Such is the smartness of the Premier League marketing machine, every season seems to end with fans declaring it the best ever. But perhaps 2015-16 will be remembered as just that; a season when champion side Chelsea slumped to mid-table, and Leicester City, tipped for relegation during preseason and was 5,000-to-1 odds to win the title, romped to the trophy by a clear 10 points.
There was drama, controversy, glory and surprises. Here are some of the bests and worsts of an unforgettable, storybook campaign (which has one game to go after Manchester United's bomb-scare-turned-training-exercise fiasco on Sunday):
Coach of the Year: Claudio Ranieri, Leicester
It’s impossible to look beyond the charm and humility of Ranieri. A coach belittled by Jose Mourinho, he showed quiet leadership (incidentally, that’s the title of a new book by another former Chelsea boss, Carlo Ancelotti) and enough confidence to make only minor changes to the Leicester side that ended last season so well. Leicester’s local butcher made Ranieri sausages in his honor and he can expect a street to be named after him.
He seems to enjoy the absurdity of it all and unlike many of his colleagues, does not take himself too seriously.
Honorable mentions:Mauricio Pochettino (Tottenham), Slaven Bilic (West Ham)
Player of the Year: Jamie Vardy, Leicester
The Premier League players voted for Riyad Mahrez, the Leicester players voted for N’Golo Kante, and the football writers went for Vardy, whose 24 goals propelled the Foxes to the title. His story is well-known–rejected as a youngster, playing non-league football five years ago, and scrapes with the law along the way–but it is so unlikely that a Hollywood film is in the pipeline. So is his autobiography, which will come out later this year.
After a sensational season. the clamor for him to start for England at Euro 2016 continues.
Honorable mentions: Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City), Harry Kane (Tottenham)
Leicester City's Top Moments of 2015-16
The first points; Aug. 8, 2015
In what turned out to be a sign of things to come, Jamie Vardy scored the club's first goal 11 minutes into the season and Riyad Mahrez scored two of his own to give Leicester a 3-0 lead 25 minutes into a 4-2 win over Sunderland at King Power Stadium.
Immediate response vs. Spurs; Aug. 22, 2015
Riyad Mahrez answered Dele Alli's 81st-minute goal a minute later, and even though Leicester suffered its first non-win of the campaign in the 1-1 home draw against Tottenham, it showed a promising resiliency against a club it would be fending off down the stretch.
Comeback vs. Villa; Sept. 13, 2015
Facing a 2-0 deficit at home to lowly Aston Villa, Leicester mounted a furious comeback, with Ritchie De Laet, Riyad Mahrez and Nathan Dyer scoring in the 72nd, 82nd and 89th minutes, respectively, to steal three points in dramatic fashion.
Another 2-0 comeback; Sept. 19, 2015
Again down 2-0, Leicester rescued another point from a losing position at Stoke City. The Potters raced out to their lead within 20 minutes, but Riyad Mahrez's penalty and Jamie Vardy's 69th-minute equalizer salvaged the point.
Vardy rescues a point; Oct. 17, 2015
Leicester found itself down 2-0 to Southampton (sensing a theme here?) but roared back late. Jamie Vardy scored twice, once in the 66th minute and the dramatic equalizer a minute into stoppage time, earning the Foxes another point from a losing position.
Clean-sheet pizza; Oct. 24, 2015
It took 10 games and a promise of a pizza party from manager Claudio Ranieri for Leicester to keep a clean sheet, but the Foxes did just that in a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace. The pizza promise became an instant part of Leicester lore, and the club went on to keep 14 more clean sheets–including six in seven games down the stretch.
Vardy's scoring record; Nov. 28, 2015
Jamie Vardy set a Premier League record scoring in his 11th straight game in a 1-1 draw vs. Manchester United. Ruud van Nistelrooy previously held the mark.
Sweet revenge for Ranieri; Dec. 14, 2015
With manager Claudio Ranieri facing Chelsea–the team that ushered him out in 2004–and squaring off against Jose Mourinho–the man who replaced him–Leicester wound up with the bragging rights and three points. Jamie Vardy scored off a perfect Riyad Mahrez pass, Mahrez added a gorgeous goal of his own, Leicester won 2-1 and Mourinho was promptly fired.
Schmeichel saves a point; Dec. 29, 2015
On the heels of a Boxing Day loss to Liverpool, Leicester proved its title chops by holding contender Manchester City to a 0-0 draw. Kasper Schmeichel made a pair of key first-half saves, and Leicester bounced back three days after the setback to secure a meaningful point.
Huth's header beats Spurs; Jan. 13, 2016
Defender Robert Huth's perfect 83rd-minute header from Christian Fuchs's corner–his first goal since last April–gave Leicester a 1-0 win over Tottenham at White Hart Lane, snapping a three-game winless run. Given how the title race would come down to the two clubs, the point swing has proven to be massive.
Vardy's wonder-volley vs. Liverpool; Feb. 2, 2016
Jamie Vardy scored twice in a February win over Liverpool, but it was his first goal that had the world talking. After running down a long ball from Riyad Mahrez, Vardy unleashed a 25-yard volley off the bounce to stun the Reds and help Leicester exact revenge for one of its three losses on the season.
Huth scores two at Man City; Feb. 6, 2016
A match at Manchester City was supposed to be the start of Leicester's downfall, but the Foxes were having none of that. Robert Huth scored in the third minute to shock the Etihad faithful, and he added another later to proclaim Leicester's intentions in a 3-1 win.
Ulloa beats Norwich late; Feb. 27, 2016
Both times Leicester lost to Arsenal it followed up with wins over Norwich City to right the ship. The second time was far more thrilling, with Leonardo Ulloa scoring an 89th-minute winner at King Power Stadium to put the title ship back on course.
Officially safe! March 1, 2016
Not that it was ever remotely in doubt, but Leicester ensured safety from relegation with a 2-2 home draw vs. West Brom. Given Claudio Ranieri's cautious approach to overstating goals, the preseason expectations and last season's heroic charge out of the drop zone, the achievement was still notable and allowed Leicester to officially look ahead to bigger things.
Kante returns, Mahrez scores vs. Watford; March 5, 2016
Vital midfielder N'Golo Kante returned from an injury and Riyad Mahrez scored a highlight-reel goal–again–as Leicester won at Watford 1-0 to keep pressure on Tottenham and Arsenal in the title chase. The club's record away from home (11-2-4) is a big driver of its overall success.
Okazaki's bicycle kick beats Newcastle; March 14, 2016
Shinji Okazaki's bicycle kick goal gave Leicester a nervy 1-0 win over Newcastle on a day which Leicester entered leading Tottenham by just two points in the Premier League table.
Captain Morgan helps Leicester extend lead; April 3, 2016
With Tottenham dropping points to Liverpool the previous day, Leicester took full advantage. Defender and captain Wes Morgan scored his only goal of the season in a 1-0 win over Southampton that stretched the club's lead atop the table to seven points.
Leicester clinches Champions League place; April 10, 2016
It went overlooked given the club's title aspirations, but Leicester clinched an almost equally improbable place in next season's Champions League with a 2-0 win at Sunderland, cementing a top-four place. Jamie Vardy's two goals did the honors.
Ulloa's late equalizing PK vs. West Ham; April 17, 2016
Leonardo Ulloa calmly converted a penalty kick deep into second-half stoppage time to cap a game full of controversy and secure a vital point in a 2-2 draw with West Ham.
Ulloa scores two in Vardy's absence; April 24, 2016
With leading scorer Jamie Vardy suspended because of a referee altercation in the previous match vs. West Ham, Leonardo Ulloa stepped into the starting lineup and scored twice in a 4-0 rout of Swansea City. A Tottenham draw the following day put Leicester in position to clinch the title with three points from its final three games.
The Vardy Party; May 2, 2016
Leicester players gathered at Jamie Vardy's house to watch Chelsea take on Tottenham in the decisive match in the title race. It was the Vardy Party to top all Vardy Parties, as Leicester was crowned champion following the 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge.
Ranieri's Guard of Honor; May 14, 2016
Claudio Ranieri returns to Stamford Bridge, where he was jettisoned in 2004 for Jose Mourinho, and steps through Chelsea's guard of honor, which the outgoing champions provided for Leicester City.
Young Player of the Year: Dele Alli, Tottenham
Dele Alli began this season wanting to play 10 games for his new club.
After all, he was 19, had never played in the Championship before, let alone the Premier League, and was at a team competing in the top four. But that didn't stop Mauricio Pochettino, who gave Alli his debut in the first game of the season and started him for the second time in Spurs’ 4-1 win over Manchester City.
He kept his place ever since, forming a partnership with Eric Dier in midfield that has continued into the full England squad. He scored from 25 yards on his England debut against France and will be a key player at the Euros this summer. Pochettino deserves great credit for giving him the opportunity.
Honorable mentions: Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Jack Butland (Stoke City)
Signing of the Year: Kevin de Bruyne, Manchester City
£55 million is a lot of money to be considered a bargain, but when you look at how badly City fared in De Bruyne’s absence–albeit with an imbalanced squad and an injury-prone captain–it was clear that the young Belgian will continue to prove Chelsea’s decision to sell him to Wolfsburg a wrong one.
More than Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero, De Bruyne was the decisive player for City this season, and had he stayed fit in spring, when the club dropped out of title contention, it might have ruined Leicester’s party. His teammate Raheem Sterling cost a little less, but the difference between the two could not have been bigger.
Honorable mentions: Lamine Kone (Sunderland), N’Golo Kante (Leicester City)
Flop of the Year: Florian Thauvin, Newcastle
The French winger raised eyebrows when he cost Newcastle £12 million last summer–it seemed a lot for player who had issues at his previous club Marseille–but was dressed to impress when he turned up for his first home game wearing a tux complete with bow tie. Unfortunately his performances did not match the outfit and he only played three games before going back to Marseille on loan in January.
That was quite a fee Newcastle paid for him; it paid the same for Jonjo Shelvey in January, when it was apparent that the defense needed improving. The recruitment mistakes contributed to Newcastle’s relegation.
Honorable mentions: Seydou Doumbia, Henri Saivet (both Newcastle), Eder (Swansea)
Goal of the Season: Jamie Vardy, Leicester vs. Liverpool
This was a goal that summed up Leicester’s season: A long ball from Mahrez, and confidence, impudence and perfection execution from Vardy. The context was significant too: it came at the start of a run of games against Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal when everyone expected Leicester to slip away. Instead it won the first two matches. And often, its best goals came in the big games: Mahrez's against Chelsea and Manchester City were among the best all season.
Honorable mentions: Dele Alli (Spurs vs. Crystal Palace), Cuco Martina (Southampton vs. Arsenal)
Leicester City's Premier League title celebrations
Leicester City players hold up the banner that says it all: The Foxes are Premier League champions.
Chelsea fans at Stamford Bridge show their support for Leicester during the Blues' decisive 2-2 draw vs. Tottenham that clinched Leicester's title.
Leicester fans gather en masse around King Power Stadium to celebrate their Premier League title
This Leicester fan's scarf says it all: Champions
Fans celebrate as Chelsea's draw with Tottenham secures Leicester's Premier League title.
Fans celebrate Leicester's title outside of King Power Stadium the night the trophy was clinched.
More Leicester fans express their joy after winning the title.
Leicester fans stand outside of King Power Stadium with a trophy of their own–a placeholder until captain Wes Morgan is presented with the actual trophy.
A statue of King Richard III, whose tale and reburial is part of the Leicester title lore, is graced with a Leicester City championship flag.
The day after Leicester won the title, fans continued to celebrate by King Power Stadium.
Jamie Vardy is escorted through a crowd of fans as he joins a team lunch in Leicester the day after becoming a Premier League champion.
Which one is Jamie Vardy? The Leicester forward and his lookalike Lee Chapman celebrate on the team bus.
Leicester fans gather to catch a glimpse of Jamie Vardy and the rest of their title-winning heroes.
Riyad Mahrez makes his way to a car leaving a team lunch in Leicester, as a mob of fans and media try to catch a glimpse.
Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri makes his way through the masses.
Even the dogs are behind the Foxes amid Leicester's title run.
Leicester City fans Sarah and James Robinson have named their daughter Olivia-June Claudia Robinson–with the middle name in honor of Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri.
Claudio Ranieri toasts over Champagne at his first press conference after Leicester clinched the Premier League title.
Leicester's Christian Fuchs poses with the UFC title belt as part of Leicester's title celebrations.
The Premier League trophy arrives at King Power Stadium, where it now belongs.
Famed tenor Andrea Bocelli appears on stage with Claudio Ranieri to sing ahead of Leicester's match vs. Everton as part of the title celebrations.
Everton provides a guard of honor for Leicester City ahead of their match.
Jamie Vardy wastes no time in marking his return to Leicester's lineup after a two-game ban, scoring five minutes in to keep the celebration going on the field.
Andy King, the last holdover from Leicester's third-tier, League One club in 2008, celebrates his goal vs. Everton in the pouring rain.
Leicester captain Wes Morgan lifts the Premier League trophy at a capacity King Power Stadium.
Leicester City lifts the trophy: The 2015-16 Premier League champions.
A team photo for the ages: Leicester City with its Premier League championship trophy.
Leicester City enjoys a parade through a packed downtown, gathering with fans for one massive celebration for its title season.
Leicester fans pack the streets to catch a glimpse of their title-winning heroes at the victory parade.
Flanked by his star players, Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri shows off the Premier League trophy.
Thousands upon thousands pack Victoria Park in Leicester to celebrate Leicester City's Premier League title.
Mystery of the season: Eden Hazard’s loss of form
No team defending the title has ever done as badly as Chelsea this season, and the player who embodied its struggles was Hazard.
He went from Player of the Year to a place on the bench and couldn't seem to work out why himself. Some cynics suggested that, once Chelsea was eliminated from Europe, he was keeping his powder dry for the Euros. He definitely looked in better form in the last two weeks of the season, with goals against Spurs and Liverpool reminiscent of last season’s player. New coach Antonio Conte’s challenge next season will be to recapture that form.
Honorable mentions: Why did Watford get rid of Quique Sanchez Flores for doing what he was brought in to do? Why did Crystal Palace sign Emmanuel Adebayor in January?
Quote of the Year: "Dilly-ding, dilly-dong!" (Claudio Ranieri)
Only towards the end of the season did the Leicester players reveal the Italian’s habit of ringing an imaginary bell in training to keep the players focused. It’s a long-standing technique in the Ranieri coaching handbook, as former Cagliari player Ivo Pulga told The Guardian that Ranieri used the line on his squad in 1989. “At Christmas, he gave us each a bell with "Dilly-ding, dilly-dong’, and his name on it,” Pulga said.
Whatever Ranieri did, it worked.
“In sex masochism, then it is allowed.” - Louis van Gaal on Robert Huth pulling Marouane Fellaini’s hair
“Even if you are a medical doctor or secretary on the bench, you have to understand the game.” - Jose Mourinho on the opening-day row with club doctor Eva Caneiro that sowed the seeds for them both leaving the club
Team of the Season
GOALKEEPER: Joe Hart (Manchester City)
DEFENDERS: Hector Bellerin (Arsenal), Virgil Van Dijk (Southampton), Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), Christian Fuchs (Leicester City)
MIDFIELDERS: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), N'Golo Kante (Leicester City), Dele Alli (Tottenham), Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City)
FORWARDS: Jamie Vardy (Leicester City), Harry Kane (Tottenham)