Across the pond in the United Kingdom, the most improbable turnaround in sports history recently occurred. An English soccer club by the name of Leicester City has clinched this season’s Barclays Premier League title, despite the club’s status as a heavy underdog.
The top flight of English soccer has been extremely top-heavy of late. Since the Premier League era’s beginning in 1992, only five different clubs have won the coveted title: Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, and Blackburn Rovers. The world’s top players typically join clubs with large bankrolls, a spot in the highest level of European competition, or both, in order to compete for trophies and receive a large paycheck each week.
Leicester City does not possess a large budget relative to its competition and did not qualify for any of this season’s continental tournaments. As a matter of fact, the Foxes were promoted to the Premier League just two seasons ago, and they just barely escaped relegation to the second division last year despite languishing in last place for a good portion of the season. As a further sign of instability, Leicester sacked manager Nigel Pearson last June and replaced him with Claudio Ranieri, even though the squad’s performances toward the end of 2014-15 were trending in a positive direction. Since Leicester had barely avoided relegation the previous season and was adjusting to a new manager, many believed that the Foxes would face the strong possibility of demotion this season and certainly would not be competing at the top of the Premier League table. The idea of Ranieri’s side actually winning the league was unimaginable, and the Foxes were given 5,000 to 1 odds of bringing the trophy to the King Power Stadium.
The question remains: how did Leicester City become champions of England less than a year after they almost lost their place in the the country’s top division? The season involves so many matches (38 league games per team) to believe pure good fortune was involved. The Foxes did not sign any superstars over the summer. They also did not have the resources to throw money around to buy new talent like the league’s powerhouses often do. In the end, credit must be given to Claudio Ranieri’s excellent management and the emergence of multiple breakout stars.
Leicester completed only six permanent transfer deals over the summer, but their signings were smart. Ranieri signed Austrian left-back Christian Fuchs and German center-half Robert Huth in order to upgrade his defense, French midfielder N’Golo Kanté to protect the back four, and Shinji Okazaki to add some forward depth. All four of these players put in extremely productive shifts for the Foxes, combining for 127 total appearances and performing their positional responsibilities at a high level. Kanté even received a nomination for PFA Player of the Year, displaying his all-around midfield prowess. Defensively, Kanté was a phenomenal protector of Leicester’s back line; the 25-year old recorded 4.5 tackles per game and 4.2 interceptions per game according to whoscored.com, a soccer statistics website.
Ranieri’s side also benefited from two breakout superstars. The first player, an English striker named Jamie Vardy, actually has an incredible underdog story of his own. The attacker started his professional career at Stocksbridge Park Steels, an amateur club that was playing in the eighth division of British soccer. After playing for some lower-league clubs and climbing up the English pyramid, Vardy signed with Leicester, who was in the second division at the time. By the end of the striker’s second season in the midlands, the Foxes had earned promotion to the Premier League; the Leicester number 9 scored five goals in his first season of top-flight experience. Vardy has followed up last year’s slightly disappointing goal tally with a marvelous 2015-16 campaign. Earlier this season, the Englishman scored at least one goal in eleven consecutive matches, breaking the Premier League record previously held by Manchester United legend Ruud van Nistelrooy. Vardy scored 13 goals during that dominant stretch and currently has seen 22 of his shots fly past opposing keepers since the league’s opening day.
Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez also has developed into one of the Premier League’s best players this season. Mahrez has acted as Leicester’s main creator this season; the left midfielder can form chances for himself and his teammates on the counterattack or during regular build-up play. The 25-year old has scored 17 goals and recorded 11 assists in 2015-16, demonstrating his ability to pull the strings of Leicester’s attack. Mahrez’s brilliant creative play earned him the PFA Player of the Year award, which was voted on by his fellow soccer players.
Manager Claudio Ranieri, however, still deserves a large amount of credit for the Foxes’ Premier League success. Not only has the Italian signed smart players, but he has also created a set of tactics that fits his squad quite well. For almost every match this season, Leicester has relied on a 4-4-2 formation (four defenders, four midfielders, and two strikers). This formation is extremely balanced; the Foxes are able to absorb the opposition’s pressure with their reliable back four and counter quickly after they gain possession. A 4-4-2 formation also possesses two wingers and two strikers, meaning that Leicester can spread out opposing defenses by giving the ball to the wide men. This defensive positioning gives the strikers more space to shoot on goal when the ball is played into the penalty area, placing opposing back lines in a vulnerable state. Ranieri also favors a counterattacking style of play, which leaves opposing defenses even more dispersed and creates more glaring chances for fast players like Mahrez and Vardy.
Leicester City’s incredible turnaround from relegation contenders to Premier League Champions should prove to the sports world that no odds are impossible. As a comparison, Leicester’s 5,000 to 1 odds seem absurdly low as compared to the Philadelphia 76ers odds of 306 to 1 to win this year’s NBA championship at the start of the season. The 76ers have been the joke of the NBA for many years and finished the season with a 10 wins and 72 losses. The Foxes season may go down as the most incredible and unexpected in the history of organized sports. Leicester has also proven that it’s not just a flashy list of players and a big bankroll that wins championships. Sometimes with the right blend of players and an intelligent tactical manager, a team can surmount any odds. Leicester’s championship triumph was unbelievable but did not defy all logic when reviewed in hindsight.