It was the first weekend of May 2016 when Leicester City F.C., a middle-sized soccer team with middle-sized support and located, fittingly, in the Midlands of the British Isles, clinched the 2015-16 Premier League championship.
In an era of enormous money being poured into professional soccer, creating a class system, Leicester were the rank outsiders, coming into last season at 5,000-to-1 odds to win the league.
The Foxes, playing an all-for-one, one-for-all style of team football, became the darlings of not only soccer, but in all of sport because they played a simple game, set simple team goals, and came together as a fist to defeat some of the richest sports entities on the planet.
This evening the architect of the miracle season, Claudio Ranieri, was fired. The current Foxes side has many of the same players as it did a year ago except for back Ngolo Kante (more on him in a minute). But the team currently lies in 17th place in the league, and is in danger of losing its membership in the Premier League and may have to move down a level to play smaller-market teams such as Norwich and Brentford next season.
How did this utter collapse occur?
Some of it is the trappings of being the champions of England. Leicester, reluctantly, had a cameo role in the Guinness International Champions’ Cup, managing a penalty-shootout win and two defeats in three matches scattered between Europe and North America. Too, the Foxes were obligated to take part in three tournaments over the course of the season: the League Cup, the F.A. Cup, and the UEFA Champions’ League.
As Leicester had never won anything in the course of its 133-year history, there was nobody to advise the players or coaches how to deal with the overnight success. Or how to deal with big-money transfers. The big loss in the transfer market was when Ngolo Kante left the team in the offseason to join with Chelsea F.C. in London for a reported 32 million pounds.
Kante, the rock of Leicester’s defense, was gone. And the club would miss him more than you can imagine, despite playing a better team game than anyone else in England last year.
The attack has also suffered. Jamie Vardy has just five goals this season, and Riyadh Mahrez has just five points this season (3 g, 2 a).
The road ahead is clear for Leicester, however. By Monday night, the Foxes will know where they will have to play from; depending on results from the weekend, they could be anywhere from 17th to 20th in the league. And in a couple of weeks, Leicester City will host Sevilla in the second of a two-game, total-goal series in the Champions League.
But pro soccer is one of those sports where it is difficult for a team to turn around solely on the personality and disposition of the head coach. Swansea City turned to former U.S. boss Bob Bradley for help, but he was sacked after winning just two times in 11 fixtures.
For interim manager Steve Shakespeare, it’s all about winning now and winning decisively. The players are in place, but it’s all a matter of self-believe now. Let’s see if they have another “great escape” in them.