As the new season beckons there has been some much needed breathing space to the hysteria that surrounded Leicester City’s Premier League win in May. The mass hyperbole was under way well before their title had been confirmed, and in the immediate aftermath of the trophy being lifted the narrative took on such sensationalistic form, it became suffocating. Now, with time to reflect on their achievements more rationally and in anticipation of their title defense, all eyes will refocus on the champions as they come to terms with new challenges and revitalised foes.
While it was undoubtedly an unprecedented overachievement that defies logic in this age of the game, the vast unlikelihood of Leicester’s success should not be confused with the much touted concepts of miracles and fairy tales. Their story belongs in the highest echelons of English football folklore and it captured the imagination of football fans in Europe and across the world, but to describe the season’s success in such fabled terms suggests a fluke that discredits the merits the club deserves. What Claudio Ranieri and his men have proven is that a successful team can be borne out of the fundamental aspects of which the sport was formed.
Application. Motivation. Team Ethic. Spirit. Organisation. Quality. Of course, clubs still need significant investment to strive but these principles should take precedence over misspent greed. For Leicester, aided by the right amount of good fortune, all those elements can come together so impressively and so gloriously. The end result of hard work rather than an uncontrollable otherworldly element, as some have been quick to suggest. Where there once appeared to be an impenetrable chasm between the top clubs and the rest, Leicester have proved there are no limits to what is achievable by any modest, yet ambitious, football club.
Against the now financially dictated forecast of modern football, where the previous eleven top division titles had been won by the country’s richest clubs in Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea, this outcome is a welcome change from the norm. To put Leicester’s achievement into further context, if nearest challengers Tottenham had pipped them to the crown, we would still be experiencing the biggest upset English football has seen in the Premier League era. The North London club have only the sixth largest wage bill of all twenty teams and appeared to be in a state of relative transition as they looked to bring through a flux of young British players. A title challenge seemed a distant ambition.
Of all the previous winners of English football’s rebranded top tier competition, Blackburn Rovers’ name stands out. While their 1995 triumph is out of keeping with the established champions the Premier League has become accustomed to, it was in fact the inevitable result of major shareholder Jack Walker’s millions and his earlier attempt to monetize English football in the manner Roman Abramovich would accomplish a decade later. Not since Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest team of 78’ has a true outsider amounted an unassailable lead at the summit of English football. Even taking those heady days for Midlands clubs into account, which saw Forest and Aston Villa land domestic and European Cup supremacy, has a title triumph defied expectation to this degree.
For the Leicester City fans, supporting clubs of such modest stature in today’s climate of elite exclusivity have not allowed for dreams of such fanciful nature to bear fruit. Against those well documented overwhelmingly unfavourable odds, a club’s defining moment in its almost century-and-a -half long history brought English football its first new champions for 38 years. Trying to dispel the romanticism of football to those frenzied foxes would be a troublesome task.
It was a truly astonishing conclusion to a season in which nobody seemed to believe would see that eventuality. No supporter was dreaming it or thinking it, and the club itself were definitely not anticipating it. Simply put, Leicester City were not supposed to win the Premier League last year. And they knew it. For so long new manager Claudio Ranieri played down his sides chances of the “dream” actually becoming a reality.
“Our goal is 40 points”, said the veteran manager. These sentiments were relayed to the press countless times by the unassuming Italian between August and Christmas. At the height of Vardymania, when the South Yorkshire born forward could do no wrong amidst his record breaking sequence of goals, it was overly apparent Leicester would make fools of the gloomy preseason predictions of Ranieri’s return to English football. Notions of relegation soon passed and his team were displaying qualities of a grander order with regularity. Fans would have been forgiven for starting to feel queasy yet Ranieri portrayed constant serenity when momentum and expectation began to build. Perhaps it was simple ignorance to the genuine potential of his team’s achievements, but his performance to the media was unerring all season long. Never did he nor his team appear overawed by events as the season unfolded, all the more remarkable when faced with incessant reminders of their supposed destiny when the climax drew ever nearer.
When the final whistle blew at Stamford Bridge and The Foxes were confirmed as Premier League Champions only two years after returning to the top flight, the ‘dream turn reality’ was quickly written off as an anomaly event. This, however, disregards the clear ambitions set out by their owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha upon his arrival in 2010. Of course, this was fast-track progress of unimaginable proportions but his intentions had been clear. Upon winning the Championship in 2014, the Thai Billionaire set his sights on challenging the status quo in the Premier League, but understood the need to manage expectations.“We won’t take the huge leap to challenge the league’s top five clubs immediately,” Srivaddhanaprabha predicted. “I think we need to establish our foothold in the league first and then we think about our next step.”, he added. The club’s return to the top flight was not a smooth transition, and former manager Nigel Pearson only just managed to deliver that desired foothold with that dramatic escape from relegation. A three year plan to reach the Champions League seemed even further from the realms of possibility than when Srivaddhanaprabha first declared his ambitions a year earlier.
Yet their status saving end of season form was not a fluke, nor was the momentum it built a false dawn. That resolve made an everlasting impression on the squad and it was key, then, that any summer additions did not disrupt the burgeoning harmony in the dressing room. Significantly, Leicester acted with supreme astuteness where it mattered most. Approximately £20 million was spent, of which the majority went on N’Golo Kante, Robert Huth, Shinji Okazaki and Christian Fuchs. Not a list that would create widespread excitement at first glance, but in hindsight these players will have been heavily scouted, carefully considered cogs with the purpose of fitting the personality built in the latter months of Pearson’s reign. Who would have thought Huth would form such a formidable partnership with seasoned Football League veteran Wes Morgan, and that they would be so ably assisted by Fuchs and Danny Simpson to create Leicester’s defensive unit, protecting Kasper Schmeichel, no longer living in the shadow of his father’s iconic goalkeeper.
The most lauded piece of business from that spree was that of combative midfielder Kante, who arrived in a 5.6 million deal from Caen. The 25-year-old was a constant presence at the heart of Leicester’s design and possessed a skillset that was the envy of the entire division. He didn’t command as many column inches as PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez or the headlines of Vardy, but anyone who paid attention to the team’s form was well aware of his importance. Including Chelsea, one of several big clubs who suffered from a sort of existential crisis last season, who saw Kante as the perfect acquisition to address the energy and dynamism missing from Conte’s faded side.
In what was always going to be a challenging summer for the champions, the removal of the main cog in their engine room is a tough blow. Whereas Jamie Vardy was somewhat surprisingly swayed by the romanticism of committing to the club that made him rather than switching to Arsenal, Kante was not troubled by such hesitation and departed swiftly to play in Chelsea’s more moneyed shade of blue. A disappointing loss for Leicester, but hardly the max exodus that many fans would have feared. The resolve so evident in their on field efforts has been matched by their owners for the most part as they head into the new campaign will almost all of their title winning heroes. That must now continue as a concerted effort is required to ensure they keep hold of Mahrez in the remaining weeks of the transfer window.
The Algerian possess the special qualities that gave Leicester their edge and there was an expectation that Leicester would invest in more players of such outstanding quality to take the pressure of Mahrez and Vardy. The club’s achievements hasn’t rewarded it’s supporters with superstar signings so far and to some, their summer business may seem underwhelming but this would be to ignore the transfer policy which has brought them so much success. The arrivals of Ahmed Musa and Nampalys Mendy fit the profile of Leicester’s recent investments perfectly; modest players who understand team ethic and have plenty of energy to match their quality. There will be pressure on them to settle quickly if the team are to maintain top billing, while exciting teenage Croatian midfielder Bartosz Kapustka will be afforded more time to adjust. Of course, the loss of influential head scout Steve Walsh to Everton is a blow considering the involvement he had in bringing in unheralded players like Kante, but the club have not diverted from their principles in wake of raised expectations and new found wealth.
Predictably, several of Leicester’s competitors for their much coverted crown have acted aggressively in response to their surprise success. The arrival of such experienced, decorated managers armed with the millions provided by their new, expectant clubs will alter the landscape in what was always going to be such a testing season for the defending champions. Leicester are not expected to compete again but the personality of the club over the last couple years suggests they will be determined to prove doubters wrong once more. They will not fear the top teams anymore than they did last year despite their managers scepticism: “We’ll defend our trophy very strongly but I think there are big teams now who last season, I don’t why, made mistakes.” At times last season, he played the perfect poker face and again he will be looking to play his cards just right to ensure his team have the self-confidence to believe they belong whilst playing down any pressure.
Even after the longevity of their form, huge doubts remain over the quality of this team. The ‘surprise element’ of their success, as if they won the league with a kind of sucker punch, was gone before Christmas. This has been cited as one of the reasons behind the lowly pre season predictions cast by experts. Expectation is that even a European place will be beyond them and another title charge a distant ‘dream’. One of the most anticipated Premier League seasons awaits and it’s time for our most unlikely Champions to go again.