Four seasons on from their shock title win, Leicester City side find themselves third in the Premier League table after 11 games, just two points behind a Manchester City side who are one of the greatest to ever grace these shores and eight points behind current Champions League winners Liverpool. Given their league position they can currently claim to be the ‘best of the rest’ among a pack of five or six sides with realistic Champions League hopes but no chance of toppling the division’s two standout sides.
Taking the above statement in isolation one would probably assume that it has been a relatively smooth ride since their 2015/16 glory, with Leicester consolidating themselves amongst the Premier League elite.
The real story is fascinating, tragic and far more complex than that. It is a story of managerial sackings, player complacency, key player sales, reported dressing room coups and the tragic loss of a hugely likeable owner.
Since their title triumph, Leicester have recorded mid-table finishes of 12th, 9th and 9th. In that time three managers have lost their job. First, the charismatic and hugely entertaining Claudio Ranieri bit the dust, just nine months after he had guided the then relegation favourites to the most remarkable of titles, with the champions just one point above the Premier League relegation zone with 13 games remaining.
Ranieri’s assistant Craig Shakespeare took up the reigns, amid whispers that he was the true tactical inspiration behind Leicester’s title win with Ranieri merely the public figurehead. After initially overseeing an upturn in fortunes, Shakespeare lasted just eight month as he was unable to improve Leicester’s performances long term and left with the side in the relegation zone after eight matches of the 2017/18 season.
Shakespeare was replaced by Claude Puel, an appointment which failed to excite either the fan base or the players. Again we see a similar story. An initial upturn in results and hugely respectable 9th place finish was accompanied by player unrest, disillusionment at Puel’s perceived ‘negative’ tactics and the manager’s departure less than a year and a half into his tenure.
They say getting to the summit is hard but staying there is much harder. It is no coincidence that only three managers: Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have ever retained the Premier League title. All three are relentless winners, never pausing for breath in their pursuit of the next trophy.
Ranieri, Shakespeare and Puel all had their strengths but they shared one fatal flaw – an inability to motivate a talented group of players who had reached the summit but had no realistic opportunity to return there.
United with a sense of purpose to make history, as the usual suspects fell by the wayside Leicester’s group of previously unheralded misfits and bargain buys found a level of performance and consistency that was unimaginable at the start of the season. This was a side who had looked relegation certainties for much of the previous season before an extraordinary late run of 22 points from their final 9 games secured a survival which appeared almost as unlikely as the title-winning season itself when Leicester were sat bottom on 19 points after 29 games going into April.
Having achieved the impossible, and in the process secured their place in club folklore as well as Premier League and world football history, the players’ performances nosedived as did results. Here was a group of unmotivated and uninspired players, happy to bask in the glow of their once in a lifetime achievement. Only when an unthinkable relegation threatened did the side achieve anything resembling their 2015/16 performance levels the following season.
A sense of malaise had swept the club, bumper contracts and endless levels of goodwill had made the players who wanted to stay, if not the manager, untouchable. Standards slipped and rather than being the catalyst which propelled Leicester into the stratosphere of the elite, the title win became a justification for mid-table mediocrity. Leicester had achieved all they could, what was the point in pushing on if things would never get that good again?
This was a side which needed a spark to ignite it, to inspire to demand the excellence that shook the Premier League elite to its core. In February 2019 that catalyst for improvement arrived in the form of Brendan Rodgers.
Rodgers is a man who has a relentless obsession with excellence. He has an unlimited drive to seek that he ensures both himself, and his sides, are the best they can possibly be. So fixated with personal development is he that he learned both Spanish and Italian to enhance his job prospects. He is also the man which helped set the standards and philosophy that allowed a Swansea side to punch well above their weight for years after he had left.
Rodgers’ relentless drive for excellence is simultaneously his greatest strength and also the trait which cost him potentially his career-defining moment.
With Liverpool within touching distance of Manchester City in the race to be crowned 2013/14 Premier League Champions, Rodgers’ side squandered a 3-0 lead against Crystal Palace to draw 3-3. His tunnel vision and fixation with chasing down city’s goal difference meant both he and his side lost sight of the bigger picture. The most important thing in that game was three points and to maintain pressure on Manchester City.
At 3-0 it was perfectly logical to pile forward, chase more goals and close the goal difference gap. But at 3-1 and especially 3-2, warning bells should have been ringing that the goal difference game was up and it was time to set up shop. In the heat of battle, Rodgers’ relentless obsession with the perfect result did not let him settle for good enough and live to fight another day.
It is easy to lose sight of the big picture when one becomes fixated on smaller details. It is the same psychological phenomenon that has caused pilots to crash planes when fixated on wheel warning lights and are thus unaware that their fuel is quickly running dangerously low. Rodgers’s error was not on the same magnitude as this, but the same principles apply and when next in heat of battle (he was largely untested winning back-to-back titles at Celtic) it will be interesting to see if Rodgers has learnt from his mistake.
But what proved his undoing in that title run-in is now the exact same trait which has allowed him to revitalise his current side who had sleepwalked into mediocrity following their greatest of triumphs.
At Leicester Rodgers inherited a talented, but under-performing squad. A group who had excelled when united behind a historic common goal, but had since let standards slip in the relatively mundane seasons which followed. It was a side unmotivated by the tiny carrot of a seventh-placed finished, and which would only burst into life when whacked by the enormous stick in the guise potential relegation.
It is a side which needed to be challenged, needed a manager which unrelentingly high expectations to raise the ceiling of what could be achieved, to accept nothing less than the highest of standards in everything they do.
This is exactly what Rodgers has already achieved in his short time at Leicester. He forfeited the chance of a treble-treble with Celtic to take over a side where he believes a top-four finish should be regarded as a realistic goal. By raising standards and expectations of what is achievable he has awoken this Leicester side from their malaise and revitalised the club. He is a perfectionist and the players have bought into his all-encompassing desire for improvement.
We have seen this relentless nature manifest itself on the pitch in the past 14 days. Teams do not typically win 9-0. Often when in the process of handing out a thrashing the winning side is inclined to sit off, relax, and conserve one’s energies for the challenges ahead. This is not something that Rodgers will allow this Leicester side to do. And the fact that they overcame a tricky trip to Palace in the following game speaks volumes for the culture Rodgers is fostering and the fact that players were not allowed to rest on their laurels following a record-breaking win.
It takes an ambitious and brave manager to raise the bar of expectations. When setting expectations high it is often the manager who pays the price should they not be met. Fans and owners also tend to have short memories. And many managers have discovered that even if you were the one to initiate the climb this is not enough to save you should you then begin to fall.
Leicester may not qualify for the Champions League this season, they may not even finish in the top six. But one thing is for sure: Rodgers will accept nothing less than the pursuit of excellence from his players. If they fall short of his targets it will not be because they were allowed standards to slip. And the players will not be able to chuck a manager with the strength of character of Rodgers under the same bus that Ranieri found himself. If Rodgers and this Leicester side fail, they will fail while striving to be the best they can be.