Football has always been my favourite sport – all you need is a ball, and that doesn’t even have to be a ball; and from it all has come memories – both good and bad – which are as vivid as the clearest memories I have. That is why sport is important, and why football is most beloved around the world.
In recent years though, it’s been hard to love it quite as much. While the magic of playing football can never be taken away, the culture of football seemed to be in a constant nosedive. Cynical owners had essentially bought titles for teams of their choice, transfer fees and wage bills continue to rise so high that ticket prices rise to meet them and keep the common fan away from regular matches, the sport’s governing bodies showed themselves rotten to the core – in short, a sport that draws the most love and loyalty across the world, and it’s fans, have been relentlessly abused by those who oversee it. The natural result of this was an apparent exclusive club of competitive teams in the Premier League who, given the conditions, would be the only possible league champions. That is until this year when, without hyperbole, Leicester City have undone them all and struck a blow for true football and justice, while rejecting what just seemed to be expected norms of champions.
I won’t analyse Leiciester and the specific reasons of their victory too much because – as is borne out in the inability of teams to stop them – they almost defy such analysis, but there are some characteristics of their play which spells success, even if opponents are completely aware of what they are up against – something of a perfect storm, though certainly no accident of circumstance.
It reads like a fairytale: Leicester City, having scraped themselves to safety in the Premier League last year, coached by a manager coming off a run of dismissals whose appointment was questioned by many, and players who had either languished in lower leagues or been cast aside by other teams, were up against a league which offers the most TV rights money of any other to top teams and dominated by a small group of teams so rich that challenging them should be insurmountable. But Leicester City did, did so after spending a fraction of the money of their competitors, and did so in style.
In this day and age Leicester City shouldn’t be able to win the Premier League. For teams who survive relegation, their championship becomes staying in the league, maybe finishing surprisingly high, staying out of the relegation fight, and feeling more secure in the division. Everyone at Leicester City was written off, and frankly, in an objective way, rightly so, but cliched as it is, there is no greater motivator than being told ‘you can’t do this’. ‘Motivated’ is just one word to describe Leicester City this year. Ranieri, with nothing expected of him, created an atmosphere where players could believe in themselves, where everyone was equal and no one’s past mattered; the only thing that mattered was playing to your potential, doing your job, and having fun while doing it. With some notable exceptions, even now I don’t think many of the Leicester team are particularly remarkable players or among the best at their position, but they did their job as asked and rarely faltered. Ranieri, formerly a ‘tinkerman’, had evaluated his squad and set them up in a system which played to their strengths and created remarkable football; not parking the bus and fighting for scraps, but playing firm and pressing at the back, siphoning the ball forward in midfield with short passing, and attacking and counter-attacking with pace and precision.
So often in the Premier League, top teams will simply sell and replace unsuccessful players, but at Leicester City, league champion players were created with training, and savvy scouting which found the right players for their role who could be trained to be rock solid in their role. The team as a whole has raised the level of every individual there, the work-rate and passion of the players has made them very hard to break down and out-play, and the chemistry of the players, borne of a unique level of bonding and brotherhood, has given them a consistency to their play which eventually saw off all competitors.Of course, players like Mahrez, Kante, and Vardy are more than just role-players – their creativity and skill helped give them an extra edge against both the most talented and most stubborn players and teams in the league.When a team has everything from motivation, determination, creativity, a free-flowing mentality, and the players and coaches to follow it through, it suddenly feels less shocking that they would win the league.
The real reason I am writing this article though is that, despite the subjectivity and inability to compare successes in different contexts, I believe that Leicester’s achievement is so unlikely and so remarkable that it is quite clearly the greatest sporting achievement of all time.
League’s are designed as such that victory excludes those that rely on flukes or luck and insists that the winner be the best consistently over the course of an entire season. So as great and memorable as one-time successes like Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson, non-league Luton knocking Norwich City out of the FA Cup, or Japan beating South Africa at the rugby world cup are, these are freaks of nature, magical moments that happen once. As special as that is, it doesn’t compare to a team defying the odds time and time again and actually proving a dominance over their competition. So, to my mind, the only achievement that could compete with Leicester’s win would be a similar sort of league-structured victory.
As big an NFL and New York Giants fan as I am, it would be easy to look at their Superbowl XVII victory over the to-date undefeated Patriots, but the truth is, the Giants are a team who had already won two Lombardi trophies before that victory, and as great an achievement as any Superbowl victory, it only comes together after a maximum of twenty games in which you don’t play every other team competing. So as far as i’m concerned, a Superbowl victory is ruled out from this discussion, and that is before even considering the several – laudable – policies in place throughout North American sports which encourage a rough parity of competition and also rule them out of consideration for this honour. It has indeed been fascinating trying to see American sports fans marvel at Leicester City without culturally being unequipped to fully understand the magnitude of the achievement.
I have also seen some comparisons made to John Daly’s 1991 PGA Championship win. It was certainly a hell of a shocking and remarkable victory. Daly, a rookie, who until then was often not even an also ran, being an alternate for championships before, who only secured a place in the tournament days before when Nick Price dropped out, who had to use Price’s caddy for the championship, and who hadn’t had a chance to practice at the course beforehand, went on to win the championship in most certainly the most incredible golfing victory ever. In terms of odds being against him and the surprise of the victory, he is close to rivaling Leicester, however, when you consider the nature of golf and their tournaments, it falls short. Though it takes consistency to win a golf tournament in a way that largely eliminates any ‘luck’, it still only takes good form over a weekend to succeed, again, as opposed to a whole season. More importantly, in golf, though you play alongside rivals, you control your own ball and aren’t competing directly with anyone – other golfers don’t game plan for you and you don’t have to our smart opponents, you just have to play the best on your own. A team, liable to each other and facing a team that is game-planning for your style and actively trying to stop you succeed, requires much more of an effort in overcoming than simply the playing field alone, and so as impressive as Daly’s achievement was, it simply can’t compare.
So back in the world of football, there are a few achievements that are reminiscent of Leicester City’s Premier League win. Perhaps the most reminiscent is what Brian Clough achieved with Nottingham Forrest between 1976 and 1980. Forrest, as a second tier team, were certainly of similar standing to the Leicester City of last year when Clough took charge, and by getting swiftly promoted and then winning the top tier championship in their first year of promotion, Nottingham Forrest completed a magical, unlikely achievement. This was only surpassed when Forrest went on to win two successive European Championships – the pinnacle of European club football. This, on paper, even surpasses the Leicester victory, but it is important to remember the footballing climate of the time. While this in no way undermines the Nottingham Forrest achievement, the fact is that the financial gulf between not only teams in the top division, but between teams across divisions was nowhere near as large. With the right manager, like a Brian Clough, though it was still a huge challenge, it was much more feasible for a new team to rise up and compete for the first division championship. In fact, when Forrest signed Trevor Francis for £1.15 million, the fee smashed the existing transfer fee record, showing that Forrest, despite coming from the lower league, were more than able to play on level playing field to their competitors. Compare that with Leicester, who were on the fringe of the second tier football last year; their largest transfer fee was just £7 million for Shinji Okazaki, a very small fee for any starting calibre Premier League player, never mind one of it’s strongerst performers. Though Nottingham Forrest’s rise and success is the most reminiscent of Leicester’s then, it still can’t compare because they simply didn’t face the inherent barriers that Leicester faced as a team who had previously barely survived the Premiership.
So what about a more modern footballing achievement? In terms of sheer near-unparalleled achievement, Arsenal’s 2003/04 run in which they dominated the Premier League and went undefeated in doing so will quite possibly never be replicated again. Since the old first division became the Premiership, and the sponsorship money and larger gaps in financial power came in to play, such dominance should have been impossible. Arsenal were no doubt one of those financially blessed teams themselves, but the fact that they never slipped up and lost even once was truly remarkable. That Arsenal performance was truly special, but the only reason it drops in relevance when compared to Leicester City is that Arsenal were already a strong and very competitive team going in to the season having won twice since 1997 and competed well in years well they fell short. Not only that, but Arsenal built a team around historically great players like Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp. When compared with Arsenal, players like Vardy and Mahrez are great, but simply not in the same conversation as Henry and Bergkamp; and Leicester City’s win came out of almost literally nowhere. As amazing as Arsenal’s modern invincibles season was, it was the result of historical momentum and historical talent that Leicester simply didn’t have.
The final phenomenon that could, to some, challenge Leicester City’s win for greatest sporting achievement is the still surreal happening of Greece winning Euro 2004. Greece, who had only been to two major tournaments in their history and never won a game, showed up in Portugal and went on to grind out results against the likes of Spain, France, the Czech Republic, and finally, the hosts in the final to win the most unlikely international title of all time. Greece were a team of practical nobodies who, like Leicester, played smart, hard-working football (though without the flash of Leicester City), and beat out the giants of Europe. The result was practically an aberration as Greece would never replicate anything like this success again, a success which legitimately shocked the football world. Even compared to Leicester, this team had no expectations of victory. However, despite how anonymous they were, their prospects of victory were still more feasible simple because of the amount of competition they faced. Greece were one of just 16 teams competing for the European crown and only had to play six matches in the tournament. While Greece won the tournament, they did so after a series of shocks coming from eked out victories while Leicester really shone and looked unstoppable over a 38 game season. Greece’s Euro 2004 victory will live on in memory forever, as will Leicester’s, but Leicester’s victory coming over a longer season with more competition means it again edges the Greece victory in terms of level of achievement.
While it’s hard to make such a sweeping statement, the more I think about it, the more I want to double down: Leicester City, coming out of a relegation battle, with cheaper players who had been rejected or ignored previously, and going on to beat out a sizable handful or financially and historically elite teams with flair and apparent ease and from out of nowhere is the greatest sporting achievement of all time. We’re just lucky we all got to witness it.
Snap Preview of the 2016-17 Premiership Season
The 2015-16 Premier League season has indeed been like a fairytale, driven by new contenders playing with youth, passion, and dedication, usurping the historic and financial powerhouses of the league. Now that the winner is determined, the big questions that are rising are can Leicester City and – to a lesser extent – Tottenham, keep a hold of the new young standouts that propelled them to the top of the table, and can they possibly recreate their success next year and in seasons to come?
With that in mind, i’m going to do something I’ve never done before – mainly because my interest in the league had been slowly waning – and preview who I believe to be the likely contenders for the 2016-17 Premier League title and explain why I think they will, or won’t, win the league. Perhaps I’ll overlook an underdog like Leicester City were this year, but hopefully not.
The story of Leicester City’s season was one of consistency, being doubted because of their pedigree, and a slow tide of belief that they might actually go and win. One of the major narratives of the season was that despite their consistency and the length of time they spent as league leaders, there was still skepticism about their ability to follow through; and that seems to be the prevailing thought even know – that yes they won the league, but surely it was a one off.
I’ve written at length about why they won the league this year, so I won’t rehash that, but theoretically at least, there is no reason to imagine they can’t recreate that. Teams had plenty of time this season to ‘work them out’ and didn’t because their system was about consistency, not surprise, so if they can continue to play to their tactics and maintain their work-rate, they should be contenders. The dangers for Leicester will be if other teams are smart enough to adopt aspects of their philosophy, and whether they will have the right players at their disposal to execute their game plan. Indeed, the prevailing question about Leicester City is whether they will be able to keep their key players like Schmeichel, Morgan, Kante, Okazaki, Vardy, and especially Mahrez. If they lose any of these players, they will need to replace them with new players who can play to those standards and with the intangibles of passion, work-rate, and creativity that have made them the difference-makers for the champions.
To my mind though, I think there is an obvious love and passion for the club that, when reciprocated by the fans, played a large role in their success. The team showed faith in the players and achieved something special, and when you mix faith and success, you will usually create loyalty in your players. Leicester will surely have to offer these key players lucrative and competitive new contracts, but that shouldn’t be a problem given their success, With money presumably not an issue, I don’t see why players would want to leave the reigning champions who will be playing in the Champions League for another team in England, especially given the many flaws and inconsistencies shown by the established ‘Top 4’ teams. Therefore, I think it will take an elite European team such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Bayern Munich to tempt players away, and as good as these players are, perhaps with the exception of Schmeichel, I don’t see those teams being quite interested in them.
I singled out Schmeichel there because having an elite Goalkeeper is near priceless and given his performances, and certainly not hindered by name recognition, there could be interest in him. I don’t see him leaving though. Schmeichel, despite his lineage has had a rough ride of a career until now, playing for teams like Leeds and Notts County before making it back to the top. He has been playing with Leicester for 5 years now and their faith in him, mixed with the success they have brought him, I think will create a strong sense of loyalty in him. That goes even more for Vardy and Morgan. Both have been with Leicester for multiple years in lower leagues, and neither would have imagined the possibility of winning the league. They did that because of their place at the club, and I find it very hard to believe that players who have been on such an incredible, long journey with the club and the fans will have much desire to leave at the height of success.
That leaves Kante, Okazaki, and Mahrez under the microscope. These are Leicester’s most flashy, skillful players who will have caught many a manager’s eye, and they are also the ones who have been with the club for the shortest amount of time, not toiling through the lower leagues with them like the others. Nonetheless, I think the obvious team spirit and bond created at Leicester surely wasn’t lost on them, not to mention, as before, the opportunities that playing for Leicester as champions itself now presents. Even for these players, it is hard to to think of a club with a significantly superior draw than Leicester that would also be particularly interested in the players. Perhaps some of them could leave, but I will be surprised.
I think, personally, that the real danger faced by Leicester is trying to make the sort of preseason moves that may be associated with top clubs: most obviously, high-profile signings. While their big-money rivals will hope to learn from Leicester, there is potentially a danger that Leicester try to behave more like a top club and make impressive signings of players who don’t fit their system. In many ways, it would be ideal is Leicester could just play next season with the exact same squad, but if they are tempted by the transfer market, they have to be careful to respect what this history-making team have achieved, and only buy players who can play the high octane, high effort style that Leicester play while remembering to fulfil their position and role diligently. If they are able to do that, they will be competing again.
Tottenham Hotspur themselves would be the fairytale team of the league this year if it wasn’t for the ridiculously unlikely achievement of Leicester City. Tottenham have a rich history and have been fleetingly involved in European football in recent years with the emergence of Gareth Bale, but despite these relatively humble successes, they haven’t been close to a title run in decades. They are also surrounded by similar questions to Leicester City going in to the next year – namely, can they repeat their feat next year and challenge for the title. Interestingly though, the prevailing belief seems to be that they will be in a better position than Leicester, despite losing out in the title race to them this year.
While Leicester showed the consistency of champions, it is hard to argue that there was a team who played to the level of quality as Tottenham at their best. In recent years, Tottenham have always had a fairly neutral disappointing goal difference, but this year they have had, statistically, the most fearsome attack and most sure-handed defence leading to a monster goal difference. Players like Kane, Lloris, Vertonghen, and Erikson have managed to maintain a high-to-incredible level of play while players like Alderweireld, Walker, Rose, Lamela, and Alli have emerged from either lower leagues, other teams, or relative mediocrity to play to the same level. No team has had such rich quality throughout their ranks as Spurs have, and Mauricio Pochettino is seemingly the architect of the flourish. Unfortunately for them, too many draws early in the season before they really found their feet and not quite being able to match the consistency of Leicester when it counted costed them a championship they perhaps objectively deserved.
It will be interesting to see how much difficulty Tottenham face in keeping their squad together because unlike Leicester, there doesn’t seem to be much speculation that they will struggle to. They will surely get tempting offers for Lloris especially and other members of the squad, but something special seems to be going on at the club, and as a Champions League team with a huge new stadium in the works, and increasing financial power, I think Tottenham should be able to hold on to their players, especially now that Pochettino has signed a big new contract extension. He was perhaps the most likely to be pursued by rivals, but it is clear he is building something at Tottenham. That’s something you don’t leave behind, and it’s something that the players will want to stay around for. If they do, Tottenham will keep a very powerful, young and exciting squad.
This season did have a feel though that if they couldn’t win this year, they might not get another chance, and as teams have a preseason to adjust themselves to the approaches of Tottenham and Leicester and perhaps take inspiration from them to close the gap, there are valid reasons to worry that Tottenham might not be able to quite recreate the magic of this year.
But again like Leicester, philosophically at least, if they keep the same quality in their squad, and the same passion and work-rate in their play, there is no reason at all that Tottenham can’t make another strong push for the title. For Tottenham, there aren’t many areas of their squad that can be significantly improved, but what they do need is strength in depth, and if they can add that to their squad without upsetting it, if anything, they’ll be in an even stronger position than this year.
Manchester City are an intriguing prospect, having seemingly forgone any interest in Premier League as they limp to the end of the season while going on an unlikely run in the Champions League. Despite that success though, that seems like a bit of a misnomer if i’m completely honest, Manchester City feel like a team in flux, en route to a new era and major rebuild under incoming headline manager Pep Guardiola. Guardiola is generally seen as the best manager in the world following his long list of achievements at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, and he will certainly, again, have a huge transfer budget to play with this preseason. So despite the huge disappointment of this year, City will certainly be considered among the favourites next year.
That said, Guardiola and City have a lot of work to do with a squad which seems old, tired, and listless when compared to how powerful it should be. As good as many of the players there are on paper, there has been a high turnover of starting City players since City became a financial powerhouse, meaning that players have seemed more disposable and their time at City more transitory. In this time, there have been some players such a Hart, Kompany, Silva, Toure, and Aguero who have become stalwarts, and the closest thing to ‘hearts and souls’ of the team possible for such a cynical venture as they have become. But as time goes on, the number of players on that list good enough to anchor a championship winning team has dwindled. Vincent Kompany, once the fiery figurehead of the team, had become injury prone and less effective when able to play, while Silva and Toure have appeared less motivated and consistent; and as good as they are, a team can’t be highly successful in a league with a team anchored by three consistently good to great players in recent stalwarts Hart and Aguero, and newer sensation Kevin De Bruyne.
What it means is that this team, in line with it’s ethos, has to be largely torn apart and rebuilt. Keep Hart, De Bruyne and Aguero, sell the coasting dead weight like Navas, Silva, and Demichelis, and buy at least 4 or 5 hungry, quality players. Guardiola’s name and City’s money will be enough to draw most of any players they have their eye on, and while the potential of a ‘Galacticos’ approach is shaky at best, City themselves have had success with it before.
Nonetheless, even if City make these moves, which isn’t guaranteed, it would be a major rebuild which could quite possibly take more than a season to ‘take’. I don’t think City can win the league with their current squad, and I think a manager like Pep will want to stamp his authority on the side, so I can see this sort of rebuild taking place, so City’s prospects will rest solely on how quickly Pep’s new team can gel, and while I think City will be force eventually under Guardiola, I think there will be enough competition to beat out City as they rebuild next year.
Manchester Utd are currently a fascinating team. It is natural that after a legendary manager like Alex Ferguson moved on, that they would go through a period of struggle and rebuilding, but given the recent history of Utd, it has been a period of huge disappointment for the fans, and of schadenfreude for fans of their rivals. In the second half of this season though, something has started happening there that gives them reason to be very hopeful for the future. This season, part of their struggles have come due to a raft of injuries to top players. The rather sizable silver lining of this though has been that Louis Van Gaal has been forced in to select numerous players to his starting eleven from deep in to the Utd youth system. The arrivals of Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Jesse Lingard, and most explosively, Marcus Rashford, has given Utd a tempo and attacking flair that the side have been sorely missing for the past few years. Giving young prospects starts is something Van Gaal is well-known for regardless, but it’s a pretty safe bet that these players wouldn’t have all gotten their shots so quickly were it not for the injury bug; in fact, the injury bug may have forced Utd to play less like a ‘top’ team, and more like Leicester City did, with youth, passion, and desire.
These three young players have been nothing short of a revelation. They have played to incredible standards at their respective positions and have lit a fire under other established players like Anthony Martial, Antonio Valencia, and even Wayne Rooney who seems to have been playing more freely now that the attacking verve of the team doesn’t run near exclusively through him. The team is still inconsistent and definitely needs more development, but the foundation of these players as well as having a world-class goalkeeper and improving centre-back in Chris Smalling is giving them something to really build on.
With this in mind, this is no time for a change at manager, and Van Gaal deserves one more season to see if this foundation can be built on. Keeping De Gea will be crucial, but if they can do that, add one or two more dominant defenders, and add a bit more youthful, hungry depth to the squad, I think Manchester Utd could be on for a major revival, and quite possibly, a run at the Premier League title.
Arsenal are under consideration here due to their consistent place in the Top 4 in the past decade and the fact that they were, for some time, a legitimate contender for the title before fizzling out shortly after Christmas. Arsenal are a strange team who consistently play quality, flowing football, but who, in recent years have also been – if you will – consistent in their inconsistency, perhaps keeping faith in players unduly long after they should have been replaced. For years, they have flashed with quality but haven’t been able to maintain it enough to make a serious run, and I don’t see why that would change next year.
Giroud is a good striker, but certainly not good enough consistently, and though Welbeck, Walcott and even Campbell are good, it just feels like they are lacking the sort of transcendent striker that Leicester, Tottenham, City, and maybe Utd have to make them true contenders. That, mixed with a couple of upgrades at the squad’s weakest points – maybe a savvy signing each in defence and midfield replacing the aging Monreal and bringing in competition for Ramsey – could possibly make them more realistic contenders, but their problem is also of attitude.
Fair or not, Arsenal seem to play without urgency for lengthy periods, and don’t seem to have the fire of more successful teams. It is this, more than a few squad changes, that would be key to their next title challenge. Wenger is a great manager, but if he is the problem, it is in this respect.
Chelsea are seemingly a team in no man’s land, at least relative to the recent expectations. Guus Hiddink managed to steady the ship for the most part after the freefall they experienced at the start of the season, but Chelsea have been non-starters this year and a near irrelevance in the league. Like their super-wealthy contemporaries in City, their team just feels tired, and are about to hire a new manager who should rip up the team and start again, and should have the budget to do it. The problem is, Chelsea seem to have even less current talent than City do, haven’t had any sort of European run, and are hiring a manager with much less of a draw than Guardiola. Besides Courtois, Hazard, and maybe Diego Costa, no one really seems irreplaceable, but so invisible has their season been that it’s hard to imagine many top quality players having a huge interest in a move to Stamford Bridge. That all said, Chelsea’s season has been so strange and anonymous that they are a real wildcard for next season.Speaking from a pure hunch though, I just can’t see them building any sort of significant challenge.
Liverpool haven’t really earned consideration as title challengers next year based on their performances this year, but the cult of Klopp mixed with flashes of quality play over this season and Liverpool being in the mix in recent years means they can’t quite be ruled out as contenders.
Though Liverpool have some excellent players such as Coutinho and Firmino, they are lacking the requisite quality to really challenge significantly since Gerrard and especially Suarez left. For teams like Manchester City and Chelsea, I have suggested complete rebuilds in line with their resources and ethos, but for Klopp, I think he will have to rely on his open, fluid managerial style as much as he will on new players. Some new signings will be necessary, but his real job will be to get the most out of some players who still have some potential to live up to; players such as Lallana, Can, Ibe, Benteke and Sturridge all seem to have more to give, and if Klopp can get them playing more naturally and consistently in his system over the course of a proper pre-season regimen, they could improve a great deal.
So without further ado, and purely on instinct, here are where I predict these teams will finish next season:
Predicted Top 6
1) Tottenham Hotspur
2) Manchester Utd
3) Manchester City
4) Leicester City