The English Premier League is possibly the most popular sports league in the world. It has even caught on in the soccer-ambivalent U.S., thanks mainly to fans under the age of 30.
One of the EPL’s few drawbacks is that a few rich clubs dominate it. This was also true of certain major American sports leagues at one time, but we’re more egalitarian now that so many clubs are rich.
Since 1995, only four clubs have won the EPL — Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, and Chelsea. I can recall only one other club that, in recent years, made a strong run at the championship — Liverpool in 2014. Indeed, Liverpool, also a rich club, is the only other team to have cracked the top two since 1997.
But in this, the year of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, insurgents are also storming the EPL gates. Right now, with more than two-thirds of the EPL campaign completed, Leicester City (the Foxes) is in first place and Tottenham Hotspur (Spurs) is in second.
Tottenham’s standing isn’t a complete shocker. Spurs are considered a top-six team and it’s not much of a surprise that they are in the top four this year (the top four is a big deal because it qualifies a team to compete in Europe’s lucrative and prestigious Champions League). But Spurs are the youngest team in the EPL, and few expected them to make strong run at the title this year.
Yet, here they are, just two points out of first and with the best goal difference in the EPL. They might well win their first top-tier title since 1961.
Leicester’s rise is the story of the year and will become the EPL story of the century if they win the title. Two years ago, Leicester wasn’t even in the EPL. The Foxes were in the second tier of English football.
A year ago at this time, Leicester looked certain to return to the second tier. In fact, when April began, they were seven points out of 17th place, the finish needed in the 20 team league to avoid the drop. But seven wins in their final nine matches saw them to the safety of a 14th place finish.
When this season began, the Foxes looked to me like a mid-table team, if they could avoid major injuries. But the odds of them winning the EPL were set at 5,000 to 1.
Is Leicester for real? I say yes for four reasons. First, by this stage of the season, the Table (i.e. standings) rarely lies. The Table says Leicester is one of four teams with a shot at winning it all (the other two are Arsenal and Manchester City).
Second, Leicester passes the eye test. I look for teams that are strong up the middle and have an “x” factor playing in a wide position. Leicester’s goal keeper, Kaspar Schmeichel, is just an average EPL starter in my opinion, but the rest of the middle — Huth and Morgan at center back, Kante in central midfield, and Vardy at center forward — is as good as anyone’s. And Leicester’s “x” factor, winger Riyad Mahrez, is arguably the EPL’s best player right now.
Third, Leicester just played Manchester City and Arsenal away from home and came out looking the part of champion. The Foxes destroyed City 4-1 and were leading the Gunners until Leicester’s right back was sent off early in the second half. Even then, it took a last second Arsenal goal to defeat the Foxes.
I was also impressed that Leicester was willing to attack these two giant sides away from home. The Foxes vastly experienced manager Claudio Ranieri (ex-Chelsea, Napoli, Roma, Inter Milan, Atletico Madrid, etc.) used the same attacking 4-4-2 formation he’s employed all season. Some might view this as naive, but I thought it a good sign, and the results back me up. (Ironically, at Chelsea, Ranieri was known as “the tinker man” because he switched lineups so often. At Leicester, he doesn’t tinker).
Finally, Leicester is the only one of the four contenders that isn’t facing fixture overload — i.e. too many matches. The other three are all playing European football (for how much longer, we don’t know) and are alive in domestic cup competitions.
At a minimum, this partially negates Leicester’s one obvious disadvantage — lack of a deep bench. Even so, it’s doubtful the Foxes could survive an injury to Kante, Vardy, or Mahrez. Absent such an injury, they have a decent shot at winning their first top-tier title since 1929.
If I just looked at the Table without knowing which team was which, I would favor Spurs because of their superior goal difference. If I just looked at rosters, I would probably favor Manchester City (now that Vincent Kompany is back) or Arsenal. If I just looked at remaining schedules, I would go with Leicester City.
Looking at everything, I don’t really have a clue (Manchester City, with its lame duck manager, looks like the odd team out, but we’ve seen them win the title with late revivals in two of the past four seasons). This uncertainty, plus the Leicester City dream, makes the 2015-16 EPL season potentially the most fascinating one in memory.