Leicester City were never one to flinch when the big boys leaned into them. Their 2015/2016 miracle, after all, was built on audacity and an appetite for the hardest fights. That was a small team achieving big things.
Something feels different this time. It’s no longer the case that the Foxes can mix with the big teams. Rather, they are one themselves.
“That’s what Leicester City are all about: showing grit and determination against these top sides. We are a top side now and I think we have to be seen as one of them,” said a chuffed James Maddison, enthused after getting an 85th-minute winner to down Tottenham Hotspur.
“If you look at the performances against United and Chelsea away, we’ve come away shaking our heads in disappointment because we didn’t come away with anything.”
Maddison is right to feel glum over those two games, a loss and draw respectively. Under Brendan Rodgers, Leicester have been better than both those limping giants — in those encounters and beyond. The next few months will be critical in determining whether that status dies or solidifies as fact.
A key ingredient to any success has been, and will remain, the club’s ability to adapt and shrug off any creeping inertia. For as much as Rodgers stands on the shoulders of Claudio Ranieri, so too is he stamping down his own style to draw out the most from his current crop of players. The result is a team with a distinctly different identity to their title-winning predecessors.
The Italian tinkerman was as functional as you can be. He employed a direct 4-4-2 that aimed to remove any dilly-dallying on the ball and essentially get it to Jamie Vardy as quickly as possible. After N’Golo Kanté invariably won possession in midfield, it would usually go to Danny Drinkwater, who in turn would spray passes out to Riyad Mahrez on the flank, Shinji Okazaki stretching the defence as the second striker, or straight to the English sniper. When you have someone in such good nick as Vardy, who is capable of burying chances with little to no hold up play, this can be hugely effective.
Rodgers, by contrast, lives and dies by his possession-based approach. He wants his players to see a lot of the ball and is happy for it to be recycled before one of them looks for the incisive pass. In the ever-improving Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira he has two full-backs who stretch play and allow his widemen to operate as auxiliary forwards. Vardy retains his killer instinct and is now being found regularly by Maddison and record-signing Youri Tielemans.
The latter is the latest in a string of good business deals. A common misconception is that Leicester has succeeded in recent years despite a kooky player market rather than because of it. Yes, Kanté and Mahrez, among others, were bought at a modicum of their value today but that represents shrewd dealing rather than paucity.
Perhaps most importantly, the funds earned from their Premier League win and subsequent Champions League escapades has been converted into a host of sensible long-term transfers. The result is that Rodgers now has a high-quality squad that doesn’t lack depth in any position. Even someone as important as Maddison was easily replaced in the 5-0 drumming of Newcastle United last weekend. With Harvey Barnes, Ayoze Pérez, Demarai Gray and Marc Albrighton all available, that’s not the hardest thing to do. Considering that chairperson Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha’s death came in the middle of last season, the board’s ability to retain a cohesive buying policy is no small feat.
The Foxes next battle is to preserve what they have collected. Over the past month, the rumour mill has churned out countless stories on United’s intent to solve their own problems by simply buying half of Leicester. Maddison’s name in particular continues to float around. The decision, perhaps as soon as January, will fall to him: Does he believe his own words? Is this now a big club that is not worth leaving for anyone? With his side on more points than this time in 2015, you have to think the answer is yes.