Finding the next Leicester City in 2016/17
Put 10 of the best fiction writers in one room, starve them to death, feed them hallucinogens and not let them leave until they come up with the wildest finish to an EPL season that is still within the realm of realism and they wouldn’t be able to come up with the Leicester City story line. The closest they would come would the crazy Aguero finish back in 2010. What the Foxes did was as surprising as it is unlikely to be repeated in this year.
We’re now four games into the season and it’s becoming more and more apparent that the status quo will be restored. The elite is once again rising to the occasion. Leicester are toiling at the bottom with four points from possible 12 and with Champions League coming up, priority will be to do well at Europe while hanging around in the EPL. Ranieri focused on restocking the entirely preserved front line while forgetting to replace the human combination lock that N’Golo Kante was for the team all season long last year. With that said, no one said replicating their success is impossible (actually, I did, but it’s nice to dream).
Think of the most improbable sports outcome that you can fathom. It could be the Cleveland Browns winning the Super Bowl. It could be last year’s Philadelphia 76ers dethroning the Cavs before sweeping the Warriors 4–0. It could be a high school basketball that finds its missing link in a golden retriever that is also a basketball savant. It could be the Golden State Warriors, the best team in basketball, the universe and beyond, blowing a 3–1 lead including 2 home court games (never forget). You would probably only be in the slight vicinity of the tale that would be if Hull City manage to lift the silverware in May.
If you felt generous, you could describe Hull’s state as that of “complete disarray” at the beginning of the season. If you were being realistic, you would probably use something like “make the Sacramento Kings look like an exemplary ran sports franchise.” It reads more like a Bond action plot than the condition in which a sports franchise should exist. With the ownership group keen to sell and losing interest, the Tigers started their season one injury away from offering Reginald from section 101 a 10 game loan spell, no manager and no clear path to the future. Even so, they managed to put together a run of form that netted 7 points from possible 12 and a residency at the top half of the table. Now that the takeover from a new ownership group is almost done, new signings have been brought in and some sort of inevitable stability is looming, Hull are prepared to shed dysfunction and make a run, leaving the Kings alone as the shining beacon of chaos in franchise management.
Leicester City made their improbable ascent to the upper tier of the Premiership in their second year in the big leagues. They spent much of the first toiling in the underground and fighting to avoid relegation before everything clicked. Jamie Vardy became a goal scoring Goliath who could dust the road runner and a gaggle of meth heads in a footrace, Riyad Mahrez discovered that his feet could move both independent from each other and his body and the triumvirate of N’Golo Kante, Robert “what’s a clean tackle” Huth and Wes Morgan built a wall at the back Donald Trump would be proud of. All of this was unlocked by the clever tinkering of Claudio Ranieri, leaning on the same line up for most of the fairy tale run.
Watford are suddenly on the precipice of a similar resurgence, fueled by their 4–2 comeback from 0–2 down against West Ham, despite Dimitri Payet deciding that he is now a contortionist and not a soccer player to create one of the most miraculous moments we’ve seen this season. Same as the Foxes, Watford packs a potent front line of Troy Deeney and Idion Ighalo who seems to have finally led his horses to the stream of goal scoring after a scorching drought. Younes Kaboul and Jose Holebas lock up the back and Etienne Capoue slides in the middle to both be a rock in front of the back and gallop forward to provide goal scoring support. He is already sitting on three after scoring 2 in the last three years (!). Outside of Mahrez, who I’m convinced cannot be replicated unless you exclusively breed twinkle footed Brazilians for 4 generations, Watford has the formula down to a science, ready to replicate Leicester’s miraculous run to the top.
It was really difficult picking a third team. If I had to rank the probability rating of a team repeating Leicester City’s Hollywood run I would put it somewhere in the negatives and then subtract a few more points. I’m looking at each of these teams like everyone must have looked at David on his way to see Goliath. Whispering to myself (and to others), “that boy was always foolish, why is he going there? Why is he bringing a sling? Someone stop him!”
Some pundits have said that under Eddie Howe, Bournemouth have unlocked a positive style of play that can be considered Arsenal-lite with a much more depleted pool of talent. With utmost respect (unless you’re Michael Owen, then it’s all disrespect and then some), but that’s like saying the Philadelphia 76ers are expert at running the Golden State Warriors offensive schemes given their personnel.
Bournemouth re-upped this off-season, as much as it was possible, bringing in Jordan Ibe to provide pace on the wing and Nathan Ake to maybe at least make the back four manageable in games. The biggest acquisition is probably the full-season loan spell for Jack Wilshere, if Jack Wilshere was his 2010 version minus the injuries. Still, if Howe can squeeze anything that’s even close to 50% of the potential some people still believe Jack has, he may have the best midfielder he’s had yet. On paper, this team is unassuming and nonthreatening, like any good sports movie protagonist. They hit puberty late and then grow to dominate everyone around them who ever made fun of their incompetencies and crush their dreams. Bournemouth is Calvin Cambridge and Jack Wilshere is the pair of ragged sneakers they got from a thrift shop. Let’s do this.
Here is the thing — none of these teams are neither good enough nor deep enough to unseat the top teams that have galloped back into form like some sort of wild chariot race. It takes depth, tactics and a lot of luck to do what Leicester City did last year. It was a historically horrible season in the Premiership and I have better odds of making the Golden State Warriors roster than that has of happening again. And yet, if Leicester did it…