By Richard de Winter @rgdewinter @TLE_Sport
Another week gone, another set of results that maintain Leicester City’s position of comfortable leaders of the Premier League. The story has developed from ‘how long can they keep this run going?’ to ‘at this rate they might even make the Champions League’ to ‘wouldn’t it be great if they could win it’ to ‘seriously, this is getting ridiculous – they’re now favourites.’
It doesn’t really matter though whether Leicester do manage to achieve what almost every football fan outside the City Ground and Pride Park would like to see – this season has been one of the most enjoyable and most unpredictable since football was invented in 1992. A Manchester City fan of my acquaintance has even admitted that he’d prefer to see Leicester win the title ‘because it would be a great story, wouldn’t it?’
There has been a certain amount of condescending hand-wringing about how the relative weakness of the Premier League this season has allowed Leicester to be in the position they are. As Jane Austen would probably have written, had she been born a couple of hundred years later, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a Premier League season where an unfashionable team leads after 29 matches is in want of a decent challenge from one of the self-appointed elite clubs. This attitude has some merit, given the travails of all of the usual title challengers (and Arsenal), but does detract from the fact that this season Leicester have been a bloody good team.
They have been fortunate with injuries, in that none of their key players has suffered from a long absence during the campaign, but then that could be down to excellent fitness and conditioning work from the coaching team. What cannot be denied is the benefit of having a settled starting XI, who know their role in the side, and trust the other players to know theirs too. Leicester have used 23 players this season, the joint fewest in the Premier League, of whom only 12 have started 10 or more games.
They have also shown they can win in different ways. Until recently, most teams thought they could beat Leicester by simply maintaining possession, probing around the penalty area, and waiting for a breakthrough. Aided by the defensive nous of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, and the extraordinary ball-winning abilities of N’Golo Kanté (the Claude Makélélé of the 2010s), Leicester have been able to bide their time, before counter-attacking at bewildering speed, using the pace of Jamie Vardy, the craft of Riyadh Mahrez, and the crossing ability of Marc Albrighton. At the moment, only Sunderland have a lower average possession than Leicester’s 43.4% this season, showing that they must be extraordinarily effective when they do have the ball.
However, in the past couple of weeks both Norwich and WBA ceded the majority of possession to the Foxes, setting a new challenge, one which they have dealt with rather well, beating the Canaries, and being rather unlucky not to win against the Baggies. Given their next six fixtures are all eminently winnable (apologies West Ham fans), this is a tactic they may well be faced with a lot over the coming weeks, and the passing ability of Danny Drinkwater, as well as the overlapping runs of Christian Fuchs and Danny Simpson from full-back, will be crucial. Leicester have shown some startlingly intricate interplay around the opposition goal at times this season, and do have the tools to deal with ultra-defensive opposition.
In many ways the unexpected story of this season’s Premier League is a perfect storm – the usual contenders all suffering from various deficiencies, the increase in TV money meaning the rest of the league are able to attract a better quality of player than they might have been able to previously – and we should cherish its singularity. Not since Norwich City in both 1988-89 and 1992-93 has a similarly unfashionable club made a genuine title challenge.
Sadly, like Norwich in the seasons mentioned above, I still think Leicester will fall just short. They continue to respond in the best possible way to all the doubts cast upon them, but their success has been built on 11 players playing to the very best of their ability. As soon as the pressure of the situation causes even two or three of those players to drop below their current level, I think they will start to struggle, and an untimely injury to any of the usual starting XI (with the possible exception of Shinji Okazaki) will show up the lack of depth in the squad.
Therefore, the question is who will win it, if not Leicester. Tricky question, especially considering none of the other contenders is making a particularly strong case. Tottenham have looked the most likely, but lack the experience of a title challenge, and were a little leggy against both West Ham and Arsenal. Arsenal are doing a wonderful job of Arsenal-ing it up, which leaves Manchester City, the only team in the league capable, in my opinion, of going on a long enough winning run to reel the Foxes back in.
They have a strong squad (except for at centre-back), have had plenty of experience in challenging at the business end of a season, and their most important players (Kompany, Silva and Aguero) seem to be coming into form at just the right time. Kevin de Bruyne’s likely return at the start of April will give their attacking play that extra option that has been lacking of the past couple of months.
Whether Leicester win the title or not, we should sit back and enjoy the last couple of months of one of English football’s most unlikely seasons. With Manchester City and Chelsea, and possibly Manchester United and Arsenal all under new management next season, their challenges are unlikely to be as supine again, and it may be a while before we see such an improbable and popular title challenge again.