The only way for Leicester is down as stars exit, Claudio Ranieri starts again
Claudio Ranieri's biggest task in 2016-17 might be managing his side's expected drop from first place into the pack.
Winning was the easy part. For Leicester City and manager Claudio Ranieri, maintaining the momentum of last season will be a far more difficult proposition.
N'Golo Kante, the engine of their Premier League-winning team, has already gone to Chelsea. Riyad Mahrez also will almost certainly depart, if not to Stamford Bridge then elsewhere. When Jamie Vardy rejected Arsenal's advances, there were hopes that Ranieri's overachieving squad would stay together for a quixotic tilt at the Champions League.
But that romance is dead. Money talks and Leicester listened.
Vardy's goal-scoring feats earned the 29-year-old inflated wages, and few would begrudge him £100,000 per week. It may have been better business to invest in Kante and Mahrez, though. Both are 25 and appeared to be the sort of players around whom Ranieri could build a dynasty. Instead, Leicester chose to take £30 million for Kante (£24 million of that is profit) after bringing in Nampalys Mendy as a direct replacement for £13 million from Nice.
Mahrez will generate a much bigger return. He cost a mere £350,000 and will sell for more than 100 times that fee.
Leicester's policy shows considerable faith in the ability of Steve Walsh, the club's head of recruitment, to replace last season's title winners. The club pre-empted the possible departure of Mahrez by paying £16 million to CSKA Moscow for Ahmed Musa. The 23-year-old is not a like-for-like replacement, but his blazing speed will supplement Vardy's pace.
These changes will inevitably alter the balance of the squad, but the mood has already changed. There is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction at the King Power. Many of the heroes of the title-winning side feel they should have been better rewarded for winning the league. Leicester's bonus system didn't account for the possibility of the team topping the table; the end-of-season payout was set on expectations of a 12th-place finish.
In a side that was lesser-paid by Premier League standards -- Kante and Mahrez, for example, both earned less than £40,000 per week -- there has been a lingering feeling of resentment that their achievements have not been adequately recognized in financial terms.
The sense of grievance has been exacerbated by Leicester's delaying on the possibility of new contracts for those players whose deals expire in the next two years. Danny Drinkwater talked publicly about his desire to extend his time at the club, sending a message to the hierarchy to get on with negotiations. The 26-year-old is contracted until 2018 and will likely get an improved offer soon. Others in the same situation -- Robert Huth, Leonardo Ulloa, Christian Fuchs, Marc Albrighton, Andy King and Kaspar Schmeichel -- may not be so fortunate. Leicester may want to see if they can carry last season's form into the new campaign.
Danny Simpson and Wes Morgan have just 12 months left on their contracts. Simpson turns 30 in January and Morgan will be 33 that same month. It makes sense for the club to look for younger players across the back four rather than reward players for their past performances. This logic makes sense in the boardroom but has a negative effect on team spirit. Ranieri will need to be at his best to keep the dressing room pulling in the same direction.
Like Southampton over the past few years, Leicester are attempting to pull off the trick of selling their best players and bringing in younger, cheaper and equally effective replacements. Walsh has earned plaudits for his recruitment policies and his ability to discover talent that has been overlooked by bigger, richer clubs.
Vardy, Mahrez and Kante cost Leicester peanuts in Premier League terms: less than £7 million for the trio. The problem for the Foxes is that not only are wealthier teams circling around Ranieri's stars, but Walsh is now a target. Everton are keen on making Leicester's talent-spotter the director of football at Goodison. Losing the former schoolteacher would be a huge blow to Ranieri. If Walsh leaves, it will be the most significant departure from the King Power this summer.
Last season, Leicester were invigorating, inspiring and exciting. They brimmed with team spirit and a growing sense of adventure. They reached an unexpected pinnacle. They enter this preseason with questions over the future of more than half the squad, without one of the title-winning mainstays and with another at the exit door. Untested newcomers wait in the wings to try to fill the voids.
Ranieri led his team to one of the game's great feats, but he will need to be even better this year to convince his players they can compete for the title again. They reached the summit, but after an unsettled summer, it could be that the only way is down for Leicester.