Leicester City are bona-fide title contenders, you don’t go into February as the league leaders without being so, but even now people aren’t fully backing the Foxes. Perhaps they’re right, maybe the greater strength in depth at the Emirates and Etihad stadiums will prove the difference over the course of the season, time will tell but I think they’ve been done the right thing in the January window.
A striker was ‘understood’ to be the target, based on the assumption you can’t rely on Jamie Vardy alone to get the goals. A lazy conclusion in this case, they’ve got players chipping in with the odd goal or two from various positions, but there were credible claims of interest in Chelsea’s Loic Remy, while Southampton’s Graziano Pelle, AC Milan’s M’Baye Niang and Eder, who eventually joined Inter from Sampdoria, were all mooted as targets along with a few others.
Some big names indeed, but instead the Foxes snared two up and comers in midfielder Daniel Armartey, 21, and 19-year-old winger Demarai Gray from FC Copenhagen and Birmingham City respectively in their only January deals. The former has been scouted by loads of top level European clubs but its Leicester who have decided to take the plunge with a £5million swoop, while Gray was incredibly highly-rated by the Blues and came in for just under £4million. Both are signings for the long-term, rather than players who are expected to make an impact this season and that may seem strange considering what Leicester are going for.
There is always a temptation to recruit in January regardless of where you are in the table. Near the bottom and the thinking is the current squad could do with a boost, at the top and its ‘maybe one or two could be just what we need to keep this up’. Instead Leicester have made what could prove to be shrewd moves, or calculated risks, with a focus on the future. Gray and Amartey will play some part this season, maybe even become regulars – but the expectation levels on the pair are modest for what’s left of the campaign.
This tells me that manager Claudio Ranieri has decided he has either inherited or managed to build a harmonious dressing room and with what they’ve achieved so far he isn’t going to risk fucking that up. Some pundits may be a bit afraid to actually tip them for the title but they’ve just beaten Liverpool 2-0 and are showing no signs of slowing down. I’ve actually been reasonably impressed with Remy, to use an example of one of their apparent ‘targets’, this season – despite not being given a look in he has still put the effort in and probably done about as much as he can with the few minutes that have been thrown his way. Maybe he would have been a good a fit, but then again maybe he wouldn’t and Ranieri didn’t want to take that risk.
Like many neutrals I’m willing Leicester to keep going and am amazed by what they’ve done so far. The Premier League may be a little bit more unpredictable than most of Europe’s other top leagues but it is still the usual suspects who fight for the title, until now – what the Foxes are doing at the moment would have been unthinkable in August. Admittedly, the pessimist in me is still aware they could quite easily drop well out of the race and even out of the top four in a short space of time if they do lose a bit of form or a few key men. That is why team spirit and a togetherness is so important in this battle for the east Midlanders, and you don’t want to ruin that by bringing in someone you’re not sure about. Whether Leicester have their eye on the prize, the top four or are just taking it game by game it doesn’t really matter, what matters is Ranieri feels he has already got the balance bang on. This Leicester side is what you might call a ‘proper team’, they all play for each other and there are no egos.
I said before either inherited or built the harmony but that was just to pay lip service to Nigel Pearson’s previous tenure. I have a lot of respect for the former Leicester boss, this is essentially his team and they pulled off an incredible escape under his guidance last term – but perhaps that escape wouldn’t have been needed with a different coach. That’s what I took from their run at the end of 2014/15 and the title fight has only strengthened that belief. At the other end of the spectrum and now in the dugout is Ranieri; a fairly relaxed guy, who doesn’t get drawn into things and has a calm and collected head.
This is exactly what is needed in a manager in the scenario Leicester find themselves in; a grounding and reassuring influence. Don’t believe the hype, believe in what you’re doing and the results will come. Now cast your mind back to last season and think about Pearson grasping Crystal Palace’s James McArthur in some kind of bizarre choke hold because he accidentally slid into him (or just watch the video below). In his post-match interview I recall the then Foxes boss as saying something along the lines of he ‘knew how to handle himself’, but it was painstakingly obvious he didn’t, albeit in a broader sense than he meant at the time. There would have been some kind if Kevin Keegan “I’d love it if we beat them” moment, or worse, from him by now and that would have been the end of any title hopes.
Back in the summer when Ranieri was appointed the Leicester fans seemed fairly sceptical over the hiring of the Italian. Those fears were long gone way before now, and he has played another managerial masterstroke in the January window. By resisting the pressure to make some kind of marquee move he has kept his faith in his squad, and that has to bring further confidence to a team who are already flying.
Gray and Amartey will push the players in their positions and maybe get in the team, but if they do it will be on merit rather than ‘they paid money for him to he has to play’. As far as can be expected in the Premier League there’s no pressure on those guys, nor have they arrived anticipating automatic selection. That could well prove to be a good thing come the end of the season.
A lot of January deals have a knee jerk feeling about them; if Leicester couldn’t get the striker they wanted would it be better to go for maybe a second, third or fourth choice option or to keep the faith with the players who have got them to this point in the first place? For me, Ranieri has made the correct call by resisting the urge to splurge and if Leicester do finish in the top four, or even claim the title, that decision will be vindicated.
I may have drifted off course a bit during this but the overall picture I’m trying to create is that of a siege mentality within the Leicester City dressing room. Ranieri has the role of the general and at the moment all his troops are pulling in the same direction. Bringing in new faces could have reinforced his squad or they could have destabilised it, and the wily old fox has been brave by sticking rather than twisting in a display of courage that deserves to be rewarded come the end of the campaign.