By Jared Bomba
The story of Leicester City’s remarkable rise to the top of the English Premier League has been traced, dissected, and marveled at for what feels like an eternity. So much so that even now, with Leicester securing the title less than a week ago, it already feels like old news. Most regard it as one of the greatest soccer stories ever, while others have already begun picking at the champions-elect for their supposedly sub-par morals. So certainly the entertainment value of this story has not been unappreciated. However, now that what feels like the greatest “what if” in history has occurred, we must ask a new question. What does any of it mean?
Any player or supporter knows that each season is another opportunity to reach glory, as Leicester has done. The emotions that the Foxes pulled from viewers as they reversed 5000-1 odds, whether positive or negative, are why we love and watch the game. For others, it means the lasting effects of relegation (just ask Fulham, who narrowly avoided relegation from the Championship). Still, if we put aside the feelings we remember from the past few months, it can be hard to identify what greater significance this seemingly momentous season has.
For American Soccer
Apart from the Tottenham fans in the U.S. that feel as though THEIR season of destiny was spoiled by a few upstarts, it has to be a positive occurrence. I recently tried explaining the miracle of Leicester’s rise to a few coworkers of mine that are not soccer fans by any metric. While I struggled to find an accurate comparison, I noted that Leicester winning the title is somewhere between a D-League team winning the NBA Championship and the perennially terrible Philadelphia 76ers winning the same competition.
One of the people I was speaking to loves to mock soccer with the typical almost-jingoistic, American-football-or-bust attitude. But even he was amused by my Americanized version of Leicester’s accomplishment, and commented on how the narrow margin of victory in soccer makes stuff like this possible. If people who have a natural inclination toward the oblong ball can appreciate this happening, I imagine that more Americans will be drawn to the game, be it as a casual fan, parent of a young player, or in some other capacity. And that’s certainly not a bad thing.
For those of us already enamored with the beautiful game, there are still plenty of lessons to be learned. Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri, who is with reason now being treated like a football genius, may have caused the tactical revolution that the likes of Diego Simeone and Jurgen Klopp could not. Since Barcelona came to the forefront of club soccer around 2005-06, the club’s obsession with passing, passing, and more passing has taken over the world. I myself fell in love with the tiki-taka passing that brought the blaugrana their hallmark victories in the UEFA Champions League in 2009 and 2011 (less so in 2015). But almost from its inception, the writing has been on the wall for this intricate style of play.
In 2012 Chelsea stifled Barcelona attack, sitting in and countering the Catalans to death. Fernando Torres sealed the tie for Chelsea late in the second leg as his breakaway from midfield not only exemplified the Blues’ tactics but also knocked the then-defending champions out in the semifinals. For what felt like the first time, an acknowledge inferior team had made the world-beaters look average. It was not the first time that Barcelona had lost in recent years, of course. But to see a team rely on an active and physically able target (Didier Drogba) and otherwise defend with 10 men AND pull out the two-legged upset on such a big stage seemed like a blow to the world’s collective footballing conscience. I myself walked away from the game with a newfound respect for a workhorse target and supposedly “negative” tactics.
The rugged football of Simeone’s Atlético Madrid and Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund has certainly seen the light of day more often in recent years. Simeone reached the Champions League Final in 2014 and Klopp in 2013, so it has not been without success either. And the death of true tiki-taka football has no better proof than Barcelona’s willingness to at times rely on counterattacking play through their otherworldly front three. We here at The Away End have seen the value of “earning the right to play” in our own coaching and playing exploits at levels far below that of the professionals.
Still, American soccer culture seems to frown upon Route 1 football. Exhibiting athleticism without an equivalent amount of skill is frowned upon more often than appreciated. Academy teams from sea to shining sea play games that look more like training sessions designed to perfect the five-yard pass. But Ranieri has found the platform most visible to American fans, the EPL, and won the whole league with an unapologetic and unerring commitment to what many would label “negative” tactics. Maybe a better word is “humble”. That’s not to say that Leicester is unconfident or negative or hates the natural flow of the game. But they combined their natural qualities with a desire to win and a commitment to the method. It’s humble, its effective, and it is something that is remarkably easy to replicate at the lower levels. Far easier that imitating the infinitely complex patterns of circa 2010 Barcelona. Let’s hope the coaches of America are watching.
For the English Game
For the English, it’s more of a mixed bag. Of course, the mere attention brought to the game is a good thing for English football. I can’t imagine the TV deals will get any less lucrative for the teams in the Premier League. Furthermore, it only boosts the Premier League’s identity as the most competitive league in the world. The statistics show, according to attendance numbers, that the best-supported clubs are in Germany. The name recognition of clubs and players, coupled with the fact that the past three seasons have all seen a Spanish club win the Champions League, suggests that the world’s best football is played in Spain. But nowhere on the mainland could a club of such humble like Leicester win the title. Eibar, a club in La Liga, plays in a stadium that seats some 5,000 spectators. Could they fell the giants of Madrid and Catalonia? It’s still, even after Leicester’s totally unforeseen ascent, unthinkable.
With a competitive league that (apparently) features 20 clubs capable of winning the title, the Prem has the advantage of multiple ambassadors. Whereas Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund may be the only way to get pulled in the Bundesliga, there are at least seven clubs in England that are more recognizable than the next most-marketbal team in Germany. One of my aforementioned coworkers could not name a single European club before we had our conversation. Imagine that Leicester City is the first club a person had ever heard of. Imagine! In many ways, it’s a fortunate reality for English football.
But as I mentioned, the best football does not appear to be played England. Despite the efforts of the English to retain some continental dominance, you would be hard-pressed to find an Englishman willing to say that an English club is the world’s best. Or even in the top five. And unfortunately, having the Foxes prevail over all of the supposedly big guns in the Prem does not do anything to fight the trend of England falling behind the top clubs of Europe. Manchester City just dropped out of the Champions League semifinals after two rather boring games with Real Madrid. An admirable effort from the Mancunians, sure. But that was the farthest an English club has gone since Chelsea won the competition, and Leicester does not exactly seem primed to make a run for the title (though I wouldn’t be the first to underestimate them).
For the rest of Europe, Leicester’s presence in the Champions League is nothing short of encouraging. A Champions League without a dominant Manchester United side or rock-solid Chelsea side probably sounds like paradise to, say, Benfica. It’s entirely conceivable that a quality side from outside of the top five leagues could coast into the semifinals without running into a buzzsaw from one of the top leagues. And in any case, getting into a tough matchup like that won’t be any harder than before.
Despite Leicester’s new title as champions of England, I can’t imagine that top-notch players will be itching to move to the club. It doesn’t exactly improve the stock of other English clubs in the transfer market either. So while the Prem is far from potentially falling out of the top five leagues, it is a time of opportunity for any club or league looking to improve its status in the world game.
The only all-encompassing conclusion is that football is still alive and kicking. The endless plot twists of players, clubs, and leagues on the move and jockeying for relevance is showing no signs of slowing down. Various parties stand to gain or lose from the latest events. But in any case, the truly unique character of Leicester keeps us begging for the story to go on. Fortunately the footballing gods are a prolific and rapid set of writers.