May 4, 2016
In the past couple of decades, the top of the English Premier League has, in many ways, been a bit of a snooze fest.
Entertaining finishes occurred, to be sure, but even the most surprising title campaigns were still fairly “predictable” in the scheme of things. Just three clubs – Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea – had finished atop the table in England’s top football division within the last 10 years. Extend that window further and you get one more repeat champion, Arsenal, for a grand total of four teams that have consistently challenged for title during the majority of the league’s 24-year existence (due apologies to Liverpool).
That all changed when Leicester City clinched the title on Monday. The Foxes are the first opponent outside these four to win the league since the Blackburn Rovers narrowly edged United in 1995, completing an underdog campaign that was forseen by exactly no one who knew what they were talking about. You’ve heard the numbers at this point: Sports books gave the team 5000-1 odds of capturing the title at the beginning of the season, roughly equivalent to the chances that Cal State Bakersfield had to win the NCAA tournament. In short, Leicester pulled off the greatest upset ever.
As impressive of an accomplishment as it was, it was also, almost by definition, kind of a fluke. Leicester caught Manchester United and Chelsea in transition years, Manchester City in the midst of an injury crisis and Arsenal, well, being Arsenal. That doesn’t necessarily diminish from Leicester’s accomplishment – at most, it lowers the odds against it from astronomical to merely monumental – but it does beg the question about how repeatable this feat will be in the future.
Leicester fans thus far aren’t taking anything for granted. They realize that there’s a solid chance the team won’t be able to keep its now-coveted stars, even with the additional Champions League revenue due to roll in. Some of the other top teams will bring in new players and coaches, and luck will favor different sides in different matches. Leicester arguably shouldn’t even be the top league contender out of all the typical title outsiders, as Tottenham rolled out its own share of surprises this season and has a better chance of keeping its roster intact.
An interesting feature of Premier League play will be put to the test over the course of the next few months. In the past, seeing a player perform well for a lesser team in the league merely meant that one of the “big guys” would snap them up the next summer. Already the rumors are swirling that Leicester’s standouts will fall victim to this perennial fate. An arms race is likely to develop around Riyad Mahrez. N’Golo Kanté was checked out by Paris Saint-Germain. Heck, even goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel has been linked with Barcelona.
Leicester has more resources to retain these players than anyone ever has before, but it’s far from certain exactly how much this will mean. The club’s executives may be influenced by the incredible numbers they see on transfer proposals, or the players themselves may take the chance to flee toward more established programs. The loss of even a few key playmakers could significantly alter Leicester’s fates; it’s hard to see how they would make up for the goalscoring production that might leave with Jamie Vardy, for instance.
These are all reasonably individual decisions that are difficult to predict before they happen. Yet, depending on how they do turn out, the narrative of the Premier League may be significantly altered. It was effectively an assumption before this season that all but five or six British teams would always be locked in a race out of last. Now that the pathway to the top of the podium has been trail-blazed, it’s totally possible that future players, owners and fans will attempt to open it again.
All this could end if these five or six clubs reassert their control next season. In some respects, the toughest challenge for the Foxes lies ahead of them. Leicester has proved this year that it’s possible to move from the bottom to the top with good coaching and an incredible ability to recognize undervalued talent. Now it’s up to them to prove whether it’s possible to stay there.
Andrew Mather shocked oddsmakers by reaching the top of the Stanford Daily Combine leaderboard with 3 reps on the 225-pound bench press. To see highlights, email him at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.