Leicester City smashed Liverpool 2-0 today on the strength of a Jamie Vardy wonder goal, and a much less spectacular but almost as vital strike by Vardy 11 minutes later. Leicester City’s attack was absolutely humming—before the second goal came a Barcelona-esque sequence that should’ve resulted in a penalty for the Foxes—and their sometimes leaky defense prevented Liverpool’s (admittedly toothless) attack from getting off even a single dangerous shot.
At the end of November, we asked whether Leicester City could really be as good as they were playing. The answer to that question is clearly yes, but now that they’re three points up with 63% of the season complete, it’s time to ask another question: Can Leicester City actually win the Premier League?
European soccer doesn’t have nearly as many surprising results as American sports. There is no salary cap, revenue sharing, or other enforced methods of parity, so the richest owners can (and do) spend hundreds of millions of dollars more than their counterparts, resulting in a less balanced slate of teams. The winner is also crowned at the end of the regular season, without playoffs, so the champion has to perform the best over nine months, not just sneak into the playoffs and catch fire for a few weeks.
Since the English Premier League was formed in 1992, only five teams have been crowned champions. Manchester United have won 13 titles, Chelsea four, Arsenal three, Manchester City two, and Blackburn one. Blackburn are the only surprise on this list to the casual soccer fan, and their 1995 title came after two seasons of top-four finishes, and after they’d paid a then-record sum for Alan Shearer, the greatest striker in Premier League history. For a comparison to what Leicester City are currently doing, most pundits are having to reach back to Brian Clough’s Derby County, and their legendary 1972 title.
Coming into the season, there is no earthly reason anybody should’ve thought Leicester City would achieve anything better than avoiding relegation. Here is what we wrote in our (hilariously wrong in retrospect, obviously) season preview:
Leicester were very nearly the heart-warming story of the season coming into this year. They spent almost the entirety of last year rock bottom in the table with a nutty, confrontational manager who came very close to being fired multiple times. Yet in the final weeks of the season, Leicester managed to win seven of their last nine matches, spring-boarding out of the bottom and into safety in one of the best runs you’ll ever see.
Ranieri has said he’ll rely largely on the team and style that got the club out of the relegation zone last season, which is competent but not much to write home about. Jamie Vardy was the biggest surprise of last year, parlaying his goals and work-rate into an England cap.
Leicester City finished 14th last season, and was very nearly relegated. During the summer the Premier League new record for transfer spending, and Leicester (who had the 10th highest net spend) made a few modest signings. They obtained striker Shinji Okazaki from 1. FSV Mainz 05, midfielder N’Golo Kanté from Caen, and midfielder Gökhan Inler from Napoli, among other signings. A couple of nice players, sure, but hardly world-beaters, and not nearly as impressive on paper as the signings of their competitors.
But everything has clicked for Leicester. Vardy has shown that he is hardly a flash in the pan, and will probably lead the line for England at the Euros this summer. Winger Riyad Mahrez—who Leicester signed from France’s Ligue 2 in 2014—is even better, and some team is going to offer an absolutely ridiculous amount of money for the 24-year-old. Kanté offers the vital defensive solidity, and new manager Claudio Raineri has built a quick-and-lethal attack on the foundation of a bend-but-don’t-break defense.
With just 14 games left in the season, Leicester City enjoy an enormous structural advantage, as they’ve played fewer games than their rivals, and have yet to play many fewer games. Leicester City have played 29 games in all competitions, while title rivals Arsenal have played 34 and Manchester City have played 39. The Foxes have already been knocked out of all cup competitions and were never in a continental competition to begin with, whereas both City and Arsenal are still alive in the Champions League and FA Cup, and the Citizens are in the Capitol One Cup Final. Manchester City will play in at least 18 more games and as many as 26, while Arsenal will play in at least 17 and as many as 25. Having just negotiated a tough stretch admirably, the difficulty of Leicester’s remaining schedule is on par with Arsenal and City’s.
For a while Leicester City’s record was outperforming their underlying stats, but not nearly so much anymore. Their attack has scored just two goals fewer than league leaders Manchester City, while their defense is tied for the fifth most stout in the league. They’ve scored more goals than you would expect given the quality of shots they’ve taken, but as Jamie Vardy’s ridiculous goal today demonstrated, he might just be that lethal of a striker.
Leicester City are 10 points up on Manchester United in fifth, and barring an absolutely monumental collapse, are going to play in the Champions League next season. Leicester City—who weren’t even in the Premier League two seasons ago—led by Jamie Vardy—who four years ago was playing for semi-pro Fleetwood Town—are going to play against the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
But first, they might win the Premier League.
Photo via Getty