Dropping out of the Premier League might be the best thing to happen to Leicester if they are to undergo a vital period of renewal, writes Richard Jolly.
If Claudio Ranieri proves true to his word, Leicester’s greatest team came to an ignominious, insipid end at Swansea on Sunday. A manager who admitted he had been too loyal to unlikely champions should start to shape the future at Millwall at Saturday.
But the past is likely to remain ever present. Leicester’s legends seem set to have longevity. A few months ago, that would have been regarded as a boon. Now it has the look of a burden, courtesy of the raft of new contracts that represented rewards for implausible achievers. They tied Marc Albrighton, Danny Drinkwater, Christian Fuchs, Andy King, Riyad Mahrez, Wes Morgan, Kasper Schmeichel, Danny Simpson and Jamie Vardy down. They gave them salaries worthy of title winners; understandably, decently, but sadly dreadfully.
Because now they are performing like players sleepwalking into the Championship. Which is why, in a perverse way, Leicester require relegation if they are to remodel their squad and escape the financial commitments of having highly remunerated reserves. Their players have clauses cutting their wages, reportedly by 40 percent, if they go down. At a stroke, £100,000 a week becomes £60,000, £50,000 becomes £30,000. In an instant, players have an incentive to leave. At present, Footballers who were underpaid last season are overpaid this. Their current salaries will act as a deterrent to would-be buyers, their performances as another.
Stay up and perhaps only two of the starting XI who were set in stone 12 months ago may attract much attention: the pivotal Schmeichel, who has come the closest of any to replicating last season’s form; and Mahrez, based on talent, comparative youth and the hope that he could rebound, Eden Hazard-style, after a wretched year mounting a lamentable defence of the PFA Player of the Year award. A case perhaps could be made for Drinkwater, although the evidence is that he is a very good player alongside N’Golo Kante, but not when separated from the French dynamo. Too many of the others look one-season wonders. Too many are in their thirties, slowing and declining.
Yet relegation would make them more affordable and more liable to leave. Survival risks bringing Leicester continuity: not the sustained success they must have hoped for when keeping all bar Kante of last season’s key components, but an extension of this year’s struggles as a side who had remarkable chemistry seem shorn of it, along with belief, intensity, desire and speed. Football’s short-termism may prevent big-money bids for players who were yesterday’s headline news. But a Vardy on lower wages could tempt buyers to gamble.
Stay up, and the players likeliest to go would be the ones Leicester should want to keep. In keeping with the surreal nature of events at the King Power Stadium, City’s most coveted players, by and large, are not those who started week in, week out when they pulled off the most stunning heist in footballing history. Leonardo Ulloa was the super-sub then. Sunderland tried to sign the Argentinian last month and there are reasons to believe he would attract offers in the summer.
It is possible to imagine Liverpool renewing interest in Ben Chilwell, who looks a better option than Fuchs at left-back. The January addition Wilfried Ndidi stands out in this Leicester squad by seeming to possess the physicality and quality required to prosper in the Premier League.
Islam Slimani was apparently the subject of a huge bid by Chinese club Tianjin Quanjan last month. Neither he nor Ahmed Musa has justified his club-record fee, but players of their pedigree have admirers: Jurgen Klopp, to name but one, is a fan of the Nigerian winger. Demarai Gray is Leicester’s putative player of the year, a rare shaft of light amid the gloom and one whose precocity threatens to make the King Power a stepping stone en route to a grander destination.
One possible scenario is that Leicester limp to safety and lose the players who got them there, along with those with the potential to perform better next year. Go down, of course, and the chances of Gray, Chilwell, Musa and Slimani playing in the Championship seem slim. The vultures would eye the best pickings from the carcass of slain champions.
Yet demotion may serve a purpose. Morgan may revert to a level where he may be more comfortable. The rest of Leicester’s band of brothers may be scattered across new employers, assured that they will be welcomed back to the East Midlands in retirement as beloved heroes, but sparing City the problem of what to do with them for the remainder of their lucrative deals.
Normally when a club is lumbered with a host of bad contracts that make players impossible to shift, it is an indictment of managers or executives whose judgment proved faulty. Not at Leicester: they are suffering for their success. They had a moral duty to improve the terms of men who achieved the improbable. They could not raise the white flag when Arsenal bid for Vardy and when others sniffed around Mahrez. But now they are suffering for their success. And the only way out of their unique predicament, strange as it sounds, may be complete failure.