The 2015-16 Season
As almost every single person in the world now knows, Leicester City’s 2015-16 season has probably been the single most unbelievable campaign in the history of team sport. A rag-tag bunch of has-beens and never-will-bes, ranked 5000-1 to win the title before the season and heavily tipped for relegation by almost all neutral observers, Leicester have not just won the Premier League, they’ve romped home with plenty to spare. Going into the last game of the season, their lead stands at ten points. A win on the final day and favourable results elsewhere would see them record the biggest Premier League winning margin since 2000.
This with a squad which apparently cost £54.4m to assemble – £9m of which went on Andrej Kramarić, who made a huge two Premier League appearances this season before being loaned to Hoffenheim – and a reported wage bill of £48.2m, the fourth lowest in the division. This with a 29 year-old journeyman striker playing his second top-level season ever, a lightweight winger who cost £750,000 from a French second division side and a diminutive French tyro in central midfield, who was all but unknown in his homeland. This with a widely mocked manager whose most recent spell of employment ended following a catastrophic defeat to the Faroe Islands.
It goes without saying that Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté are now pretty much immortal, and that Claudio Ranieri is possibly the world’s most popular man. Even if all of them only burn at their brightest for this single season, they’ve achieved something that no-one could ever have expected and that few can still believe, and they’ve captured the world’s attention in the process. Even now, saying "Leicester City, Premier League champions" sounds completely ridiculous, and yet it is a fact.
In Argentina, where this writer lives, there are plenty of people who’d never heard of Leicester before this season and still have difficulty pronouncing the word correctly, but who now plan their weekends around the Foxes’ games. They know the regular starting eleven off by heart and can talk about the career histories of each player in some detail. It really has been a story that the world has followed together.
In a league that ran a serious risk of becoming stale due to the excruciating correlation between spending power and eventual finish, Leicester’s 2015-16 season has seemingly changed everything.
The Summer Ahead
There is, of course, the unpalatable possibility that Leicester’s 2015-16 season hasn’t actually changed everything. If European football’s Darwinian transfer market has its usual effect, the Foxes will lose at least two of the aces in their pack this summer. Mahrez and Kanté are so obviously moving on to pastures new and clubs wealthier that it’s almost painful. The good news is that, other than that, the Foxes are unlikely to lose anyone.
It would have been entirely possible that players like Kasper Schmeichel, Danny Drinkwater, Danny Simpson and Robert Huth could have been offered better wages by other Premier League clubs, but the prospect of Champions League football next season will see them all stay at the club. Vardy will remain purely due to his age and a lack of resale value, while Ranieri is unlikely to be poached due to the unprecedented and almost supernatural manner of Leicester’s victory: he’s simply too old and has too long a track record of averageness for anyone to take a gamble on him being able to reprise this most absurd of title-winning acts.
The summer will most likely be spent wondering what the hell to do with all this extra money and preparing for Champions League football, not to mention looking back on the season just gone and pinching themselves on a regular basis. And that’s just fine.
Leicester have evolved significantly since they began the season in extremely watchable gung-ho fashion, and have gone from ‘free-scoring but porous’ to ‘defensively solid and clinical’ in much the same way that José Mourinho’s Chelsea did last year.
The current Plan A is pleasantly uncomplicated: a deep 4-4-1-1 which protects the centre-backs and the goalkeeper and creates space on the counter for Vardy, Mahrez, Okazaki and Albrighton to exploit. Drinkwater is so good at taking the ball on the turn and pinging balls over the top for Vardy that it’s almost comical that no-one has figured out how to stop them yet.
Indeed, their entire plan is so simple it seems stupid that they’ve still only lost three league games this season, but the intensity of their application without the ball is truly admirable and they’ve been clinical in front of goal for the entire campaign.
Despite recording the third lowest average possession figure, Leicester have produced the league’s eighth highest number of total shots, the fifth highest figure for shots on target, and the sixth highest for shots from within the box. The single biggest reason for their success this season has been their efficient use of the ball in terms of creating chances relative to the time they actually have possession.
No team has scored more counterattacking goals than Leicester this season, and no team has won or scored more penalties – a good portion of which have been awarded after defenders have been caught way out of position and chased back to foul the extremely fast and equally gravitationally challenged Vardy.
Their ferocity without the ball cannot be overestimated: only Liverpool have made more tackles per game this season, and no team has made more interceptions per game. Only five teams have made more clearances, only two have blocked more shots and no team has blocked more crosses or passes.
In short: it’s really hard to play through them, but it’s really easy for them to play through you. Plus, there seems to be some kind of unbeatable divine intervention that keeps helping Leicester win.
Leicester: the usual XI minus the suspended Robert Huth.
Chelsea: no idea. Hiddink might play the kids, or he might not.
With nothing to play for for either team, this is basically a glorified friendly and anything can happen. 4-4?