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Leicester City – standing still and with an uncertain future

Eighth place in the Premier League, Europa Conference semi-finalists and Community Shield winners. Fifth and FA Cup winners. Fifth and Europa League qualification. Ninth. Twelfth and Champions League quarter-finalists. Premier League champions.

All things considered — and there’s quite a bit to consider between 1884 and now – the last seven years have not turned out too badly for Leicester City and that includes finishing in the top 10 last season for the fifth time in succession.

That campaign was a struggle at times — 58 games were played across six competitions and seven countries, there were dips in form and far too many injuries to mention (31 for those who like to keep count) — leading to a feeling that a summer of change was around the corner.

A “healthy shake-up” was the expression Brendan Rodgers used back in February in the wake of a humbling FA Cup defeat at Nottingham Forest. “Nine players from the 11 that played at Forest were here on my first day nearly three years ago, so for squad development and competition you need to evolve… the summer is an important time for us because with some players, success can bring a comfort (zone),” Leicester’s manager said.

Those quotes are worth revisiting in the context of what has happened since. On the eve of their opening Premier League game of the season, Leicester, remarkably, are still the only club in Europe’s top five leagues not to have made a signing.

On top of that, Kasper Schmeichel, last season’s captain, has joined Nice, nine of the Leicester squad are out of contract next summer, including the Belgium international Youri Tielemans, Ricardo Pereira will be out for six months after rupturing his Achilles tendon last Sunday, and two of the club’s biggest assets are being targeted by other Premier League teams.

Kasper Schmeichel, Leicester

Schmeichel has joined Nice (Photo: ANP via Getty Images)

Newcastle United have tabled a couple of unsuccessful bids for James Maddison, who was Leicester’s most influential player last season, and Chelsea have had an offer for Wesley Fofana rejected. Leicester’s stance that neither player is for sale will be tested again over the next few weeks, especially in the case of Fofana.

Although Newcastle are not expected to get close to Leicester’s asking price for Maddison, it is anticipated that Chelsea will push hard for Fofana. The Frenchman signed an improved five-year contract in March and Leicester knew at the time he would attract interest from Europe’s top clubs; they just hoped that interest wouldn’t materialise so soon.

Privately, if not publicly, the expectation has always been Fofana will spend at least another season at Leicester before moving on. Either way, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, Leicester’s owner, knows Fofana’s value — all the more so in the wake of Chelsea paying Brighton up to £63million ($76m) for Marc Cucurella — and will not be pressured into selling.

Whether Maddison or Fofana end up staying with the club or not, or Tielemans for that matter (interest from Arsenal has not turned into anything more at this stage), there is no escaping it has been a peculiar summer for Leicester and Rodgers in particular, bearing in mind he had talked at one stage about five or six players coming in as part of a refresh. Instead, the Leicester manager has been dealt the same hand.

That stagnant backdrop to the season has created what has been described to The Athletic as a “different vibe” around the club, leading to uncertainty rather than negativity, but raising questions about strategy in both the short and long-term, including what plans are in place to sign high-calibre replacements for Fofana or anyone else who may leave during this window, and where exactly Leicester see themselves competing in the Premier League.

Rodgers set out to “disrupt the market” when he took over at Leicester in 2019 and promptly led the club to back-to-back fifth-placed finishes in 2020 and 2021, as well as the first FA Cup in their history. Yet it is hard to see how Leicester can start this season with ambitions of doing the same again. They are currently operating a sell-to-buy policy that has so far led to the departure of one player (Schmeichel) and raised €1million (£840,000, $1.01m).

Earlier in the summer, Leicester chose not to take up the option to buy Ademola Lookman, who joined from Red Bull Leipzig last year on a season-long loan with a view to a permanent move, and that proved to be a sign of things to come. As things stand, no departures or signings are close at the club.

Elsewhere in the Premier League, it has been a different story. Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, who both finished below Leicester in 2020 and 2021, have spent around £200m between them this summer strengthening their squads. The reality is they are operating on a totally different financial level to Leicester — Tottenham’s revenue is double Leicester’s, while Arsenal’s wage bill is £65m higher.

Leicester, in short, have been punching above their weight and, as much as last season’s eighth-placed finish came as a disappointment to supporters, the reality is it is probably where the club belongs — a point Rodgers made in January.

“What happens is that you have two fifth-placed finishes and then you qualify for European football, people think you have created a foundation for success, but for a club like ourselves, it may be the pinnacle. Because of resources and where others are at, it’s very difficult,” he said.

Although Rodgers clearly did not envisage at the start of the year he would be in this scenario with his squad come the summer, he became aware towards the end of the season that “the club would have to balance its books”. Whether he understood that to mean that Leicester would kick off the new season without any new faces in the squad is another matter.

Fofana is a target for Chelsea but Leicester want to keep him (Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

It is a bizarre situation on the face of it, clearly far from ideal for any manager, and you wonder whether Rodgers would be talking slightly differently if he did not have such a strong relationship with Leicester’s board.

“I think any manager would always want improvement in their squad, that’s only natural. And I felt that this was a time when we needed to improve. But it’s not the case. And I respect the club’s position,” Rodgers said at his press conference on Friday.

“The club have been outstanding for me in my time here, supported me in whatever I’ve wanted to do. At this time I need to support them. It’s a situation that’s unfortunate. But I don’t need to fight with anyone. I need to concentrate on the players that I have. I would have loved to have improved the squad, and there’s still time. Things change. But at this moment in time, all the focus is going into the players who are available.”

The context to all of this is that Leicester ran up losses of £120m over the last three seasons and the board are not going to allow that to continue. That is not to say that Leicester are in any financial trouble, but more that they see a need to take action now and apply the brakes. Adding more players to a squad that is already bloated makes no sense in their eyes.

As with all clubs, COVID-19 impacted heavily on Leicester’s accounts. Interestingly, last year was also the first time Leicester failed to sell a high-profile player since they won the Premier League title (Ben Chilwell to Chelsea in 2020; Harry Maguire to Manchester United in 2019; Riyad Mahrez to Manchester City in 2018; Danny Drinkwater to Chelsea in 2017 and N’Golo Kante to Chelsea in 2016).

All the while the wage bill has climbed significantly (up to 93 per cent of turnover in their latest accounts) on top of other significant costs. Away from the playing squad, Leicester spent £95m on their state-of-the-art training ground at Seagrave.

Against that backdrop, it becomes easier to see why Leicester are adopting a more cautious approach in this window. Financial Fair Play (FFP) means different things to different clubs (precious little in some cases by the looks of things) but Leicester are certainly not blase about the importance of falling in line with the rules — for the club’s own good and not just to satisfy FFP regulations.

The more difficult bit to explain, or to understand, is why Leicester have failed to offload any of their fringe players (Caglar Soyuncu, Hamza Choudhury, Boubakary Soumare among them) to facilitate the arrival of new faces.

That need to trade was clear from day one — Eldin Jakupovic, the 37-year-old third-choice goalkeeper, was the only player whose contract expired at the end of last season — and yet there are still 26 senior players in Leicester’s first-team squad. In short, there is no room at the inn.

One well-placed source makes the point in relation to Leicester’s current predicament that “the middle” has fallen out of the transfer market. Everyone still wants to sign elite players, he says, and everyone still wants to find bargains, but finding buyers who are willing to pay mid-table Premier League clubs substantial fees for squad players is much more difficult than in the past, largely because of the financial ramifications of COVID.

Maddison is wanted by Newcastle and Vardy’s deal expires next season (Photo: Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images)

In the same breath, he questions whether the valuations Leicester have placed on those fringe players are realistic and, echoing sentiments expressed by others, believes the club have to be more flexible and prepared to cut their losses in some cases.

That last summer’s recruitment was so disappointing has clearly not helped. Three of the club’s five signings — Soumare (unable to adapt to the pace of the Premier League and thrown in at the deep end quicker than Leicester would have liked because of injuries), Jannik Vestergaard (a disastrous panic buy after Fofana suffered a serious injury in pre-season) and Ryan Bertrand (continually injured) — all struggled and, ideally, would be moved on.

Soumare, who joined from Lille for £17m and has been a target for Monaco, is still viewed as Leicester’s best chance of raising money in this window without losing one of their key players. With Vestergaard, there has been tentative interest from other Premier League clubs but the Dane has two years remaining on his contract and is in no hurry to leave. As for Bertrand, he is still injured.

The challenge for Leicester now is not just where to find buyers but where to look for replacements if anyone does depart. Leicester have an extensive succession plan for every position on the pitch, effectively a shadow squad that grades individual transfer targets in order, but the clock is now ticking in this window and some of those players (Levi Colwill, for example) have already signed elsewhere.

Those with knowledge of the way this works say that even with time on their side, the issue for Leicester (and similar-sized clubs) is generally less about identifying the right player and more to do with being able to execute deals for the first, second or even third-choice transfer targets on the list, largely because of the level of competition they face.

To compound matters, Leicester are currently operating without a head of recruitment. Lee Congerton, a close ally of Rodgers, departed for Atalanta in March, and Southampton never had any intention of allowing his replacement, Martyn Glover, to take up his position early. Glover, who is currently on gardening leave, had a six-month notice period to serve and will start at Leicester on September 1, despite his successor at Southampton — Joe Shields — already being in post.

That has left a void at Leicester at a critical time. One well-placed source speaks highly of the club’s staff, including director of football Jon Rudkin, but questions whether Leicester were overstretched at the top end even with a head of recruitment in place, let alone without one. He goes on to talk about how important the personal touch can be when getting signings over the line, mentions how targets need to be “almost man-to-man marked” to prevent them going elsewhere, and wonders if Leicester have the bandwidth to do that right now.

If Leicester’s playing squad is not going to be overhauled this summer, it almost certainly will in 12 months’ time, when Tielemans, Soyuncu, Daniel Amartey, Choudhury, Ayoze Perez, Jonny Evans, Nampalys Mendy, Bertrand and Jamie Vardy are all out of contract.

The big question is what happens between now and then. On paper — and this is a widely held view inside and outside the club — Leicester’s best XI is strong and competitive. On top of that, there is optimism that Patson Daka is in a good place after his first season in English football, confidence that Danny Ward can establish himself as Schmeichel’s permanent successor, and a feeling that Dennis Praet can make a valuable contribution after spending last season on loan at Torino.

What nobody can say for sure, though, is whether Tielemans, Maddison and Fofana will still be around come the start of September, and the same level of uncertainty applies to whether any new faces will walk through the door.

(Top photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

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