December 30, 2016

Sports Stories of 2016: Leicester City’s Magical Premier League Run

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Leicester City's unprecedented run to Premier League gold in 2016 could be the greatest story in the history of professional sport.

It is the summer of 2015.

The then-Barclays Premier League is gearing up for a new season, oddsmakers are crunching numbers in their London offices. Leicester City finished the previous season near the bottom of the table, their first season back at the Premier League level after an 11-year absence.

Thanks largely to the fact Leicester managed to win seven of their last nine games of the 2014-15 campaign, they were saved from relegation. In the Premier League era, which started in 1992, no team has ever been lower than third the year before going on to win the title.

Regardless, the Foxes were not on any oddsmakers’ radar as any club poised to make any noise whatsoever in the upcoming season that summer — Leicester were pegged with 5,000-to-1 odds to win the Premier League.

Simon Cowell being named the next British prime minister, and Hugh Hefner admitting he was a virgin were just a pair of the events English oddsmakers were presenting as things that could happen before Leicester City won the Premier League.

The longest odds to win the World Series this year were the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves at 500-to-1. The NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers were 350-to-1, and that team won 10 games. Hockey’s longshot was the Arizona Coyotes at 250-to-1.

What proceeded to unfold over the course of the 2015-16 campaign can only be described as the singular greatest story in the history of English football, if not the entire sport itself.

The English Premier League is capitalism at its finest display in all of sports — there is no salary cap, no draft and as little revenue sharing between the clubs as possible. There are few, if any, incentives to assist the league’s smaller clubs, and this is simply the accepted attitude. Fairness is not the goal, the richest teams are meant to win the league title.

Every year.

Here’s a brief summary of the Premier League’s champions the past 20 years:

Manchester United, Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester United, Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester United, Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Manchester United Manchester City, Chelsea.

You get the picture.

The transformation began in June 2015, when Leicester City, out of nowhere, announced the sacking of the club’s manager, Nigel Pearson, the same man who had been credited with returning the team to proper form and to the Premier League. After a rather curious search, the club’s management settled on Claudio Ranieri as the club’s next manager.

Ranieri’s selection drew immediate criticism from fans and analysts alike. Upon his arrival, the Italian had managed 14 different clubs, and had never won a top-level championship at any of them. The hiring was so confusing that Gary Lineker, a Hall of Famer and the greatest player in the history of Leicester City, tweeted this:

The whistle blew, the season kicked off, and Leicester played to a 4-2 opening-day victory over Sunderland. In that game, Riyad Mahrez scored two goals. Jamie Vardy scored one.

The performances of Mahrez and Vardy were emblematic of what was to come for the club.

If you had to pick one moment to define as the club’s spark, it would undoubtedly be their 2-1 victory at West Ham, a team that, while inconsistent, had a good chance at dismissing the Foxes quite easily. They didn’t, and it became the first time in nearly two decades that Leicester won their first two games of a Premier League season.

Then the wins, and the goals, kept coming.

The score sheets graduated to 3-0, then 6-0. Despite all of this, Leicester’s form was written off by analysts, and even by their new manager. By December 2015, they were nestled atop the league standings, tied with Arsenal. Still, Ranieri was quoted as telling a room of reporters, “We are doing well, but we don’t [sic] achieve nothing.”

For years, the EPL has been dominated by clubs who prefer to play possession football, which in turn frustrates opponents, leading to mistakes and ultimately open space available for exploitation.

Leicester played the exact opposite. They allowed their opponents all the possession they wanted, defending deeply, then breaking away at a blistering pace in the opposite direction as soon as they got the ball. And the dynamic duo of Mahrez and Vardy were exactly the one-two punch Leicester needed.

Four years ago, Jamie Vardy was turning out for Fleetwood Town in non-league soccer. Mahrez was playing as a reserve for Le Havre of France’s Ligue 2. At the conclusion of the 2016 season, Mahrez was named the PFA Player of the Year, an annual award bestowed upon the best English football player. He became the first African player to ever win the award.

But it was the 29-year-old Vardy who not only captivated Leicester City supporters, but football spectators from across the globe.

In a goal scoring run unprecedented like any other of his career, Vardy scored 22 goals in 35 games. He became the first player to score in 11 straight matches since Blackpool’s Stan Mortensen did so in the 1950-51 season.

Off the pitch, it was the manager so many cried afoul of when his appointment was announced, that had the largest impact. Ranieri had been named coach of Greece’s national team, but he was sacked after just four matches, the last a humiliating defeat by the Faroe Islands.

Yet the charismatic 64-year-old’s team – assembled for less than $40 million and playing pacy, direct, counter-attacking football – confounded the experts. Ranieri’s Leicester side would lose just three games during their championship season.

Little Leicester, from the English provinces, with their genial old Italian coach Claudio Ranieri, and their motley crew of rejects, unknowns and never-weres. Twelve months prior, they were certainties for relegation; in 2016, they were champions.

In the end, England’s biggest sports books combined to lose more than $11 million.

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