In this era of mega-bucks, Leicester City used old-school tactics and values to reinforce faith in the egalitarian nature of football, says Novy Kapadia.
Leicester City have shown that it is not necessary to have a cash-rich squad to win the Premier League. Their success in the 2015-16 season was achieved on a shoestring budget of £52.8 million. The budget of second-placed Arsenal was £223.8 million, third-placed Spurs was £169.5 million, while big spenders Manchester City rounded off the top four with a budget of £411 million. Man City, whose signings included Raheem Sterling, Nicolás Otamendi and Kevin De Bruyne, were by some margin the biggest net spenders in the league. In fact, they spent £54 million on these three big signings alone, more than Leicester’s entire budget.
By contrast, Leicester City’s star players cost peanuts. The remarkable Jamie Vardy, who has emerged in his late twenties as a striker of pace, initiative and courage, cost just £1 million when he was recruited from fifth-tier Fleetwood Town in 2012. Plucked from the obscurity of non-league football, Vardy’s confidence increased as a result of his new club’s faith in his pace and ability; he is now an international striker.
His life has dramatically changed within the span of a decade. Stocksbridge Park Steels FC, where Vardy began his career earning a reported £30 a week in 2007, is eight leagues below the Premier League. In 2007, Vardy could never have dreamt that ten years later he would be playing against Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in the UEFA Champions league, the world’s biggest club competition. Such stories add to the romance of sport.
Man City, whose signings included Raheem Sterling, Nicolás Otamendi and Kevin De Bruyne, were by some margin the biggest net spenders in the league. In fact, they spent £54 million on these three big signings alone, more than Leicester’s entire budget.
Talented Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez cost just £400,000 when he was bought from Ligue 2 team La Havre. Yet Mahrez achieved what former great African players like striker Didier Drogba and midfielder Yaya Toure could not, by becoming the first African to be elected by the Professional Footballers’ Association as the Premiership’s Player of the Year. Similarly, tenacious midfielder N’Golo Kanté was bought last summer after impressing at a Caen side that finished 13th in Ligue 1. Due to his exploits with Leicester City, Kanté—whose career was languishing barely a year ago—will now represent France in Euro 2016.
Relatively unknown players helping a lesser-known club win their first major league title in a hundred years is a dream come true, a fairy tale story, the Cinderella effect. Leicester are the first club to win the Premiership—sometimes called the “Greed is Good League”—without a large budget or a generous benefactor. It reinforces the egalitarian nature of a working-class sport, which has become the preserve of super-rich clubs in the 21st century.
Credit must also be given to the backroom staff of Leicester City, the scouts who meticulously chose players who fit into their system, despite their lesser renown. Manager Claudio Ranieri deserves plaudits for spotting these players’ potential, nurturing them and playing to their strengths. Their chairman and owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, a Thai billionaire and founder of King Power Duty Free, also played a key role by ensuring financial stability and not interfering in the selection of players.
Talented Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez cost just £400,000 when he was bought from Ligue 2 team La Havre. Yet Mahrez achieved what former great African players like striker Didier Drogba and midfielder Yaya Toure could not, by becoming the first African to be elected by the Professional Footballers’ Association as the Premiership’s Player of the Year.
Leicester City did not try to play like Barcelona—“tiki-taka” and long bouts of possession football. Neither was their epochal title challenge all about attack; they also gave a series of defensively resolute performances. Rarely did they look in any serious trouble, and skipper Wes Morgan, a late developer who played top-flight football for the first time at the age of 30 years, marshalled the defence with complete calm. He also scored a couple of crucial goals during the run-in: the winner against hard-to-beat Southampton and, even more significantly, an equaliser at Old Trafford against Manchester United. Former German international defender Robert Huth and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, son the legendary Danish custodian Peter Schmeichel, also ensured that Leicester City had a rock-solid defence.
Leicester defended in depth and counter-attacked with pace, using the speed of Vardy to great effect. Their playing style reinforced the fact that there is no magic in systems. It is the cohesion, confidence and abilities of players that count.
Manchester City’s outlay of £124.4 million on transfers in 2015-16 comfortably exceeded the combined total of the rest of the Premier League’s top nine clubs. Yet they finished the season in fourth, two places worse off than last year, with 13 fewer points. The figures show there is no correlation between spending on transfers and sporting achievement. Newcastle United also spent a lot of money on transfers, but still got relegated.
Their playing style reinforced the fact that there is no magic in systems. It is the cohesion, confidence and abilities of players that count.
That money does not always buy success is welcome news for the average fan and the romantics in sport. The triumph of the underdog occurs very rarely in life, so when it does occur in sports or sometimes elections, there is a general feel-good factor. The average football fan in England is also happy as Leicester City’s success can enable them to cock a snook at the tycoons who have taken over several famous clubs.
Sheikh Mansour and the Abu Dhabi United group transformed Manchester City, while Russian businessman Roman Abramovich’s investments made Chelsea a formidable club. Both are amongst the world’s 10 richest football clubs. Since taking over Manchester City in 2008, the Abu Dhabi United group has spent £850 million (Rs 7,980 crore) on transfers alone. Chelsea is valued at $1.36 billion, with annual revenues of $526 million. Their costs are also large, especially the massive increase in player’s salaries, bonuses and perks. This leads to a rise in ticket prices. Consequently, working- and middle-class fans were slowly priced out of stadiums of Premiership clubs.
For instance, Arsenal have not won the league in more than a decade, but are in a league of their own when it comes to fleecing their fans. According to the BBC’s annual Price of Football report, Arsenal have not only the most expensive matchday tickets in the Premier League at £97, but also the most expensive season ticket, at a staggering £2,013. Their cheapest season ticket is £1,014, but that too is the most costly in the Premier League—£249 higher than any other club. At the other end of the spectrum, the cheapest Premier League matchday ticket costs just £22 at Leicester City, while Stoke City boast the cheapest season ticket at a modest £294. The cheapest season ticket at Leicester City costs £365. Their victory is welcomed by all neutral fans, as it is a throwback to a bygone era, when provincial clubs with limited budgets, like Derby County (1972) and Nottingham Forest (1978), could become champions of England.
That money does not always buy success is welcome news for the average fan and the romantics in sport. The triumph of the underdog occurs very rarely in life, so when it does occur in sports or sometimes elections, there is a general feel-good factor.
Despite winning the league title, however, Leicester were not awarded the highest prize money for the season. This is because television deals are skewed in favour of the rich and big clubs. Arsenal is the highest earner, as it was shown on TV more than any other side, raking in £101 million from the TV deal, while Ranieri’s Leicester side got £93.3 million despite their stunning campaign producing arguably the most fascinating season in English football history. This discrepancy exists because so many of their live matches were not shown, as till the end most experts thought they would flounder. Their odds on winning the title were a massive 5000 to 1. So the experts on Sky TV and BT sports, which both telecast the Premiership, were not to blame as they looked upon Leicester City as a regional club.
Here’s how the maths works. Each Premiership side nets a flat £55.8 million from the league’s television deal, which is boosted by merit payments for their final league position—each position is worth £1,242,405—as well as £750,000 for every live game shown on BT Sports or Sky Sports (plus additional revenue for being featured on the BBC’s Match of the Day programme). Leicester’s league win thus earned it £24.7 million. However, only 15 of their games were shown live in the UK, earning them “facility fees” of £12.8 million and taking their total prize money to £93.3 million.
Arsenal, on the other hand, had 27 of their games telecast live, which meant facility fees of £21.5 million to go with their “merit payment” of £23.6 million and a record prize money of £101 million. Similarly, Manchester City (£97m), Manchester United (£96.5m) and Tottenham (£95.2m) all made more in prize money than Leicester, thanks to their significantly higher facility fees.
Despite winning the league title, however, Leicester were not awarded the highest prize money for the season. This is because television deals are skewed in favour of the rich and big clubs.
Next season, Leicester’s status as defending champions should translate to more games being telecast live. But the front office has its task cut out: they will have to not only try to retain their core players but also increase the depth of their squad, as they will be playing in the group stages of the prestigious UEFA Champions league. The market value of these players has shot up rapidly after their EPL success. Mahrez is being courted by Real Madrid and has reportedly been offered £29 million. Kanté, signed from Caen for £5.6 million, is now worth £24.5 million. Danny Drinkwater, a former Manchester United reserve, is being pursued by Liverpool for £14 million while his club offers him £80,000 a week to stay on.
The attraction of playing in the Champions League will be the biggest incentive for players like Vardy, Kanté, Mahrez and Drinkwater to remain at Leicester City. Also, being champions is helping Leicester City gain financially. Within the span of a month Leicester merchandise has been exported to 66 countries in all—more than twice as many as at the start of last season.
In this era of megabucks, Leicester’s victory can be compared to some of the great upsets in sports history, like India winning the 1983 cricket World Cup, the US beating England in the 1950 football World Cup or North Korea’s win over Italy at the 1966 World Cup, or Greece’s triumph in Euro 2004. (Joe Gaetjens, the Haitian centre-forward who scored the US’s winning goal in that 1950 match, played for Brookhattan in the American Soccer League for $25 a match while also working as a dishwasher in a restaurant belonging to the club owner. After his winning goal, he had a brief professional career in France with Racing Club de Paris and Olympique Alès before returning to Haiti, where he was killed in 1964, one of the thousands of victims of “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his Tonton Macoutes death squads.)
Next season, Leicester’s status as defending champions should translate to more games being telecast live. But the front office has its task cut out: they will have to not only try to retain their core players but also increase the depth of their squad
But Leicester City’s EPL victory must be called the Mother of all Upsets. They achieved this feat not in a single game or six-week tournament, but over an entire year, grinding out 1-0 wins and defying the pundits, who expected them to collapse any second. Whatever the detractors may say, Leicester City lasted the distance whilst the fancied clubs fell by the wayside. Arsenal flopped in the latter stages; Chelsea plummeted under Jose Mourinho, with key players like Eden Hazard woefully out of form; and Manchester United, plagued by injuries, did not score enough goals. Despite spending huge sums of money, Manchester City were unsettled, especially after February, when it was announced that their manager Manuel Pelligrini would leave the club and be replaced by Pep Guardiola.
Leicester may struggle to retain their crown, but they have shown the way for clubs with smaller budgets to compete. Atlético Madrid’s triumphant march to the 2016 UEFA Champions League final, ousting the wealthy Barcelona in the quarter finals and Bayern Munich in the semis, is another indicator that the underdog can oust the mega rich clubs if they get their tactics and gameplan right and develop a cohesive, physically fit squad. Atlético coach Diego Simeone, like Ranieri, develops players or buys lesser-known players and helps them flourish. It is a positive sign for football that the underdogs are challenging and overcoming the hegemony of the mega-rich clubs by sheer determination and the right tactics.
Ranieri is being praised for getting the tactics right. He is no more called the Tinkerman, but the Thinkerman. When he took over last August, he did not try to change the team’s playing style. He saw and analysed the type of players he had and adopted tactics that would suit his team. Neither did he impose his signings on the established playing eleven. When he couldn’t find a regular place in the side for Swiss international Gökhan İnler, he did not let his ego get in the way of starting the veteran of two World Cups on the bench, fielding him only when necessary.
Ranieri is being praised for getting the tactics right. He is no more called the Tinkerman, but the Thinkerman.
It can be said that Leicester City won the league because they started playing the right kind of football at the right time. Their gameplan, based on speed and quick forward passes, was a throwback to British football in the 1960s and 70s, but novel in a league that has for years been dominated by teams who liked to play possession football, holding on to the ball for long periods of time, frustrating opponents with lots of intricate passing until they make a mistake and space opens up that they can exploit. Leicester played to their strengths, allowing their rivals all the possession they wanted, defending deeply and sturdily, and then breaking away at blistering pace and scoring as soon as they got the ball.
Leicester’s win is therefore an important lesson for many administrators and club owners in Indian football, who think that football can be played only one way. The experienced Bob Houghton, the national coach from 2006–11 who took India to the final rounds of the Asian Cup in January 2011, and Desmond Bulpin, the former Pailan Arrows coach, both had the same complaint, that “in India all officials want their team to play like Barcelona, even if they do not have appropriate players for that style.”
There is no magical formula for success in football. Success breeds imitation. But football has repeatedly shown that players matter and not systems. So far, 2016 has been the year of the sporting underdog. However, unfancied Leicester City’s victory in the highly competitive EPL is the ultimate icing on the cake.