The rise and (potential) fall of Leicester City

Depending on one’s political outlook, 2016 may be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Yet before all the doom and gloom of Brexit, Trump etc. etc., came the remarkable sight of Andrea Bocelli, clad in Leicester City attire, treating the supporters at the King Power stadium to a pre-match concert in celebration of their miraculous Premier League triumph. The rise of the Foxes to the summit of English football mirrors the stories of several other underdogs who defied “expert” opinion to strike unlikely victories in 2016, but mercifully, Leicester’s achievements acted to unite the public instead of divide it. Alas the 2016/17 season has not been so kind to Leicester, with public opinion turning sharply against them in the wake of Claudio Ranieri’s sacking, the 2016 FIFA Football Coach of the Year and loveable leader of last year’s campaign, and who now look increasingly likely to be relegated from the Premier League.

For those unfamiliar with the (occasional) joys of football, one must first place Leicester’s achievement in context. Since the establishment of the Premier League in 1992 (as an insolent twenty-something, I’m not going to concern myself with anything that happened before I was born), Leicester have oscillated between the top three divisions of English football, spending 11 of the 24 seasons in the top division. Their most successful period (previous to least season of course) spanned from 1995-2002, despite the best efforts of serial calamitous own goal scorer Frank Sinclair, during which they achieved their highest league table finish of 8th. However as recent as the 2008/09 season, the club had been operating in the third division.

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Final league position (relative to the top of the football pyramid) of Leicester City since 2008. Current position of 18th stated at the time of writing (27/02/17).

After regaining their Premier League status in 2014/15, which ended a 10 year absence, the club appeared destined to be relegated after one season, propping up the foot of the table for 18 consecutive weeks and 7 points from safety with just 9 games left in the season. Miraculously, inspired by their Argentinian talisman and player of the year Esteban Cambiasso (scorer of what is regarded one of the greatest team goals in World Cup history during a 6-0 demolition of Serbia and Montenegro in 2006), Leicester won 7 of their remaining 9 games, pulling off one of the greatest escapes in Premier League history, and finishing up with points to spare in a (relatively) cushy 14th position.

Given their highly unlikely survival, it was somewhat unsurprising that Leicester were among the favourites to be relegated in the 2015/16 season (eg. 9 of 11 Guardian football writers didn’t fancy their chances of staying up), with some bookmakers infamously offering 5000-1 odds for a league victory. Add to this the seemingly left-field appointment of Claudio Ranieri, a manager who had just been fired from the Greece national team after defeat to the Faroe Islands, and Premier League relegation looked all but certain.

And yet, the so-called fairytale season ensued. They acquired the services of the then little-known French midfielder N’Golo Kanté (on whom they would make an approximately 300  profit after one season) and enjoyed a reasonable pre-season (during which future household names Jamie Vardy scored 3 in 4 games and Riyad Mahrez 2 in 3). After a successful opening to the league season (only losing 1 in 7), a 4 game winning streak brought them to the dizzy heights of 1st position after 13 games. The much anticipated drop-off in form didn’t materialise, with Leicester never dropping below 2nd thereafter, topping the table at Christmas, and leading the way for 15 consecutive weeks to romp home with a staggering 10 points to spare on their nearest rival, to the delight of Match of the Day presenter, Leicester City legend, and crisp advocate Gary Lineker.

During this remarkable season, star-striker Jamie Vardy (signed from non-league Fleetwood Town for a reported €1.2 million in 2012) scored in 11 consecutive games, breaking Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s existing record of 10, and won the Barclays Player of the Season award, while Riyad Mahrez (purchased for €500,000 from a second division French side in 2014) scored 17 and assisted 11 times in 37 games to earn himself the PFA Players’ Player of the Year and CAF African Footballer of the Year awards. All very unbelievable, so much so that a movie biopic of Jamie Vardy’s, and thus Leicester’s, success is (apparently) in the pipeline.

How did Leicester manage to do this? That’s an important question, and certainly one I’m not going to try and answer. What one can say however the mean GD of  47%. A relatively strange year all round then, it seems, and the anomaly of Leicester’s achievement is underscored when one considers the final position of league champions in their previous season, as illustrated below

 

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League position of champions in their previous season from 1994-2016 in the Premier League, La Liga (Spain), Bundesliga (Germany), and Serie A (Italy)

Previous to 2016, only teams which have finished in the top three the previous year have gone on to the win the Premier League in the subsequent season. Indeed, if one looks at the same data for the Spanish, German, and Italian leagues over the same period, one finds that only two other teams who finished in the bottom half of their respective leagues went on to win the title next season. Atlético Madrid similarly jumped from 14th  in 1994/95 to 1st in 1995/96, while little-known 1. FC Kaiserslautern pulled off a miracle of their own in 1997/98 by winning the Bundesliga immediately after achieving promotion from the second division in the 1996/97 season (hence why they are plotted as 19th in figure above)

Rather unfortunately, however, the Leicester City fairytale has certainly come to an abrupt end. During the summer transfer period, many of their star performers were linked with big money moves away from the club, and while Vardy and Mahrez agreed to sign new contracts, they lost N’Golo Kanté to the now champions elect Chelsea. They endured a disastrous start to their campaign, losing to (then) relegation favourites Hull City, and in doing so became the first reigning champions to lose their opening game since 1989. In the subsequent 24 matches, the have only registered five wins (all of them coming at home), and at the time of writing (27/02), find themselves on a five game losing streak and a pretty much analogous position to where they were in the 2014/15 season (i.e. in the relegation zone). Such a collapse in form has recently prompted the owners to relieve Ranieri of his duties, provoking indignation from many football commentators, with Jurgen Klopp (the charismatic Liverpool manager) lamenting:

What can I say? Am I surprised that things like this can happen? No. It is not only football. For me there have been a few strange decisions in 16/17: Brexit, Trump, Ranieri

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League position of champions in their following season from 1994-2016 in the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, and Serie A. Note that the drop at 2006 in Serie A corresponds to the relegation of Juventus in the wake of the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal

And thus arises the obvious question; why, after winning at a canter last year, are Leicester City struggling so badly? The obvious answer, of course, is that they are playing very poorly. Many of the strongest performers last year have performed far below expectations (Vardy has 5 goals in 22 games, Mahrez 3 goals and 2 assists in 23), while their big budget acquisitions during the summer have failed to have a significant impact (€ 19.5 million forward Ahmed Musa has 2 goals in 18, while club-record signing Islam Slimani, costing \euro 30 million, has 5 in 14). The more pertinent question is why are these title-winning players not performing, and that seems just as mysterious as their unlikely triumph last year. One certainty, however, is that should Leicester not see a marked improvement in form before the end of the season, they will attain the ignominious honour of becoming the first Premier League team to be relegated as reigning champions

 

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