After years of grandstanding, Leicester’s ascent to the promised land means English football can finally lay claim to the title of Europe’s most competitive major league.
It wasn’t always this way: a couple of ill-fated Liverpool surges apart, the past decade has seen the title scene dominated by Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City (not coincidentally, England’s three wealthiest clubs), while the top four spots have invariably been claimed by the same six teams (and one of them, Liverpool, have only made the cut once since 2009).
This is a team with a modest budget, comprised of midtable journeymen woven together under the wily tutelage of an unfancied manager who arrived at the King Power Stadium, off the back of a home defeat to the Faroe Islands during a forgettable spell in charge of the Greek national team.
Leicester’s turn at football’s top-table raises several interesting questions, chief among them: does this season represent a genuine sea-change in the landscape of the Premier League, or merely a brief – if memorable – aberration?
Historical precedent, of which there is very little, casts some doubt. After topping the First Division in 1978, Brian Clough‘s Nottingham Forest, often cited as Leicester’s seventies equivalent, were soon ousted domestically by the traditional power of Liverpool, unable to replicate their title success in the years that followed (although they did claim the European Cup twice in consecutive seasons, so Foxes fans needn’t be too disheartened).
In more recent times, Atletico Madrid defied the odds to break the Barcelona-Real stranglehold on La Liga in 2014, and have continued to push the pair all the way since, but having lifted the Europa League trophy twice in the preceding four seasons and boasting an alumni including Sergio Aguero and Radamel Falcao, this is nothing on the scale of Leicester.
The optimist in you wants to believe that, between more egalitarian television deals and shocking mismanagement of the cash-rich clubs, there is some justifiable hope that up-and-coming midtable teams, under the right direction, have a shot at replicating Leicester’s success.
At various points in the last couple of seasons, teams like Southampton and West Ham have also threatened to break into the top four, while even perennial under-achievers like Everton and Newcastle appear to have the right foundations in place, even if the wallpaper could use a bit of extra glue (or in the case of the Magpies, a whole new colour scheme).
If the Foxes are anything to go by, the blueprint for launching a club into the Premier League title picture without the generous support of a bored oligarch is anything but clear cut.
Claudio Ranieri‘s appointment at Leicester was largely met with derision from the English footballing world, the Italian having garnered a reputation for being one of the game’s bridesmaids – he has yet to win a top flight in his twenty-seven years on the touchline – but let’s hold our hands up: this was a coup for a team who were only one year removed from playing in England’s second tier.
Any Fulham fan who had to endure the nightmare reign of Felix Magath will tell you that experience doesn’t necessarily equate to success (and if you were going to suggest that the German, unlike former Chelsea man Ranieri, lacked Premier League credentials, then just take a look at Steve McClaren‘s short-lived spell on Tyneside this season).
No, age is irrelevant, but the achievements of Ranieri should encourage clubs to think outside the box. Having parted ways with Pearson, many teams in the Foxes’ position would have looked to consolidate under a safe pair of hands (think Allardyce or Moyes); Leicester went left field, offering a lifeline to a once great manager down on his luck, and it paid off in a huge way.
Leicester have also done an admirable job of busting the myth that buying Premier League experience is a prerequisite for success: of their nine signings this season, only two in Dyer and Huth – who has the scars and dubious Twitter banter to prove it – had previously played in England’s top flight. Fuchs and Okazaki arrived from the Bundesliga, Kante from Ligue 1, and Inler and Benalouane from Serie A.
Surely it’s true that you need an injection of cash to compete at the top level though, right? In the Premier League’s 2015-16 net spend table, Leicester sit seventh – below Newcastle and Sunderland and above Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea (try and work that one out).
But there is a significant caveat to add: more than half of the Foxes’ signings have played only a peripheral role in their title charge, with Inler and Benalouane featuring sporadically (the latter being shipped back to Italy on loan in January) and young duo Gray and Amartey consigned largely to late substitute appearances since arriving in January. Even Dyer, who has consistently been involved in matchday squads, has never really been able to command a regular place in Ranieri’s side.
The four players who have contributed significantly to Leicester’s season – Huth, Fuchs, Okazaki and Kante – set them back a combined total of less £16 million, with one of them (Fuchs) coming in on a free transfer. Leicester’s success in the transfer market should be attributed not so much to deep pockets but diligent scouting work, which has helped them unearth the likes of Kante, and in previous seasons Vardy and Mahrez.
Tactically, the Foxes have enjoyed success playing on the counter attack, deep-sitting midfield duo Kante and Drinkwater orchestrating offensive moves with vertical passes – long, but accurate; deliberate – designed to test the opposition defenders’ ability to keep pace with forward runners.
On paper, Ranieri’s approach is rudimentary; indeed, pre-match graphics typically set his team up in a classic 4-4-2, but this is slightly misleading. Mahrez has often made his most telling contributions from the centre of the pitch, while Vardy and Okazaki are apt to drift into the channels to chase down lost balls.
One glaring weakness in Leicester’s squad would appear to be that there is not exactly an abundance of attacking flair when you get beyond Messrs Vardy and Mahrez. The two other forwards on their books, Ulloa and Okazaki, have been prolific elsewhere but for the Foxes this season have largely earned their keep by displaying plenty of energy and endeavour. Wide players like Albrighton and Dyer, meanwhile, are practised in the art of traditional whip-it-in wing play, and have shared only a handful goals between them.
In terms of age, Ranieri’s preferred starting eleven come in at an average of just over 28 years. If nowhere else, this is one area where Leicester do appear to conform to conventional sporting wisdom: a player’s late twenties is typically the peak of his career.
It has long been said that any successful Premier League team will have at its heart one of those fabled British spines (which in some cases is generously extended to include an oft-used left-back and a misfiring reserve striker). In the Foxes’ case, this might actually be true: four of their regular starters are English and a further two in Schmeichel and Morgan were schooled in the country, although they have elected to play their international football for Denmark and Jamaica respectively.
For those attempting to replicate Leicester’s success, the message is a somewhat confused one, but at the heart of their title win is essentially a solid unit that carries no passengers and understands the value of a coherent central strategy. Ranieri will rightfully be named manager of the year by all of the game’s awarding bodies this year, and his most admirable trait has been the ability to inspire confidence in his message.