To many fans’ surprise, Nigel Pearson was sacked during the off-season despite guiding Leicester City to quite possibly the greatest of great escapes at the end of last season, masterminding a remarkable recovery which saw Leicester finish 14th after going into April rock bottom and seemingly doomed. An unbelievable run of seven wins from the final nine matches of the season, only dropping points with a home defeat to champions Chelsea and a draw away at Sunderland which clinched safety with a game to spare.
However, Pearson’s peculiar and rather unusual antics throughout the season, such as swearing at a home fan, throttling James McArthur on the sideline and labelling a journalist as “an ostrich” in a press conference, all seemed to contribute to the decision. It appears that City’s Thai owners could no longer have Pearson in charge when his son James, part of Leicester’s development squad, was involved in a racist sex tape during the post-season tour of Thailand along with fellow development players Adam Smith and Tom Hopper. The trio were sacked and the manager soon followed as the working relationship was described as being “no longer viable.” With just weeks until the new season kicked-off, the Foxes needed to find a replacement and a whole host of names were thrown into the hat, including Leicester legends Martin O’Neill and Neil Lennon as well as Jurgen Klopp and the unknown Serbian Predrag Radosavljevic, whoever he is! But a decision was soon made and Leicester’s new manager was the former Chelsea boss, Claudio Ranieri, the Italian returning to English football 11 years after leaving Stamford Bridge. Concerns were voiced over the appointment of the self-proclaimed ‘tinkerman’ due to his tendency to chop and change formations and line ups from match-to-match, or even throughout matches. Leicester legend and Match of the Day presenter, Gary Lineker, was particularly vocal, tweeting ‘Claudio Ranieri? Really?’ when the decision was announced.
Japanese striker Shinji Okazaki was brought into the club whilst Pearson was still at the helm, along with Robert Huth from Stoke and Christian Fuchs from Schalke. However, Ranieri was keen to bring in some players of his own and started with the double swoop of N’Golo Kante and Yohan Benalouane before the big-name capture of Swiss captain Gokhan Inler from Napoli, replacing the experienced fan-favourite Esteban Cambiasso who decided against renewing his contract at the club. The spending so far has totalled £18m with roughly £7m coming in from the sales of strikers Chris Wood (to Leeds) and David Nugent (to Middlesbrough). Some fans have been calling for strengthening on the wings, with only the in-form duo of Riyad Mahrez and Marc Albrighton established names in the squad, with Anthony Knockaert having been released at the end of last term. However, Ranieri has publicly expressed his delight at the prospects among Leicester’s youth teams and has said that he will look to utilise the younger generation throughout the season. This was strongly indicated by the addition of young left-back Ben Chilwell into the list of squad numbers with the England under-20s international being given the number 30 shirt this season.
After an 11-week break, Premier League football returned on the 8th August with Leicester hosting Sunderland. Both fixtures between the sides finished goalless last season but that was quickly put right less than 20 minutes in when Albrighton’s left-wing free-kick was met by the head of England striker Jamie Vardy to give the Foxes the lead. It was soon 2-0 as another Albrighton cross was this time headed in by Riyad Mahrez. Mahrez then won and converted a penalty to make it three before the break. Jermaine Defoe pulled one back for the visitors before Albrighton scored one himself, whilst Steven Fletcher completed the scoring for Sunderland. Leicester’s 4-2 victory saw them top of the league before Manchester City beat West Brom 3-0 at the Hawthorns.
Next up for the Foxes was the unenviable task of going to Upton Park to play a West Ham side which had outplayed Arsenal on the opening weekend, clinching a 2-0 victory at the Emirates Stadium, with a side that included 16-year-old Reece Oxford. However, some neat build up play was finished off by Vardy crossing for strike partner Okazaki, who headed home after seeing his volley saved by Hammers’ keeper Adrian. Leicester doubled their lead when more intricate play concluded with Albrighton once again teeing up Mahrez who fired the ball into the top corner. Despite West Ham pulling a goal back through Dimitri Payet, who beat Kasper Schmeichel with a fierce strike, Leicester held onto their lead and made it two wins from two, but not before Adrian was shown a straight red card following a very high challenge on Vardy as he came up for a corner late on. Once again, Leicester were soon replaced by the Sky Blues following their demolition job of Chelsea at the Etihad.
In Leicester’s third game of the season, Tottenham came to the King Power Stadium searching for a first win of the season. After a rather uneventful opening half, the game sprung to life with 10 minutes to play. Firstly, Spurs substitute Dele Alli headed in at the back post from Nacer Chadli’s cross. But just 14 seconds after the restart, Wes Morgan’s long ball was flicked on by Jamie Vardy to Mahrez. The Algerian then ran onto the loose ball, twisted and turned before curling a sublime effort into Hugo Lloris’ side netting to level the match, his fourth of the campaign. Captain Morgan should then have won the game late on but his free header from Kante’s cross hit Tottenham’s Lloris in goal, with the game ending 1-1.
It was then time for the Capital One Cup 2nd round, which saw Leicester travel up north to League 1 Bury with David Flitcroft’s side hoping to cause an upset by claiming the scalp of their Premier League opponents. However, Ranieri’s side, which saw 11 changes from the team that lined up against Spurs at the weekend, saw off their lower league opposition with a convincing 4-1 win. The star of the show was the relatively unknown Joe Dodoo, a Leicester academy graduate, who scored a superb hat-trick, following in the footsteps of Jeffrey Schlupp with a debut hat-trick in the League Cup. The pick of the bunch was the opener, which saw the 20-year-old control a fizzing pass by Leonardo Ulloa, flick the ball over the defender on the corner of the penalty box before unleashing a brilliantly struck volley which caressed the underside of the bar on its way in. Andrej Kramaric scored the Foxes’ other goal, in his first appearance of the season, with a curled effort from 20 yards, beating the Bury keeper at his near post. Leicester will face West Ham at home in the 3rd round, which promises to be an exciting encounter between the two sides.
After the midweek trip for the Capital One Cup, it was back to the Premier League for Leicester City who had to travel south to visit newly-promoted Bournemouth. The Cherries had registered their first goals and points ever in the top flight with a dramatic 4-3 victory at Upton Park, following narrow defeats in their opening two games against Aston Villa and Liverpool. Bournemouth took the lead when the ball dropped to Bournemouth’s own hat-trick hero, Callum Wilson, who spectacularly executed a marvellous overhead kick, giving Schmeichel no chance. In a game with plenty of controversy and penalty appeals, Jamie Vardy’s run with five minutes to play could only be stopped by the sliding Steve Cook, wiping out the former Fleetwood forward. Vardy, who has been selected in Roy Hodgson’s 22-man squad for England’s next round of Euro 2016 qualifiers, picked himself up to fire a powerful strike past Artur Boruc, levelling the match and maintaining the Foxes’ unbeaten start to the season. Both goalscorers then had appeals for penalties, first Vardy was caught on the edge of the area before Wilson was bundled over in the 7th minute of injury time; a draw was arguably a fair result.
The international break will see a number of Leicester players fly around the world, including a pivotal couple of matches for Andy King’s Wales side as they look in pole position to qualify for Euro 2016. After the break, Leicester entertain new rivals Aston Villa in front of the Sky cameras, looking to rediscover their winning form following successive draws. There were three red cards in the league over the two matches last season and Villa will be hoping to gain revenge after January’s league defeat at the King Power Stadium. Leicester then travel to Stoke, who will be without Ibrahim Afellay and Charlie Adam after both saw red at home to West Brom this weekend, hoping to replicate the win they achieved early last season, their first of the campaign. At the end of September, Arsenal will be the visitors to the East Midlands, looking to improve on a disappointing performance and result last season, after Leo Ulloa cancelled out Alexis Sanchez’s opener in a 1-1 draw.
But so far, so good, it has to be said for Ranieri and his side, who see themselves positioned in third place in the league on eight points and a goal difference of +3. They trail league leaders Manchester City, on maximum points after four wins from four, and also Crystal Palace on nine points going into September. The transition from Pearson to Ranieri has been remarkably seamless and with Leicester continuing to play good football and posing a serious attacking threat to most defences, the fans feel optimistic about the season ahead, with the dreaded relegation a distant scare but instead supporters hoping that this form can continue and see Leicester finish in the top half. Some of the credit must go to Nigel Pearson, who moulded and sculptured the core of this side over the past few years and was crucial in the amazing surge to survival, but Ranieri has proved his doubters wrong so far and has settled in at Leicester with relative ease it would appear.
What a great appointment, ey Gary?!