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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

No time for nostalgia as Craig Shakespeare plots Leicester City's future

Manager seems set to break with the old guard who lifted the Premier League title in 2016 with spate of new, exciting signings

Craig Shakespeare signed a three-year contract with Leicester City in the summer of 2017.
Craig Shakespeare signed a three-year contract with Leicester City in the summer of 2017.

Only one word separates the Premier League trophy and the Premier League Asia Trophy. Leicester City could win both in consecutive years. Should they do so – and they face West Bromwich Albion in Hong Kong on Wednesday, followed by either Liverpool or Crystal Palace on Friday – and it may be seen as the sequel to a surprise success story.

Yet this summer may mark the break with the past. The continuity candidate seemed the champion of the old guard. Now it is tempting to wonder if he is pensioning them off. Craig Shakespeare’s appointment as caretaker manager was notable for the way he revisited Leicester’s 2015/16 season, reunited that team, with Wilfred Ndidi standing in for the departed N’Golo Kante, and briefly recreated their results.

Shakespeare’s confirmation as the permanent appointment seems to have brought a change of tack. Those who succeed in short-term tasks sometimes struggle when asked to offer a blueprint for the future. That, it seems, will not be Shakespeare’s undoing. There are hints of boldness.

The signing of Hull City’s Harry Maguire and the apparent interest in Middlesbrough’s Ben Gibson suggests he is preparing to move on from the ageing, slowing but defiant title-winning centre-back axis of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, and not just because the German could be out for eight weeks with an ankle injury.

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The arrival of Sevilla midfielder Vicente Iborra is intriguing. Given Ndidi’s impact and potential, it is hard to see him making way. Perhaps it bodes badly, therefore, for Danny Drinkwater, a superb sidekick for Kante but a lesser player without him. Or perhaps it suggests a change of shape to utilise three central midfielders.

Because while Shakespeare seemed to don the 4-4-2 tactical straitjacket that had suited Leicester so well, he brought hints of improvisation and original thinking. He made mid-match reshuffles in both legs of the Uefa Champions League quarter-final against Atletico Madrid, twice effecting an improvement. The second-leg switch, involving the introduction of Leonardo Ulloa as a target man and Ben Chilwell as a wing-back in a 3-4-1-2 formation, may be one alternative. The possible departure of the Roma target Riyad Mahrez would strip Leicester of the creative inspiration of the most improbable title of all; it would also pose the question if Shakespeare sees a future with wingers.

Certainly the interest in the Manchester City poacher Kelechi Iheanacho indicates a change of direction. Shakespeare restored the popular workhorse Shinji Okazaki to the forward line last season, but Jamie Vardy’s selfless foil has scored a mere eight goals in 66 league games. Iheanacho may be Okazaki’s antithesis and would promise less industry and more incision. Leicester’s spring surge may be seen as a short-term fix, a sticking plaster forged in history.

Because as Leicester may lack the same chemistry without Kante and, potentially, Mahrez, there is a risk in persisting with the nine remaining title winners for as long as possible: those who stand still can slip backwards.

And now there is a greater remit for change. Last summer’s six signings, who may all leave, were never fully integrated; perhaps they could not be, with memories of glory so recent and the sense it was unfair to omit any of the heroes. Imports became scapegoats. A split seemed to appear between old and new, one largely British, the other exclusively foreign.

Perhaps looking at players with Premier League experience such as Maguire and Iheanacho is an attempt to avert a repeat. Perhaps, too, it will be a case of second time lucky as Leicester look to use their greater pulling power and enhanced resources to rebuild. Rather than trapping Leicester in a 2015/16 nostalgia project, Shakespeare could be shaping something altogether different.