Friday November 6th, 2015

In this era of big business and massive TV contracts in the English Premier League, there are only so many ways for smaller clubs to succeed in the richest league in the world. Most come up from the Championship, stick around for a few seasons, then go right back where they came from. Those who do succeed usually fall into one of two general categories.

The first category is those who strictly adhere to some sort of footballing ethos. Consider the possession-heavy style that has defined Swansea City in its five years and counting in the Premier League, or the commitment to defending that has marked each of the three teams Tony Pulis has managed over the past decade. There is also Southampton, which has used its world-class academy to both stock the first team and generate huge transfer fees for academy graduates such as Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, and Calum Chambers.

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The other category is the clubs that, despite modest enough reputations, quietly spend like big clubs. The likes of West Ham and Crystal Palace have each averaged an annual net transfer spend of more than $30 million since 2012, and can now count accomplished international players such as Dimitri Payet and Yohan Cabaye among their ranks. They both sit comfortably in the top 10 this season, and likely won’t be at risk for relegation for a number of years.

Then there is Leicester City, which doesn’t fall anywhere near either of the above categories. Its model? A bats — t crazy style of play spearheaded by a pair of cast-offs that the club purchased for a combined total just north of $2 million. Those two, striker Jamie Vardy and winger Riyad Mahrez, have been arguably the two best players in the entire league this season. And after 11 matches, the Foxes — remarkably — find themselves in third place. 

They score loads of goals; only Manchester City has scored more this season. They let in almost as many; only the bottom six teams have had leakier defenses. They concede the first goal (or two) seemingly for fun, just to see if they can catch up. They’ve conceded first six times this season, and somehow, they’ve yet to lose any of those matches.

To understand how delightfully improbable all of this is, we must go back to spring of last season. At the beginning of April, Leicester sat dead last in the league, with a paltry four wins in 29 matches. Vardy and Mahrez had a whopping two goals each. Relegation seemed completely inevitable.

But then something clicked. Leicester won seven of its last nine matches and scored rampantly in the process. Vardy was especially active, scoring or assisting in six of those games, and Mahrez provided both goals in the 2–0 win over Southampton that clinched safety.

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Most dismissed it as a mere blip on the radar — stunning in isolation, but certainly not predictive of any further success. Even after Leicester’s surge to end the 2014–15 season, nine of 11 experts in The Guardian’s preseason prediction article tipped the Foxes to be relegated this time around. But in spite of the doomsday predictions, the Leicester train has kept on rolling this season, with Vardy and Mahrez running the show. 

Vardy, purchased for just $1.54 million in 2012 from Fleetwood Town, which was in the fifth division of English football, has scored a league-leading 11 goals in 11 games. After showing flashes of his potential last season, Vardy has been a certifiable monster this year, combining blistering pace and limitless stamina with a cool head in front of goal. This goal against West Brom last weekend shows all of his best qualities, and underscores why there are legitimate calls for a former non-league player to lead the line for England at Euro 2016.

It’s the type of goal that looks more like a design flaw in the FIFA video game — just play a through ball to the fastest player on the field and let him run— than something that should be able to happen in a Premier League game. But Vardy is scoring these sorts of goals almost at will. He’s scored in eight straight Premier League matches, leaving him just two shy of Robin van Persie and Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record for most consecutive games with a goal.

Vardy’s partner-in-crime Mahrez came even cheaper — a $616,000 purchase from Le Havre in the French second division in January 2014 — and he’s been just as good, providing seven goals and five assists in just nine starts.

The sorts of dribbles that Mahrez is pulling off are supposed to be reserved for the league’s biggest stars, big-money purchases such as Eden Hazard or Alexis Sanchez. But Mahrez is doing it better than any of them (and adding goals and assists to boot). He comfortably leads the league in successful take-ons, a skill that is becoming increasingly valuable in the modern game, as detailed by Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola.

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It’s worth emphasizing just how unprecedented it is to find two players of such quality for such little money. These days, there is barely even a category for a genuine match-winner purchased for under $20 million or so. And Premier League teams have spent far more than that in recent seasons in search of players to make even half the impact that Vardy and Mahrez have had (Angel di Maria at Manchester United, Fernando Torres at Chelsea, and many more).

Yet Leicester finds itself with absolute gems in the two hardest-to-fill roles in world football — a prolific striker and a dynamic winger — for a combined sum equivalent to 1/18th of Liverpool paid for Lallana. 

Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri has duly built his team around the two, believing that Vardy and Mahrez can sufficiently outscore opponents and mask the defensive frailties that plague his side. So far, against all odds, it’s working. Leicester is the only team to have scored in every match this season. But clean sheets have been so rare that Ranieri publicly promised his players that he would buy them pizza when they got their first one of the season (it took 10 tries). Seriously. This actually happened, straight out of the playbook of every 10-and-under youth team in soccer history.

Perhaps the most beautiful part of it is that none of it is remotely duplicable. It’s not like some enterprising technical director at a similarly small club can look at Leicester’s purchases of Vardy and Mahrez, and think that he, too, can get even 1/10th of the value for that kind of money. Further, no manager in his right mind would base his team’s playing style on the cardiac football that Ranieri is employing. Leicester is truly one-of-a-kind, and it’s magical.

Sadly, amid all of the craziness, the specter of sustainability and #SmallSampleSize looms. As much as we want to believe it, Leicester is not going to storm into a Champions League place, overthrowing the established order in English football along the way. Overwhelming odds say they’ll regress soon to their mid-table destiny. Vardy and Mahrez have been excellent so far, and are both terrific players, but neither can maintain a goal conversion rate near 25%. And not even Bayern Munich or Barcelona could come back from deficits as successfully and regularly as Leicester has so far.

But we need not over-focus on how much longer this all will last, or what Leicester’s expected goal margin is. Behind a pair of brilliantly entertaining scrap-heap acquisitions, the Foxes are shaking things up, and it’s fun as hell. They are the result of a random aberration far more than an inimitable pattern, and in an age where just about everything can be quantified, there is something refreshingly charming about that reality. Until they fall back to earth — and even once they do — let’s sit back and enjoy the ride.

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