Soccer fans have been following Leicester City’s miraculous story all season, but casual sports fans might be raising an eyebrow toward the new Premier League champion.
It wasn’t Chelsea? Or Manchester United? Or City? Or Arsenal?
No it wasn’t. And as much as Leicester deserves to be celebrated, as immortalized as the Foxes will become in soccer lore, their story cannot be told without an extended footnote about those giants. For their abdication of power, so to speak, aided Leicester’s ascension.
It starts with the end of Chelsea’s reign as champion. That was made official on Monday, when Leicester became mathematically uncatchable atop the league table, but in truth the Blues relinquished their crown long before they fought back to draw 2-2 against Tottenham.
Chelsea failed to significantly strengthen in the transfer market last summer, despite it being apparent that strengthening was needed. For instance, Cesc Fabregas’ playmaking last season disguised how awkwardly his deep-lying playmaking fit into Chelsea’s structure, while Eden Hazard’s 19 goals and 11 assists papered over cracks in the team’s performances from time to time. Spectacular dips in form from both players portended trouble right from the beginning of this season.
Ultimately, ego-driven clashes between the underperforming stars and overbearing manager Jose Mourinho led to Mourinho’s sacking in mid-December. Guus Hiddink has done an admirable job righting the ship in the interim, but the season-long numbers don’t lie. While Chelsea is safe from recording the worst title defense in top-flight history — Manchester City won the First Division in 1937, then got relegated in 1938 — at best the Blues will finish with 54 points, a staggering 33 points less than last season, and far outpacing Blackburn Rovers’ Premier League record 26-point decline between 1995 and 1996.
Leicester can finish with a maximum of 83 points, which on average is a respectable total for a Premier League champion. Manchester United has won the league six times with 83 or fewer points, although those seasons by and large the Red Devils had their focus scattered across deep runs into the Champions League and domestic cups.
This season, the premiere club of the Premier League era fell further from the top perch Leicester usurped.
There’s reason to be optimistic about Manchester United’s future, but its present is pinned to a mix of intriguing youngsters and veterans who are past their glory years, some of whom never really had any. The Red Devils are guaranteed to finish with fewer points than last season, and they’re scrapping just to finish fourth and guarantee more Champions League soccer next season.
Part of this was expected. Sustaining Sir Alex Ferguson’s unparalleled run of success was always going to be an impregnable challenge after he left, and David Moyes’ disastrous nine and a half months paved the way for Louis Van Gaal’s reclamation project, which is still finding its footing and identity.
That said, United played Leicester to a stalemate this season, drawing 1-1 both times, which compares favorably to its local rival Manchester City.
The Foxes recorded their signature victory of the season against City, a 3-1 drubbing in early February that rang out like a bullhorn in a library. They waltzed into the Etihad and shoved around a City team whose spine was as weak as it’s been the past few years.
Leicester’s, by contrast, was strong, with central defender Robert Huth scoring twice and further imprinting his influence. Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kante worked their tails off in the midfield to disrupt attacks and mount their own. Striker Jamie Vardy registered four shots and was a pest the whole match.
All year, the lack of a strong spine haunted the traditional Premier League powers. City in particular relied on aging talents and never quite solved holes in the center of its defense. Moreover, the club kicked out the legs of its own manager by revealing Pep Guardiola would take over for Manuel Pellegrini this summer, leaking uncertainty into City’s direction and motivation.
The stumbles of the Manchester clubs and Chelsea, who have combined to win the past 11 Premier League titles, left a huge void atop the table.
Many thought Arsenal would fill it.
Arsenal did the double over Leicester, including a 5-2 demolition at the King Power Stadium in September, and after years without a major trophy, the Gunners finally seemed to have the squad — and circumstances — fit for a return to glory. Instead, they customarily dovetailed in the winter months, dropping 17 of an available 27 points over a nine-week stretch to exit the title race.
That wasn’t been lost on Arsenal supporters, either. Regardless of how much blame actually lies with Arsene Wenger and the club board, this season clearly represented a legitimate chance for a change in the Gunners’ fortune, and all they managed was the same unrequited aspirations.
That’s OK with Leicester. It was OK with Tottenham, too.
Arsenal’s fierce North London rival has been stocking young talent for years, and this season it grew by leaps and bounds. A slow start and an abundance of draws stilted Spurs’ title challenge, but they secured a return to the Champions League and several regulars should find their way into England’s first team this summer at the European championships. So Tottenham’s time is coming.
Leicester’s is already here. Make no mistake, Leicester City is really, really, good, and deserves every bit of credit coming its way. The players work tirelessly for each other. They believe in one another. Their manager, Claudio Ranieri, puts them in positions to succeed. This Premier League title was no fluke.
It’s not the Foxes’ fault the so-called big clubs capitulated. It is their fault they proved their supremacy over nine months of competition.
Your move, traditional powers. The crown isn’t going to restore itself.