You could forgive Leicester City fans for feeling quietly optimistic this season.
Yes, the club lost a star in Harry Maguire, but they have added talented attackers and already had a potential replacement for Maguire in Calgar Soyncu. Brendan Rodgers has had time to evaluate his squad and start introducing his ideas. If things go right, this could be a good season.
“I would say this is the strongest squad we have had,” Marc Albrighton told the Athletic. “We had a good team back in 2015-16 that started more or less every game, but now we have 25 players who are ready and capable of performing when needed. If you are going to challenge at the top of the table, you need that.”
When discussing the present at Leicester, it is impossible to ignore the recent past when the club snuck by the Premier League’s elite to lift the title —a backing track of Andrea Bocelli and ‘dilly ding dilly dong’ serenading them.
Another run at the title looks improbable given how ruthless Manchester City and Liverpool are, but the flailing of Manchester United and Arsenal has opened up space in the top six, and finishing inside alongside that group would have to be considered an achievement.
And so, the candidates, like horses, were drawn up. Who, if any, could ruffle the feathers of the established top six?
Wolverhampton Wanderers, West Ham United, and Leicester were the three most obvious choices, due to a combination of playing talent and managerial pedigree. This would not just be handed to someone, however. Breaking into the top six is no easy feat. The established top six teams have taken 54 of the last 60 spots. It requires consistency, both against those below you that may view you as a scalp and those above you that present an altogether different challenge.
Wolves will do well to maintain last season’s pace with such a small squad and the added consideration of the Europa League. Meanwhile, West Ham has just lost one of their key players—starting goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski— for two months with a hip injury.
The stars have not aligned for Leicester, but they’ve at least made travel plans. A point away at Chelsea was a solid start to the season, especially given the Foxes could have walked away with more. Then came a trip to face Manchester United. The last time Leicester won at Old Trafford Harvey Barnes was only weeks old. Now he was tasked with being the new Tony Cottee (the man that scored that day in January 1998).
A 1-0 defeat followed, and it felt like a missed opportunity. Man Utd had not outplayed Leicester; instead, the Foxes had been undone by some poor decisions in the final third and a rash error by Soyuncu.
“For a young guy looking to learn, he needs that wee bit of patience,” said Rodgers. “You have clever players like Rashford, who is cute and bright and waiting for that bit of contact. I thought it was a soft penalty, a bit harsh, but I think it was one. Young players make mistakes, but he has been fantastic stepping up after Harry left.”
Soyuncu is perhaps indicative of Leicester’s most significant challenge -- consistency. The 23-year-old is one of 12 players 24 or younger in the Foxes’ first-team squad. Age was undoubtedly no barrier when Tottenham Hotspur visited the KingPower Stadium, and it was that 2-1 win (thanks to a brilliant strike from James Maddison) that reinforced the potential this Leicester side have.
A subsequent 5-0 demolition of Newcastle United on Sunday was as much about Leicester’s brilliance as Newcastle’s ineptitude. Still, once again, it felt as if we were looking at a team ready to achieve something. Where the title-winning side was an efficient group of misfits that only had one way of playing this is a side with versatility and greater depth behind it.
“There is expectation, yes, but I don’t think anyone is expecting us to finish top four,” Albrighton told the Athletic. “Maybe top six, yes. But that is our goal anyway so we have no problems with that. It is exciting to have those aims. I think it is only going to get better.”
Given Leicester smashed the status quo by winning the Premier League it seems fitting that it is the Foxes that look most likely to do it again. Fans, pundits, and opposition players alike underestimated Leicester that year, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone willing to make that same mistake twice.