There was something warmly familiar about seeing Wes Morgan stumble and flounder at the feet of a striker in Leicester’s 2-0 defeat to Everton on Boxing Day. It was a momentary throwback to the glorious calamity that defined much of the Foxes’ Premier League campaign under Nigel Pearson, before their miraculous survival.
Twelve months after that escape, Morgan had become the kind of defensive rock that every manager craves, as he led his team to the most implausible of title victories. This season though, Leicester have returned to their reckless ways, and much as Morgan has reverted to his more recognisable disastrous self, so too has the entire squad regressed to the level that saw them battle relegation in 2014/15.
Many expected Leicester to establish themselves this season as a solid, top half side, to use their title success to build a foundation for consistent performances in the seasons to come. However, the Foxes’ subsequent poor form only serves the amplify the sheer improbability of their title victory.
Claudio Ranieri was hailed as the hero of last year’s success, for his ability to squeeze such remarkable performances from such seemingly average players. But this year’s regression shows how perhaps Ranieri merely rode the seismic wave of Leicester’s dramatic recovery of the previous season. Ranieri was fortunate to stride into a club with a winning formula already instilled in the players; Leicester’s title charge began, in reality, sometime in the spring of 2015 under Nigel Pearson.
Of course, Ranieri’s ability to maintain that level of performance for an entire season is one of the managerial masterclasses of recent times. While finding a formula for success is one thing, maintaining and building upon that success is quite another. Indeed, Leicester’s evolution over the course of last season from the free-scoring, free-conceding side of the first few months to the pragmatic, counter-attacking system that saw them over the line speaks volumes of Ranieri’s contribution.
However, last week, Jonathan Wilson wrote an excellent piece on the how the quality of “winningness” can be the key factor in a successful team – Wilson references the Liverpool sides of the 1980s. Similarly, this hunger and desire for success was manifest in Leicester’s title charge last season. The belief instilled in the players from their remarkable escape from relegation was seemingly limitless, and so the mental barriers that so often deny the perceived ‘average’ player from achieving success of that magnitude were washed away.
That word – ‘average’ – is one that could have been used to describe so much of Leicester’s squad before their title win. Morgan had been a Championship defender for all of his career before winning promotion with Leicester. Robert Huth was an ageing centre-back, cast into the shadows by Stoke before re-igniting his career with the Foxes. Drinkwater, Albrighton, Vardy, Ulloa – the list of players who wrestled free of the shackles of mediocrity is long.
What spurred Leicester on to win the title was not the technical quality of the players, but rather the hunger to work for one another, to strive in unison for that seemingly unattainable title, all in the absence of the pressure and expectation that dogs the ‘bigger teams’ in the league. Leicester’s title victory was borne of that quality of “winningness”, the result of an ever-growing belief after each win.
Perhaps Leicester’s poor form this season is the result of premature success. Leicester did not slowly work their way up, season by season, to become title contenders. They went from being relegation favourites at the beginning of the 2015/16 season, under a new manager who had recently lost to the Faroe Islands, to achieving the most implausible and incredible title success. This season, perhaps we are seeing a team whose hunger and desire, having already achieved the impossible, has now disintegrated.
On the other hand, perhaps we are simply seeing a group of players performing at their true level once again. Having mixed it with the big boys, and won the title, maybe it’s only natural that Leicester’s players regress to their more basic form. The improbable nature of Leicester’s title win can never be underestimated, and the fact that the Foxes are struggling so much this time around only serves to accentuate that incredibility.