The warping of European soccer and its priorities make judging Leicester City’s last week of the season decidedly foggy. Twenty years ago or so it would be easy. Win the FA Cup, finish fifth, that’s an unqualified success. But that’s not the world we live in anymore, and that’s what makes it so unclear.
What is clear is that Leicester, for the second year in a row, had a Champions League spot in their clutches. And for the second year in a row, they spilled it all over the girl they were trying to impress, and then fell in it, and then threw up on it for good measure. Leicester at one point had a 10-point gap on Liverpool, and a six-point gap to Chelsea. They finished behind both of them, winning only three of their last nine games to let Jürgen Klopp’s side come back from the dead, as Chelsea had under Thomas Tuchel earlier in the spring.
And yet, if things had gone as they had been expected to yesterday, Leicester and their fans might have just thrown their hands up and accepted that’s just how things went. If they had beaten a destitute and bus-running Tottenham team, but seen Liverpool and Chelsea win as well, it would have ended the same way. The overall result would be the same.
But that’s not how it went down. Chelsea didn’t win, somehow wasting 71 percent of their possessions and 3.2 expected-goals worth of chances to lose to Aston Villa 2-1. Which meant all Leicester had to do was hold on to a 2-1 lead against Spurs with 30 minutes to go. That’s Spurs, perhaps the league’s biggest mess, whose best player, Harry Kane, spent most of the match looking at his watch to see just when his Spurs career would be over to the exact second (though he did look up just enough to produce this stunning volley to tie the score at 1-1).
But the thing about Brendan Rodgers’ teams is they can’t hold anything, especially when everything is on the line. Be it in a game or over the last stretch of a season. Up 2-1 with Chelsea losing called for a reserved approach. Not a Mourinho parking of the bus, but sensible control of the ball, countering when available, and mostly just not providing any room for Kane and not making any mistakes. Unfortunately, Kasper Schmeichel is just the latest star to play for Rodgers to catch “Rodgers-itis.” Punching the ball into his own goal meant Leicester had to go hell-bent for leather to find a winner, leaving them open for just the kind of counter that could awaken Kane from his slumber, which he did for Gareth Bale’s winning goal and then Bale’s clincher. The last 15 minutes bore a scary resemblance to Liverpool’s famous self-immolation at Crystal Palace, chasing goal-difference before the result was secured that saw them blow a 3-0 lead in 12 minutes. Rodgers is becoming the Tin Cup of managers, never realizing that sometimes par is good enough to win.
Leicester, like pretty much every other team this season, was wracked by injury. Johnny Evans missed the game altogether, and Wesley Fofana had to come off in the first half. Without the two of them, they were chum for the few moments Kane cared. Leicester had negotiated injuries to almost every regular save Schmeichel, Youri Tielemans, and Jamie Vardy this season, but every team (except Man City) reaches a breaking point. This was Leicester’s.
And yet, what will fans remember this season? The last-day reverse will sting, but enough to sour the team’s first ever FA Cup victory the week before? Unlikely. When Leicester supporters are sitting around with their buddies 10 years from now, which day will they talk about? Tielemans’ wonder strike is sure to be top of the list. Flags fly forever, and 4th place finishes tend to fade into the background. Ask them if they’d make this trade again, and it’s highly doubtful more than one in ten would say yes.
Yet, most would say the fourth-place finish would be far more important to the club long-term. Reverse the results, and have Chelsea claim the FA Cup but fall out of the top four, and it would unquestionably be a disaster. But Leicester and Chelsea don’t operate with the same aims or structure. It gets harder and harder to break into the Premier League cabal when the same teams are the ones cashing the Champions League checks. The same four teams that made it last year made it this year. Leicester are an expertly run club as it is though, with an owner who isn’t exactly hurting for funds, and may just keep producing players to keep it on the fringes of crashing the big party.
But would a season of Champions League competition make it easier to keep the predators at bay when they come for Tielemans or James Maddison or Harvey Barnes or Timothy Castagne or Fofana or Wilfred Ndidi? It’s hard to fathom that Leicester can keep them all when teams in the Champions League start submitting bids. But it could be hard to argue that the wages and sustained cracks at Europe’s best would have been too much for these players to say no to even if Leicester had made the Champions League. If they do go, this crop will have produced a first for the club and a day all fans will remember. Just like N’Golo Kanté did back in 2016 when Leicester won the league. These five years are already beyond a dream for Leicester City and everyone who follows them. Does yesterday’s cock-up really lessen that all that much?
Perhaps it was a season just too packed with landmines for any club outside of Manchester to survive (United’s is almost as expensively built as City’s but had tremendous luck with injuries). Every other team had their skids due to the crunch. Maybe Leicester and their fans will look back on the draw with 10-man Southampton or getting blitzed at home by Newcastle and bemoan what might have been. More likely, they’ll think back to Tielemans’ goal at Wembley or Schmeichel’s two world-class saves or blowing away United at home in the quarters. After all, memories are what you make them.