As Wes Morgan, captain of Leicester City, held aloft the Premier League crown, the footballing world looked on in amazement. 2015/16 – the year that made us all believe in miracles, a unique year in the Premier League era, and one I’m now certain will never be repeated. Any fresh impetus that Leicester gave to the footballing world has disappeared as quickly as it arrived.
This particular success story was about getting the very fundamentals of the sport down to a fine art: working harder than your opponent, being incredibly well organised, and aiming to be direct and ruthless in the final third – otherwise known as ‘British football’ – the concept that has become so unfashionable and so demonised that managers have lost their jobs for deploying it. So, could an unfancied team such as Leicester, ranked at 5000/1 with bookmakers at the time, win the Premier League again with such a simplistic yet fruitful strategy?
After all, this is exactly the type of football that earned Sir Alex Ferguson such great success with Manchester United throughout his 27-year stint with the club, and this is exactly the type of football that Jose Mourinho – very much of the same school of thought as Sir Alex – is bringing back to Old Trafford, to great effect. The key difference here is that this is Manchester United, the global brand with money to burn – and this is just one of the problems facing anyone hoping to emulate Leicester.
Many point to the fact that Leicester were fortunate that the title race’s usual suspects all under-performed in 2015/16 – they did. Chelsea appeared to completely down-tools for large parts of the campaign, Manchester United were still in the post-Ferguson period of transition, and Manchester City appeared distracted by their obsessive pursuit of Pep Guardiola. The Spaniard’s imminent arrival soon became the worst kept secret in football, despite City still having all to play for.
Elsewhere, a young but promising Spurs side were clearly still very much a work-in-progress, likewise Liverpool, whose current manager Jurgen Klopp was yet to complete a full season at Anfield.
This is a fair argument, but it doesn’t detract from Leicester’s incredible success. So, why can’t it happen again? Why shouldn’t Stoke, Everton, West Ham etc. be aspiring to do what was previously thought to be impossible?
The answer lies in what happened in the aftermath of Leicester’s triumph – heads rolled and out came the chequebooks, with three of Europe’s most sought after managers taking up the vacant posts at United, City and Chelsea, and the Manchester Clubs alone spending a combined £554million on their respective squads.
Chelsea – who took the crown from the Foxes in 2016/17 – have enjoyed a more modest net spend of £70million, although this is largely due to the fact that they have managed to recoup significant amounts of money from the sales of fringe players and academy graduates – they have still shelled out upwards of £200million since the summer of 2016, to improve an already talented squad.
Unsurprisingly, all three of these recent Premier League winners have re-emerged since 2015/16 and so far look a class above the chasing pack in this year’s title race. United and Chelsea have strength and power throughout their squads, while Guardiola’s insistence on total-football will almost certainly succeed eventually, given the bottomless pit of resources available to him. At the other end of the table, any attempts to mimic this style of play without such financial clout leads to catastrophe – just ask Crystal Palace fans.
Recent activity proves that the success enjoyed by Leicester served only as a wake-up call to the elite forces of English football – elite forces that were embarrassed by the fact that they were beaten by a team whose star players were a forward who emerged from non-league and a winger who once had an unsuccessful trial at Falkirk.
What’s more, the recent attempt to seize more power via a redistribution of TV wealth serves as further proof that the big-boys are conspiring to ensure that the Leicester City tale is consigned to history. Would there be such a desire to grant themselves an even greater financial advantage over the rest had an outsider not dared to ruffle their feathers so recently? Somehow, I doubt it.
Essentially, Leicester achieved what was perceived the be the impossible – now it really is the impossible. You only have to look at Spain’s La Liga to see how a disparity in the distribution of TV money damages the competition. Strangely, Leicester of all clubs are said to be backing the proposal – it’s amazing what one year of Champions League football can do for your self-esteem, it seems.
The astronomical spending and the power-grabbing has made the mountain that bit steeper, and the summit that bit higher. The success enjoyed by Claudio Ranieri and his squad of unlikely heroes may just have been the death knell for those who dare to dream. Unfortunately, this is the legacy of Leicester City’s fairytale.