Any list drawn up of the greatest ever Premier League transfers that omits Leicester City’s purchase of N’Golo Kanté for £8.1m from Caen in 2015 isn’t worth the virtual paper it’s written on.
The same would also be true of the Foxes’ securement of Riyad Mahrez two years’ earlier if not for the technicality of their Championship status at the time.
In an era when leading clubs leave no stone unturned as they viciously compete to unearth the next budding superstar, both players were plucked from France’s Ligue 1 for fees that were a pittance in relation to their impact and ability. In their first season playing together, Kanté was a revelation, winning 31 more tackles than any other top-flight player and making 15 more interceptions as Leicester won the league title in fairy-tale fashion. Mahrez, for his part, bewitched full-backs and routinely stole the show as he walked away with the PFA Player’s Player of the Year award.
The following season it was Kanté’s turn to top his peers and even if it was achieved via his dynamic performances in a Chelsea shirt that only highlights another remarkable aspect to these remarkable signings. Combined, they were bought for a shade over £8.5m. They were later sold for twelve times that figure.
So of course, Kanté and Mahrez deserve to be viewed as exceptional purchases – up there with Arsenal’s reimagining of Thierry Henry and Manchester United’s surprising swoop for Eric Cantona. Further analysis of Leicester City’s transfer dealings in recent years reveals yet more success stories. Harry Maguire was considered by many to be a reliable, if somewhat limited, defender at Sheffield United and Hull; a leader for sure but not blessed with the elite attributes needed to excel at the very highest level. Bought for £12m in 2017, the Foxes got two years of outstanding service out of the England international before selling him on for a then world-record fee for a centre-back.
Thanks to everyone who has supported me and played a part in my career.
— Harry Maguire (@HarryMaguire93) August 5, 2019
What about Danny Drinkwater too, who seemed forever fated to be loaned out by Manchester United to Championship sides. A pivotal figure in their title triumph, the midfielder sourced for a mere £1m was then recycled to the tune of £35m.
These examples and several more are why Leicester City remain so admired throughout the game for a transfer mandate that has been shrewdly executed at every turn. Indeed, it could be argued that the East Midlands club leads the way when it comes to recruitment, unrivalled in this field.
Yet really their impressive hit-rate, born from a well-thought-out transfer strategy, only warrants half the applause. What truly impresses is their commitment to it. Because the truth of the matter is that identifying young uncut diamonds and developing them; first benefiting from their improvement before selling them on for a steep mark-up – such is Leicester’s blueprint – is hardly a novel idea. In fact, it is an approach desired by most clubs from seventh in the Premier League down and this is especially the case when new owners take over intent on running their club the ‘right way’.
Only then agents typically complicate proceedings and maybe a bidding war ensues, with stubbornness leading to an escalated valuation being met. Or perhaps a forward suddenly becomes available who would be an upgrade on their current roster. And before too long a club with best-laid plans joins the crazy and expensive carousel on which football revolves; their sensible policy giving way to scattergun purchases.
Leicester have never succumbed to that, the odd failed acquisition aside. They have stuck to their guns, stuck to the model, and with a rare awareness of who they are and where they’re going. They have subsequently reaped the rewards.
Leicester City lift the FA Cup 🏆
What an incredible moment 👏 pic.twitter.com/juMA0tRC6t
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) May 15, 2021
More so, they refused to deviate even when their circumstances dramatically changed. In 2016, recently crowned as champions of England and with European football to offer potential signings, the Foxes had significant pulling power while their owners boasted a personal fortune that could easily have furnished a lavish spending spree. This was their chance to shoot for the moon. This was their opportunity to bring in a blue-chip talent or three.
Instead, however, Leicester accelerated their plans to develop what is now viewed as the best training facility in the country. Instead, they sold one of their most important stars to Chelsea and replaced him with Wilfred Ndidi for a fraction of the price. Ndidi has shone season after season since.
Sold Kante, Drinkwater, Mahrez, Maguire and Chilwell.
Used that money to buy Iheanacho, Ndidi, Maddison, Soyuncu, Evans, Pereira, Tielemans, Justin, Castagne and Fofana.
Leicester's recruitment is on point 👏 pic.twitter.com/UBrXlV6rGy
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) May 15, 2021
Journalist Charlie Carmichael is a life-long Leicester supporter, and he believes Leicester’s commendable approach does not only take priority over circumstance but individuals too.
“I think a lot of clubs fall down when they build their transfer plans around a specific manager. That’s not the case at Leicester. Players are identified, tracked, and targeted for months before being signed, with great emphasis placed on how they’ll fit into the club long-term, as well as their potential resale value.
Having a constant contingency plan speaks volumes to the club’s recent success. They already know who their next superstar will be before the current one has even departed. You only have to look at Çağlar Söyüncü and James Justin being purchased the seasons before the sales of Harry Maguire and Ben Chilwell respectively to see how good the club is at future-proofing its squad.
You can already see that taking shape again this season, too. Wesley Fofana was signed last summer as interest in Söyüncü mounted, Boubakary Soumaré has been brought in with Youri Tielemans’ future still up in the air, and the purchase of Patson Daka feels like a long-term plan to replace an ageing Jamie Vardy.
While others become too reactive in the market, haggling over every last penny, Leicester tends to make moves early, proactively seeking out opportunities and wrapping up deals swiftly with minimal fuss.”
When Leicester’s transfer strategy is viewed as a whole, it all looks so pragmatic, straightforward and above all else, obviously smart. Indeed, it is tempting to wonder why other clubs don’t borrow it wholesale.
But perhaps that thought does a disservice to the acuity of their recruitment personnel who continue to find gems at cut-price fees. Perhaps it devalues a club who never fail to impress on the pitch yet consistently astonish off it.