As Leicester City pulled five points clear at the top of the Premier League at the weekend, it was widely remarked that a year ago at this time, it was situated at the bottom of the table. It’s a line that’s likely to be repeated quite a bit: Leicester didn’t move off the bottom of the Premier League until April 18. It’s impossible to express just how implausible its form since then is: 12 points clear of fifth with 13 games to go, it would take a spectacular implosion for Leicester not to qualify for the Champions League.
Nobody’s even talking about that, but even if Leicester does stutter and fail to win the title, to qualify for the Champions League would still be a staggering achievement. Since Leeds United’s demise in 2002, the top four has tended to be self-perpetuating elite. Since 2010-11, Manchester City has replaced Liverpool (which edged out Manchester United in 2013-14), but other than that, the only variations in the last 12 seasons have been Everton (once) and Tottenham (twice). Clubs with far bigger budgets than Leicester have tried and failed to break the glass ceiling.
Sunday is another huge day. Leicester will still be top even if it loses at Arsenal, but if it wins, with Manchester City playing Tottenham in another top-four clash, the gap could be as large as seven points by Sunday evening. The Foxes follow that with seemingly straightforward home games against Norwich City and West Bromwich Albion. The process of ticking off games has begun. How many points do they need?
Claudio Ranieri has set a target of 79: 80 would probably be safe. That’s 27 more; nine wins from 13 games. The only really tough games left are the final three: away at Manchester United, at home to Everton and away at Chelsea. The biggest threat, perhaps, is how Leicester reacts now that winning the title is not just a distant dream but a very real possibility. More vaunted teams than it have seized up in the run-in.
But the best thing is that this isn’t about money. It isn’t about a sugar daddy turning up and spending vast sums to succeed. This isn’t even about the increasing wealth of the Premier League’s middle-class. Leicester’s budget is modest. The squad cost around £60 million to assemble. The side that beat Manchester City 3-1 on Saturday cost about a tenth of its opponent. On a day when Liverpool fans staged a walkout in protest at increased ticket prices, this felt significant, a blow for romance and spirit against the corporatism and greed that has dominated English football for so long.
It’s clear that neutrals want Leicester to win the title. Large numbers of Manchester City fans stayed behind on Saturday to applaud Leicester off the pitch. Already the improbability of a Leicester title win is being debated: as unlikely as Nottingham Forest in 1978? Ipswich in 1962? There are no other candidates. And in an age in which football is so predicated on money, that means more now than it ever has.
That’s also why Ranieri is the perfect man to lead the charge. He’s benefited from the wealth of various clubs over his career, of course, most notably at Monaco, but when Roman Abramovich arrived at Chelsea in 2003 and changed the financial landscape of the Premier League, Ranieri was one of the victims, ousted at the end of the season to make way for Jose Mourinho. It was Leicester’s victory over Chelsea in December that led to Mourinho’s dismissal, and, while Ranieri is too dignified to make a point of it, there is something almost poetic about the thought of him being presented with the Premier League trophy at Stamford Bridge.
It’s perhaps best not to dwell too closely on how Leicester has got in this position. None of it makes much sense.
There was a widespread perception last season that Leicester was playing better than results suggested in the early part of the season, and in that regard Nigel Pearson deserves credit for having kept belief alive when it might easily have collapsed. He certainly laid the foundations.
But the events of the summer look ridiculous when written down: a manager, whose capacity to contain his inner rage was already in doubt after he asked a reporter if he were an ostrich, was sacked after his son racially abused a Thai prostitute during an orgy. He was replaced by a coach whose last job, in charge of Greece, had ended following a defeat to the Faroe Islands. Good luck repeating that recipe for success.
Ranieri, derided as the "Tinkerman" during his time at Chelsea, made only subtle tweaks, moving from a back three to a back four, making the role of Riyad Mahrez far more significant, and bringing in Christian Fuchs and N’Golo Kante. The system is simple–defend deep, use the pace of Jamie Vardy on the break and get Mahrez running at defenses as often as possible–but it works, perhaps because other teams still don’t take Leicester entirely seriously. Which top-half opponent this season can seriously say its made significant modifications to its approach before playing Leicester?
But that still doesn’t explain what prompted the upswing in April. What caused a team that had taken 19 points from 29 games to take 75 from its next 34? The arrival of Robert Huth to partner with Wes Morgan at center back clearly helped (although it should be remembered that while recent performances have been almost superhuman, a year ago he was a reserve at Stoke), but in Leicester many have pointed to the influence of Richard III.
Crowned in 1483 following the mysterious deaths of Edward IV’s two young sons, his nephews, Richard reigned for two years before being killed in battle at Bosworth Field, just outside Leicester, as he sought to repel an invasion force led by Henry Tudor, who succeeded him to become Henry VII. His body, having been missing for centuries, was discovered under a parking lot in Leicester and was interred in Leicester Cathedral on March 26 last year, the precise moment of the upswing in Leicester City’s form.
There have been rationalizations about a sense of civic pride prompted by the burial creating a general feeling of positivity, but the supernatural theory seems as good as any. How else to explain the remarkable lack of injuries, or the fact that pretty much the entire Leicester team has hit the form of its life simultaneously?
The greatest fairytales, perhaps, simply cannot be explained.