Sunday, 8 May 2016

Now You're Gonna Believe Them

“You must’ve cheated”
“I didn’t”
“Yeah, don’t give me that. You’ve changed the database to add some big players who wouldn’t ever join your club”
“No, no I didn’t.  Here, have a look at my squad. All these players are those who weren’t wanted by other clubs”
“Ok, well then you must’ve manipulated the scores. Each time you went behind you turned it off and started again”
“Well…..we were hardly ever behind so I didn’t need to”
“Ok, well bless you, you enjoy your fantasy.  It would never happen in real life”

This is a scenario that’s gone on around the world for any of us who’ve played Football Manager and published blogs of our progress.  One of the ultimate addictive facets to the game is the ability to take control of a ‘little club’ and guide them to glory, dreaming of press conferences, awards and team talks where you get to pit your wits against Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid.
What we have just witnessed in English football is an achievement of Football Manager proportions.  These things weren’t supposed to come true, in these days of clubs as behemoths burning more money than some countries GDP, football looked for all the world as though without money no club could hope to succeed.  Maybe in cup competitions the minnows could progress, mainly through luck of the draw as the bigger sides knock each other out, and maybe through the luck of timing.  A little club could come up against a big side who field a side to protect their stars as they are days away from a crucial European match.  Plus, cup competitions may only require you to negotiate six or seven matches.  But a league competition?  Surely that goes on too long for a lesser side to prevail?

But Leicester City has defied all the odds and overturned considered convention. 

There are plenty of reasons, or maybe even excuses, clubs can identify to suggest why they’re not currently winning titles.  Maybe they don’t have enough money to buy the quality of player to win trophies, their ground isn’t big enough to bring in enough revenue to afford these players’ wages.  They’ve given youth players a go but they’re struggling to come to terms with the higher standard of play.  All their best players get poached by bigger clubs.  They need a quality goalscorer, or a quality centre-half or a talented goalkeeper.  All those cost money and none of those players are interested in playing for clubs who don’t compete in European competitions.
Leicester has just blown all those excuses out of the water.  They ripped up the rulebook and laughed in the face of “it cannot be done”.  Of course there are a number of factors which have helped them achieve this, mainly the abject performances of other clubs who really should’ve won a league title when only 77 points were required for success.
It’s not just the big boys who’ve had their noses put out of joint and given homework for the summer to work out how they take on Leicester, but clubs who were above The Foxes in early 2015 are all now going to reassess their goals and aspirations.

There is a story often given by positive speakers about fleas in a jar.  If you put fleas in a jar and put the lid on, the fleas will jump up and hit their heads on the lid.  They keep doing this for a while until they work out that if they jump just below the level of the lid then they don’t get a headache.  They condition themselves so well they keep on doing this.  If you then remove the lid what happens?  The fleas keep jumping to the level of just below the lid as they’re not aware the lid has been removed.  You can keep them in that jar with the lid off for ages as they’ve been conditioned to believe that jumping any higher will bring them pain.

This is where many clubs who would consider themselves on a par with Leicester, now find themselves.  The lid has been lifted but have they got the ability to realise or the dreams to be able to jump higher?

Some clubs appeared to start the season with acceptance of a relegation battle.  They only really got to work once the drop was a very real possibility and suddenly they put in big enough performances to get them out of the mire.

Leicester’s success isn’t a fluke.  Although it is true this should give many people confidence in aiming to achieve the impossible, you can’t just turn up with a group of players, run around a lot and hope to win the league.  Leicester’s success may actually have been a perfect storm.
Will there be another season when Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea all lose a total of 38 matches between them?  Compare that with last season when they lost a total of 25 between them.  That is not to belittle Leicester’s achievement, it’s not their fault those big four clubs all had a meltdown at the same time.  One of the benefits for Leicester for next season is the panic which now pervades the boardrooms of all four clubs to try and work out how to re-arrange their business plans.  Already two of them have announced new management, with another one rumoured to, and the fourth resisting the urge for now. 

There is no single factor which has contributed to Leicester’s stunning title win and in a way what this has proven is that money alone cannot win you a title, but then Manchester City are evidence you need a little more than just money to win league titles.  The fact Leicester staved off relegation last season from a seemingly desperate position will have gone someway for them believing they could achieve anything.

Leicester fell to the bottom of the Premier League at the end of November 2014 when they lost 2-3 at QPR.  It was their seventh defeat in the first thirteen matches of the season, and began a run of six straight defeats.  They ended it by beating Hull City but on New Year’s Day they were still bottom of the pile
The table on New Year’s Day morning makes interesting reading.  Leicester were bottom, with Burnley and then Crystal Palace three points above them.  The fortunes of those bottom three eighteen months on is interesting.  Leicester are now Premier League Champions, Crystal Palace are in the FA Cup Final and Burnley have just won the Championship title.

When Leicester lost at Tottenham in late March they were seven points from safety with just nine matches to go.  The proceeded to lose just one of those nine, at home to the eventual champions Chelsea, and drew at Sunderland.  All the rest they won.  Back-to-back wins against West Ham and West Brom saw them finally drag themselves from the bottom of the table in mid-April.  Those remaining seven matches are enlightening when looking back now.  They only conceded in two of those matches, the Chelsea defeat and the final game 5-1 thrashing of QPR.  Fast forward to this season and they have kept fifteen clean-sheets.  More tellingly twelve of these have come in the second half of the season.  Between the Boxing Day defeat at Anfield and the 2-2 draw at home to West Ham in mid-April, they played fifteen matches and only conceded in four.  They lost just once, at Arsenal and the consistency is one huge reason for their success.

They have a work ethic, as so many have identified, and this where they work so hard for each other.  They swarm all over sides.  They don’t need to worry about possession of the ball as they’ve proved their ability to retrieve possession, they lead the league in interceptions, and then counter attack at pace.  They possess a striker, Jamie Vardy, who never stops running and has scored 24 goals.  He also broke the Premier League record for consecutive games scored in.  They’ve identified their strengths and worked them thoroughly.  Not worry about not having the ball as long as they can nick it when their opponents are pushing forward, get it up the pitch quickly and then have a striker who can convert more often than not.  Largely Vardy has made the same run time and again every game, all season and yet sides have still to combat it.  They have a greater conversion rate of chances than any other club in the league.

There is also a fascinating synergy between the last two seasons.  They’ve been crowned Champions after 139 days at the top of the table.  Last season they were at the bottom for 140 days.
Claudio Ranieri deserves all the plaudits heading his way, so do the owners for choosing him against others better judgement.  But the groundwork within the club set up by the backroom staff and Nigel Pearson last season, is what has gone a long, long way towards their success.  The medical staff have found a way of preparing and looking after players who have been able to survive the rigours of a 38-game season without a soft-tissue injury anywhere.  Many felt sorry for him when a re-financed Chelsea ditched him for Mourinho in 2004.  Leicester is his sixth club appointment since then and he came from a less than auspicious experience as manager of Greece.  He was not to know of the turmoil behind the scenes within the Greek FA and was only in charge for four matches.  In nearly thirty years of management this is his first league title.  Few begrudge him that.

Have they been lucky? I think they have, but then again they’ve seized on an opportunity and run with it.  They’ve lost three games all season, with only two clubs ever getting the better of them (Arsenal, twice, Liverpool, once).  Chelsea lost just three last season, which puts that into perspective.  They have been clear of injuries, but then as has just been mentioned, they have created their own luck in that department.  They didn’t seem to suffer from any contentious decisions by officials, possibly until the Vardy sending off against West Ham.  They didn’t have many goals chalked off or many goals given against them where replays suggested otherwise.

What Leicester has proved is that there is no substitute for hard work, planning and preparation.  Ranieri didn’t make too many adjustments to the 2014-15 side but the changes he did make were crucial.  There are all sorts of stats about how little they’ve spent compared to the bigger clubs in English football, but what they have generated is a fantastic team spirit where the players are prepared to sacrifice themselves for each other.  There are no huge egos at the club, no big names.  At the end of last year I read a comment from someone about how Leicester would struggle to keep hold of players like Vardy and Mahrez.  Now I’m sure the club is looking forward to barging in on their rivals transfer negotiations, saying “don’t go there, they haven’t got Champions League football”.

I tweeted towards the end of November about the incredibly tough run of fixtures they had coming up.  They’d just won at Newcastle and gone to the top of the table after thirteen games.  Their run was Manchester United (h), Swansea (a), Chelsea (h), Everton (a), Liverpool (a), Manchester City (h).  My argument was they’d gained a lot of points against weaker opposition.  They’d only picked up two points from games against Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United.  I, like many others, expected them to fall away.  I expected them to find the going tough, players would pick up injuries, etc, etc.  .  Most people were likely to have agreed with me about Leicester’s chances, although there was one chap who reckoned they’d get “12 points there easy”.  Take a bow Ross Bell (@RossBell1984), you were almost on the money.  They picked up thirteen points, winning three, drawing two and losing just one of those six matches, at Liverpool.

When they lost at The Emirates in mid-February many people expected Arsenal to go on and take the title.  They were two points behind Leicester and with a supposedly far superior squad and a manager who’d experienced a title win.  But from there Leicester really hit a rhythm, gaining nineteen points from a possible twenty-one over the next seven games, conceding in just one.  A series of 1-0 wins took them further ahead of the pack.  In contrast, Arsenal’s seven matches earned them just nine points.  In the days of George Graham at Arsenal the fans frequently sang “one-nil to the Arsenal”.  All these years later they’d been “out Arsenal-ed” by Leicester City.  58,000 is the average attendance at Arsenal, whereas Champions Leicester only house 32,000 every week.  Even Aston Villa command a higher average attendance.

Was this the ‘greatest story ever told’ in football?  There have been a couple of contenders to challenge this.  Ipswich winning the title in 1962 a year after winning the Second Division title.  Nottingham Forest won the league in 1978 a year after finishing third in the Second Division.  They then went onto win back-to-back European Cups.  The Forest side is a decent comparison with Leicester in that they didn’t have any superstars, until Brian Clough signed one of the best goalkeepers in the world, Peter Shilton.  But other than that they had a lot of players who inidividually weren’t necessarily anything special, but collectively were very hard to beat.  Liverpool had just won back-to-back league titles and also the European Cup, a year after the UEFA Cup.  They contained internationals such as Clemence, Neal, Hughes, Hansen, Thompson, Souness, Dalglish, McDermott and Ray Kennedy.  They won the league by seven points which is the equivalent of ten points today.

In the sixties the league was won by eight different teams.  In the seventies six different clubs won the First Division.  In the last ten years just three different clubs have won the title.  This is not to denigrate either Ipswich or Forest’s achievements but money has changed everything, especially expectations.  

Leicester may do quite well in Europe, particularly as their brand of football should be very difficult for foreign teams to contend with as they rarely come up against it.  The key could be to keep the same group of players.  It will be important for them to recruit well, paying particular attention to attitude and temperament.  All the talk coming out of the King Power Stadium is they intend to do just that.  What remains for them next season is anybody’s guess.  So many, including their own supporters, got this season wrong so it seems churlish to try and predict anything further of this wonderful story.  Personally, I’m going to just sit back and enjoy it.  One of the most popular successes for many a year.  Let’s hope that success doesn’t ruin the players or the team spirit.

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