As the season marches into April we are, once again, left with a team in blue sitting pretty at the top of the table and threatening to turn the final stretch into a procession. But while last season champions - Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea - used their healthy cushion at the equivalent stage last year to guard against the stumble to come, this season’s presumptive champions Leicester City are methodically picking apart the carcass of this Premier League season and are seemingly in a rush to get it all done and dusted with games to spare.
Few would quibble with Claudio Ranieri’s side being crowned champions. It is European football’s fairy tale, a farcically improbable win up there with Hellas Verona pipping Maradona’s Napoli and the rest of Italy’s giants to the Serie A title in 1985. The genial Ranieri has a bank of goodwill built up from his seemingly endless grace and this writer still remembers getting a little too emotional after seeing good old Claudio well up after Chelsea knocked out the Invincible Arsenal side in the Champions League in 2004. Ranieri strikes you as the type of guy who you would apologise to after the back of your stationary car got in the way of his accelerating BMW, and the prospect of the traditional big four in England being rope a doped by the likes of Wes Morgan is a delicious one in many ways.
— Christian Fuchs (@FuchsOfficial) March 14, 2016
No one has been involved in more goals this season than Riyad Mahrez (27) bettering only Jamie Vardy (25). N’Kolo Kante is many people’s pick for this season’s Most Valuable Player while Kasper Schmeichel has done a more than passable impression of his father. Journeymen like Marc Albrighton have been reinvented as hard running stalwarts of a winning team. Danny Drinkwater has banished Swiss captain Gokhan Inler to a permanent place on the bench while Christian Fuchs has established himself as perhaps the most elegant full-back in the league.
Everywhere you look, there’s a story and despite their nearest challengers being a vibrant young Spurs side who themselves have had to wait decades for a title, everyone is safely on the Foxes bandwagon.
International break is over so it's time to jump on the Leicester city bandwagon again #upthefoxes
— Brian Kenny (@briankenny86) March 30, 2016
But what kind of champions will Leicester be and what does it say when the most well-funded league in the world is befuddled by such an ordinary side? The confluence of events that have led us to this title win are significant, of course. No one could have foreseen the dramatic fall of Chelsea nor Manchester City’s pitiful excuse for a season. Manchester United are still lost in the riddle of Louis Van Gaal while Jurgen Klopp will surely need a pre-season and a significant transfer window for his brand of heavy metal football to take hold at Liverpool. In the face of convulsive change around them, Arsenal remain assuredly Arsenal.
Crystal Palace boss Alan Pardew came off as more than a little bitter about Leicester’s rise in his programme notes before the two sides met two weeks ago but it cannot be denied that they have been fortunate in the extreme when you consider that the spine of the side – Schmeichel, Huth, Morgan, Kante, Mahrez and Vardy have started at least 30 out of 31 Premier League games. At no stage have they been tested by a significant injury. That is, of course, testimony to their medical department but they’ve undoubtedly had a large slice of luck in avoiding contact injuries to their starting eleven.
Leicester's scrappy 1-0 win at Palace followed a similar template – they have won 13 games by a single goal margin this season. They sat back, with Huth and Morgan stationed on the edge of their box, while Kante hoovered up possession in front of them. On the 34th minute, Jamie Vardy flashed a shot across the box and Riyad Mahrez calmly finished. The rest of the game featured a distinct lack of quality. Leicester had two further shots on target and conceded more possession to the home side.
Possession is certainly not a central part of the Leicester’s game plan. Only Sunderland and West Brom have had a lower average possession rate in the league. Reactive football like this can be thrilling, of course, no more so then when Mahrez and Vardy snap forward, but a reactive team should not be top of the Premier League. That they are, speaks somewhat to the rest of the league being asleep at the wheel. To win playing this way every week requires your opposition to play the way you need. It is a damning indictment of the rest of the league that they have obliged.
The Premier League has been repackaged somewhat this season with TV millions giving every club the chance to buy quality from across the continent. It’s no longer ‘Grand Slam Sunday’ with the big four but more the NFL’s ‘Any Given Sunday’. Anyone can beat anyone is the cry; you don’t get this in Spain where Barcelona fillet teams every week or Germany where Bayern mince any opposition not named Borussia Dortmund. It is the most competitive league in the world but Leicester’s rise has ensured we are mistaking competitiveness for quality.
— Kasper Schmeichel (@kschmeichel1) January 13, 2016
Leicester winning the league is in many ways a fairytale, but we all seem wrapped up in the ending and no one seems too concerned with how we got here. They are an ordinary side who are mostly terrible to watch and they are coasting the richest league in the world.
In time, this may be seen as a one-off, a bizarre blip on a radar that quickly corrected itself. Or it’ll be seen as the moment the richest league in the world cemented its position as a second-tier league in terms of quality.
Still, as long as Claudio is happy.
— Leicester City (@LCFC) April 1, 2016