Jun. 16, 2015
Leicester City - this is why we watch
Leicester City are Barclay's Premier League winners in 2016. I hope the club's managers had a camera crew follow this team every step of the way this season en route to what is an astounding of a sporting accomplishment as I've ever witnessed as a life long sports fan.
It's 2016 , damn it, and things like this simply don't happen any more. Up and until this year, Leicester City's most proud achievement was last season's hot finish to avoid relegation. After a dismal start, the Foxes put together the best mathematical escape from relegation in the history of the Premier League. Without significant player changes, other than the acquisition of N'golo Kante, and under a new leadership from an experienced tactician Claudio Ranieri, that team, now topped English footballing giants, such as, Arsenal, Chelsea, or the two-headed, money-spewing monster in Manchester, to lift the trophy.
Dismissal turns to disbelief, which will turn to appreciation and acclaim.
For people who don't regularly follow soccer, let's put this in appropriate perspective. There is no salary cap in European football. The Premier League has signed an enormous TV contract, which dwarfs other European leagues, including the Champions League, the premier club competition on the continent. The new deal will bring in £5 billion just from UK rights and total income from domestic and foreign rights for the next three years might reach £8.5 billion which is almost double compared to the previous TV deal. This guarantees profits for all teams in the PL, which leaves them with a lot of funds to play the ultimate fantasy game by spending huge amounts of money to better their squads. Some of the recent eye-opening transfer fees include: Raheem Sterling to Manchester City for €70m,Kevin de Bruyne to Manchester City for €88m, or Angel di Maria to United for a whopping €90m (he was sold a year later for €63m after not adapting to Manchester). For comparison, Leicester's most expensive recent transfer fee was €11m Euros for Kramaric, a player who doesn't feature in Ranieri's side this year and the previously mentioned Kante for a similar amount. Two fellas by the names of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez who combined for a brilliant 39 goals and 19 assists this season cost them €2.25m... combined. Previously mentioned Sterling limps to the finish line with 6 goals and 3 assists. Talk about bang for your buck.
The previous sums of money are only transfer fees - amounts paid by a club to the player's previous employer just for the rights to his services. The second step is to actually pay the player. Chelsea lead the way in payroll forking over an outlandish 215 mln pounds (about 273 mln Euros) for salaries for its players. Abramovic's club is followed by Man United (£203m), Man City (£194m), and Arsenal (£192m). The likely runners-up Tottenham spend £110m on its players. Leicester ranks 17th out of a total of 20 PL teams with a figure of a mere £48m. The only organizations that the Foxes outspend are the newly-promoted teams Watford, Bournemouth, and Norwich City.
This is not supposed to happen. Especially when after the "success" of last season, the management and coach didn't see eye to eye and Nigel Pearson was sacked. Without any meaningful changes to the roster, Ranieri put his own spin on the team. There were some meaningful adjustments within the squad. Some regulars from last year often took a seat on the bench or even in the stands. But the team played well and seemed to pick up steam from the word go. A hot start for Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez escalated the team near the top of the table, but if anyone tells you that they believed that Foxes would stay there - they are lying! The team then had to learn how to play against the big boys in such a way so that they would go for wins and no longer considered draws against the big spenders good results. They did so with a style of play that brilliantly combined the skill and work rate of the players while overcoming the gulf in class. They often played counterattacking football, but with a tiki-taka level of precision passing and movement, lead by N'golo Kante, who went from a relatively unknown name to a household name and a France international. Leicester lead the PM in long passes this year, which is not a stat big teams would be proud of, but these long passes were often supplemented by brilliant link up play and movement - players seemed to know exactly when to make runs into the attack and when to stay back to aid in defense. Vardy was given freedom up front (Ulloa, the team's leading scorer from last year took a back seat, while the "expensive" signing of Kramaric was essentially wasted by confining him to the bench. Meanwhile, later on in the season, the team so used to playing the scrappy role of the underdog had to beat teams in the middle and bottom of the table as the favorites. At times, it seems akward to watch as it seemed both teams were uncomfortable handling the ball for longer periods, but in those games, the Foxes, also, found a way to win. A series of 1-0 victories after a pizza challenge issues from the skipper to keep a clean sheet. Motivated by pizza, the team kept a clean sheet in 11 out of the next 15 games. And, miraculously, won it all - officially at this moment: https://.com/FuchsOfficial/status/727242055995392000
There is a larger point here. Sports lovers don't like too much money in their sports. But with TV contracts going through the roof in England, as well as American leagues, money is coming in fast. As the NBA prepares for significant increases in salary cap in the up-coming years because of its new TV contract, along with a new Nike apparel deal, to go along with adverts on jerseys, we can get the idea that it's not about the love of the game any more. We risk losing out on the competitiveness of sports as the rich clubs can flex their financial muscle and we fear the higher pressure on athletes and thus more incentive to use performance enhancers. But Leicester City's triumph, along with some other trends in sports, give us hope of maintaining the magic for which we tune in so religiously. You can outsmart the money. First in baseball, then with the advent of analytics, and a holistic approach to team-building and a tactical focus on system basketball and 3 point shooting in basketball and an unexpected title and later domination from the Golden State Warriors, Atletico Madrids trimph over the mighty Barcelona and Real Madrid thanks mostly to the brilliance of the coach Diego Simeone, to now a mind-boggling Leicester title, obtained thanks to a fresh tactical approach and optimization of resources by finding ways for individuals to thrive in a well-functioning machine, sports maintain its magical level of drama. The underdog will always have a puncher's chance, but these trends show that splashing money on players and coaches won't work as long as the opposition is capable of building a unit greater than the sum of its parts, because as we look at the recent champions in major sports, that seems to be the recipe for success.
Thank you Leicester City. You are everything good about sports.