The Little Engine That Could. The Ultimate Cinderella Team. Both of these titles describe the most wonderful surprise of all surprises: the English Premier League champion Leicester City. Most of us are already wondering if the Foxes will be able to carry that shock momentum with them as they take on Champions League this upcoming season and secretly hope that they will be able to do so. Leicester is a delightful team that has gathered a massive fan base, even from people who already have dedicated teams. It is just impossible to watch a Leicester game and not be mesmerized by what this team can do. Unfortunately, with the recent departure of N’Golo Kanté, who signed for Chelsea this weekend, it looks as though the dream could be over.
Often overlooked, Kanté was equally as influential — if not moreso — as his better-known teammates Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. He may have only scored a single goal for the champions, but there is no denying that Kanté was a crucial piece of manager Claudio Ranieri’s puzzle. Kanté was one of Leicester’s most physical players, making a record 149 tackles in the month of April alone. He was also adept at intercepting the ball, a skill that meshed perfectly with Leicester’s fast-paced tempo and resulted in so many goals. Deservedly, Kanté was named to the Professional Footballers’ Association Team of the Year. It is remarkable to think that a player who only spent a single season with Leicester could have achieved so much in such a short amount of time.
If he had such a fantastic season with Leicester, why would Kanté want to leave? It is not as if Ranieri did not want to keep him. In fact, it is rumored that Kanté turned down a £100,000-per-week contract extension. The likely answer is that he found it impossible to ignore the lure of a big-name team like Chelsea. At Leicester, he was overshadowed by both Vardy and Mahrez. That is not to say that the same situation could not happen at Chelsea, where Eden Hazard and Oscar are both gifted midfielders like Kanté. But he likely thought that it would be best to move on to a team like Chelsea while he is still in the prime of his career, at a young age of 25.
To me, Kanté’s decision is a little perplexing. Why on earth would someone leave a championship-winning team that will be playing in the Champions League next season — a prerequisite for many top players — for a team that had an epic meltdown last season and did not even qualify for the Europa League? Granted, I am not a world-class footballer so perhaps I do not have the right perspective on this, but if I were, I would stick it out at least one more season to see what else Leicester is capable of.
Oddly enough, this seems to be a massive trend over at the King Power Stadium. Vardy caused a whirl of trouble at the start of England’s Euro 2016 campaign with the news that Arsenal had activated his release clause, even though Vardy had just signed a contract extension with the Foxes. Happily enough, Vardy made the correct decision and inked yet another new deal with Leicester. It would have been a colossal mistake for Vardy to go to a team like Arsenal, because Arsenal is not well-suited to his flashy bursts of speed and quick counterattack. Furthermore, Arsenal could not guarantee that Vardy would be able to play in his preferred striker position.
So while Vardy is locked up for the considerable future, rumors have been swirling that Mahrez is set to follow Kanté on the way out. I think that this would have a bigger effect on Leicester, because Mahrez is a far more prolific scorer. Granted, it must be said that Mahrez’s ability to light up the league was largely a result of having Kanté there to feed him the ball. However, I am sure that Marc Albrighton and Danny Drinkwater are just as capable getting the ball to Mahrez. In 37 games, Mahrez found the net 17 times, many of those coming in the latter half of the season when Vardy’s incredible scoring form dried up. It was an incredible performance that resulted in the Algerian being named the PFA’s Players’ Player of the Year, joining such illustrious company as Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez.
It is clear, then, that Mahrez has played a critical role in the success of Leicester City. Also at just 25 years of age, Mahrez has many good years still ahead of him. With teams like FC Barcelona supposedly beckoning, it is understandable that Mahrez would also feel the lure to leave. This one is a trickier decision. I think that Mahrez will be a fantastic player regardless of where he ends up. If Barcelona does manage to pry him out of Leicester’s hands, it is very possible that he will not end up playing as much due to the sheer amount of talent that is currently on the Barcelona squad. If Mahrez decides to go to a team like Chelsea or Arsenal, I could see him having a little trouble fitting into the system at first but ultimately, I think that it would pan out. In my mind though, I think once again that the best decision would be to stay at Leicester, at least for a year.
It is intoxicating to think of what Leicester, which achieved so much in such a short period of time, is capable of doing if all the right pieces decide to stay on for a few more years. While Ranieri was unable to prevent Kanté from leaving, the fact that Vardy, the heart of the team, decided to commit his future to Leicester is a very wonderful thing. It shows that Vardy believes in what the Foxes can do, a very worthy morale boost that will hopefully convince Mahrez to stay. The loss of Mahrez would be a heavy blow, but regardless, I ultimately think that Leicester City will be able to recover and keep the dream alive.
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