We are now just a few weeks from the completion of perhaps the most unlikely title-winning team in soccer – nay, sports – history. Exactly one year ago, Leicester City sat bottom of the Premier League table, relegation all but guaranteed. Today, they are seven points clear in first place with six matches to go, their grasp rapidly approaching that gleaming trophy.
All of our early season Leicester-related discussions seem so naïve now. Way back in September, I ended a piece on Leicester’s hot start with what I thought was an obvious statement: “They don’t have much of a shot to hang with Man City this season, but it will be fascinating to watch the Foxes give it a go.” And that was the majority opinion until a couple months ago, when they knocked off Tottenham, Liverpool, and Man City.
After their defense got off to a leaky start, Claudio Ranieri’s men quietly shored up that side of the field. They’ve given up just two goals in their last six games, winning five of those with a 1-0 scoreline. Meanwhile, all season Leicester has let the opponent keep the ball, while waiting to spring deadly counterattacks. This didn’t seem very sustainable early on, but the Foxes have made it work. Drinkwater and Kante provide the defensive midfield stability, Mahrez injects the squad with creative life, and Vardy finishes with clinical prowess.
Although Leicester hasn’t been the only surprise success story, because West Ham have flirted with Champions League qualification all season long. It’s strange to watch the Hammers challenge big money clubs like Manchester United and City for a ticket to Europe next season, but that’s what we have this year in Premier League football.
None of this even mentions Tottenham, who will almost certainly finish in the top three, a feat they haven’t managed since 1990. Even if Leicester’s dream season were to end with them nightmarishly stumbling at the finish line, Tottenham would get a chance to break their 55-year championship drought.
So it’s been a wild season; that much is obvious. However, has it all been a fluke that will feel more like a fever dream in a few years? Or is this parity-riddled, anybody-can-win-it version the New Premier League?
For so long we became accustomed to the same four clubs (Manchester United, City, Chelsea, and Arsenal) swapping titles since 1996. Hardly anyone else really had a prayer. So maybe it feels more reasonable to just call this crazy Leicester-Tottenham season a fluke.
It’s true that Leicester have needed a lot to go right for them to lift the trophy. They have been remarkably healthy all season long and their record in games decided by one goal is astounding. At the same time, virtually every title-winning team needs health and close victories to finish atop the table. It’s difficult to win the league without those two.
It’s also true that this was an easier season to win the league than usual. There’s a decent probability Leicester’s final point total is the Premier League winner’s lowest in almost 20 years. This is because, in an unprecedented way, the rich clubs have all had issues with consistency (City, Arsenal, United) or vision/leadership (Chelsea, Liverpool) in the same season. Arsenal has beaten Leicester twice, but dropped valuable points elsewhere. City’s form has been erratic all year. Van Gaal’s United can’t score or stay healthy. And don’t get me started on Chelsea’s woes (seriously, please don’t).
However, isn’t some of the above tied to the Premier League’s newfound parity? Arsenal can’t catch Leicester or Tottenham because they’re too busy losing to teams like Swansea and West Brom. In their last several matches, Man United has defeated City and Arsenal, but lost to Sunderland and West Brom. The big fish can’t count on three points versus the minnows anymore.
We’ve been talking about this all season, but the Premier League middle class is beefing up. As the TV deal money has come in, clubs like Stoke and West Ham can go after studs like Xherdan Shaqiri and Dimitri Payet, respectively. This cash influx to the mid-table should only continue to give outsiders like Leicester a shot at glory. And Leicester’s magical run is only going to encourage uber-rich Abramovich-types to take a chance on investing in a non-traditional English club.
I don’t think the madness of the 2015-16 Premier League season will necessarily carry into the next. Maybe order will be restored this time next year and we’ll see City, Arsenal, Chelsea, and United battling for the top spots. Pep Guardiola is on the way in, former Juventus and Italy national team manager Antonio Conte is headed to Chelsea, United will certainly reload with a new manager and fresh assets, and Klopp gets an offseason to work with his young core at Liverpool.
Although even if there is no shock title winner next season, that doesn’t mean parity isn’t continuing to spread throughout the league. Over the last few years, the Champions League has proven the top English clubs aren’t currently on the same level as their Spanish or German counterparts. Now we’re seeing they certainly aren’t untouchable over a 38-game season for much smaller and poorer English clubs. As Leicester continues their march toward the unthinkable, it wouldn’t be that surprising if we keep seeing David slay Goliath in the future.