under his watch, and an owner committed to fulfilling the wishes of his late father. The next couple of seasons could be fun.
The Guardian Sport