After Leicester’s two-nil defeat at Swansea, Claudio Ranieri was asked whether he’d been too loyal to his players following their title win last season. Ranieri remains an honest sort, even if he’s now battling to save his job, and conceded that, yes, maybe he had been too patient and that perhaps a tipping point had now been reached.
Leicester’s failure this season is complicated. The loss of N’Golo Kante has proven devastating and in every part of the side there are obvious regressions: Jamie Vardy is not scoring goals, Riyad Mahrez is not creating chances, and Wes Morgan’s partnership with Robert Huth now totals the sum of its ageing parts. But even without those declines, Leicester would also still be treated with far more caution than they were in 2015/16; no more naive attacking from opponents, no more wide open space left to exploit.
Ranieri is complicit in the underperformance. One of the more baffling decisions of the season was his unprompted marginalisation of Shinji Okazaki, who had been an essential connecting piece last season. Why did he suddenly become a second-tier player in this squad? That’s a particularly pertinent question given that, in the main, Leicester’s approach hasn’t really changed and Okazaki retains all the same value.
Lately, the anecdotes have become more sinister. Disaffection reportedly bubbles within the squad and tension is supposedly simmering between the manager and his players; the team is fracturing.
In time, perhaps a more detailed telling of this part of the story will emerge. For now, though, isn’t it right to present these struggles as a semi-inevitable consequence of what happened in May? Leicester’s first post-title challenge was to ensure that there was enough success to pass around the club, but their second – which was essentially impossible – was to guard against the effects of emotional fatigue. Having climbed so high, how was it ever realistically feasible that, over two pre-season months, these players were going to re-charge their ambition. Being a regular contender is a habit and both Manchester United and Chelsea have managed to win back-to-back championships during the Premier League era, but Cinderella teams are unique in the sense that everyone, even they themselves, understand that there isn’t likely to be a repeat. That must be a terrible realisation to reach: how can you mount a title defence when you know you’ve already used up your miracle?
That would certainly help to explain the disparity between Leicester’s league and European form. One set of fixtures, a complete novelty, presented an exciting challenge, the other an eight-month slog against insurmountable odds and an arduous journey in pursuit of a dream which had already been realised. As supporters, we’re taught to tolerate nothing other than total professionalism and to believe wholeheartedly in the sanctity of the competitive spirit. On the other hand, Leicester’s malaise can be processed rationally: where was the emotional energy and required focus ever going to come from? When an amateur mountaineer somehow heaves himself to the top of Everest, he wants to get down as quickly as possible, dump his oxygen tanks at base camp, and start telling his story in the local pub. He certainly doesn’t want to go back up – not for a while, at least.
There aren’t many comparison to be made with what happened in England last season, because European football is now relentlessly determined by finance. The two outliers, however, are perhaps the Greek team who won the European Championship in 2004, and the FC Porto side who captured the Champions League in the same year. In each case, it’s interesting to note the hangover both endured in the immediate aftermath: Greece would fail to qualify for the 2006 World Cup and, the following season, Porto would lose the Super Cup, finish second in their domestic Primeira League, and be eliminated in the last-sixteen of the European Cup and the last-32 of the Portuguese Cup. In each case, the slumps can be explained by departing or retiring personnel, injuries, and changes in management, but both squads still fell short of what they could reasonably have been expected to achieve. The Porto team, for instance, may have lost Jose Mourinho, Ricardo Carvalho and Deco, but acquired Diego, a young Pepe and Ricardo Quaresma to replace them; they were afflicted as much by a curious malaise – and some spectacular manager/boardroom dysfunction – as they were structural change.
Denmark are another example: the team parachuted in to win the 1992 European Championship would fail to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, finishing third in their group behind Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland side. They were talented, too, boasting a side which still included both Laudrup brothers, Peter Schmeichel, John Jensen and Kim Vilfort. Those players were good enough to get to America and to go deep into the final tournament.
More recently, Chelsea’s insipid defence of their own recent title win provided a vivid insight into the cost of not managing success properly. The disharmony at Stamford Bridge was fanned by conflict and a series of personality clashes, but the general level of performance was evidence that even the most talented sides are at risk. Would those dressing-room egos have been inflated to such an extent had they not been empowered by winners’ medals?
Clearly none of those teams suffered as dramatic a fall as Leicester are currently experiencing, but they still attest to the difficulty of responding to unlikely success. The manifestation of those problems may be subtle: perhaps a slightly less dedicated attitude to training or a lingering irritation over how the success was portioned out? One can imagine, for instance, that when Mourinho took Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira with him to Chelsea, and Deco was signed by Barcelona, the players left behind grew resentful. Was there perhaps a division between the players who had won the Champions League and those who arrived to bask in the light? These are minor issues, but are exactly the kind of festering negatives which can poison squad harmony and dilute performance. While top-flight football is full of natural disparities, the fixtures themselves are contested upon very fine margins and even a slight drop in application tends to be critical; these little details are far more important than they’re assumed to be.
There is more to the Leicester story. Their summer recruitment has been proven unsuccessful, with none of the new players providing an adequate contribution, and Ranieri is at fault for both the Okazaki issue and his failure to properly adjust to Kante’s departure. But even with flawless tactical preparation, would his players ever realistically have had enough psychological muscle to properly compete this year?