It’s a difficult thing to pin down, which English team is better than the rest. That’s because the defining characteristic of this remarkable season has been complete chaos.
Usually, the points table is as definitive of a statement about top-to-bottom quality and consistency as there is in sports. The best team, usually armed with the league’s best roster of players, will more often than not have its superiority slowly but surely borne out in the results of the 38 fixtures that make up the EPL calendar.
Yet it feels like this is not quite the case this season, when Leicester City have sat atop the league for so long, outlasting everyone’s belief that their carriage would turn back into a pumpkin eventually, now only needing three points from three games to become champions of England for the first time in the club’s 132 year history.
A variety of factors have played into Leicester’s Cinderella run, allowing them to outrace even the most optimistic of projections: the unforeseen emergence of players like Riyad Mahrez (who on Sunday was voted by his fellow players the league’s player of the year), Jamie Vardy, and N’Golo Kanté, who are all legitimate stars; the league’s lack of tactical sophistication, where a team with a well-coordinated, intense-pressing deep block and an emphasis on counterattacks could routinely face opponents that played right into their hands; their freedom from burdensome non-league matches that weigh down starters’ legs, allowing them to create the kind of team-wide instinctual thinking that comes from playing alongside the same teammates every week; many of the usual favorites enduring down years; and flat-out good luck, with shots of theirs finding the net that would normally hit the post, shots of opponents hitting the crossbar that would normally touch twine, and eking out 1-0 wins in largely even affairs.
Sift through any number of advanced stats and the numbers support what our eyes have seen, that Leicester are a truly good team that we nonetheless wouldn’t expect to wind up champions. This should take nothing away from the Foxes, but it’s worth saying: this season of theirs, for a whole host of reasons, has been really, really lucky.
If not Leicester, then, who can stake a better claim as England’s best? Arsenal, despite their totally typical late-season collapse, have played some of their best soccer for extended periods this year, did appear to be title favorites for a while, have great advanced stats (they led the league in Michael Caley’s expected goals difference formula), and with players like Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez, they have arguably the two best players in the whole league leading a squad full of good-to-great players. Still, their lack of consistency and the pitiful way they’ve crumbled ever since that huge win against Leicester back in February means they can’t honestly be considered the league’s best.
Manchester City could argue that they’re the class of England. They stormed out of the gate and put together a couple months of top-class play that had us thinking they would pull a 2014-15 Chelsea and lead the title race from wire to wire. And while they’ve continually stumbled in league play since that great start, they are one of the four teams still standing in the Champions League. Who knows what a full, healthy season out of Kevin De Bruyne would’ve meant for City’s title credentials? Holding them back from serious consideration as England’s best, though, are those stumbles in the league, many of which have been self-inflicted due to a complete lack of defensive structure or awareness. Man City have the best roster in England; that they weren’t able to parlay that into another title is too big a blemish to be overlooked.
That brings us to Tottenham, the only other team that’s been consistently good enough this season to earn a place in the conversation. This team has no flaws. Their attack, consisting of Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen and Érik Lamela, is young, dynamic, and fearsome, all in a complementary way. Their central midfield is the best in the country, with Eric Dier providing the defensive shield, Mousa Dembélé taking the ball from deep and scything his way into more advanced positions with his strange but unstoppable dribbling style, and Dele Alli cutting through the final layer of defenses. Spurs’ defense is elite, their goalkeeper is great, and their bench is strong, to boot. And maybe most importantly, they have a brilliant manager who has implemented a sophisticated tactical scheme that, like with Leicester’s, the rest of the league has yet to figure out how to cope with.
It’s quite easy to make the case that Tottenham are the best team in England this season over Leicester, in spite of the seven-point gap that separates them in the table. (Or, looked at another way, it’s easier to imagine Spurs fighting for one of the league’s top spots next season than it is Leicester, even if the Foxes were to retain all their players.) Tottenham’s Big Three (Kane, Alli, and either Dembélé or Eriksen) at the very least stands right up against Leicester’s; everywhere else, Tottenham are better. Tottenham’s top-level stats are better (they’ve scored more and conceded fewer), their underlying ones are considerably better, they have been observably more dominant, and yet, they almost certainly will not be winning the title.
Tottenham suffered what is likely the penultimate death blow to their title hopes yesterday, when Spurs settled for a draw against West Brom. The first half went exactly as Tottenham expected. They cut through the Baggies’ defense at will and only some bad luck, like a few shots hitting the woodwork instead of the back of the net, kept them from leading by more than one at halftime.
Tottenham would pay for failing to press their advantage when they had it, though, as West Brom came out much stronger in the second half and scored a deserving equalizer late on. Tottenham’s only realistic shot at catching Leicester involved them winning out, and this draw put their title rivals just one win away from the trophy.
Games like yesterday’s, and Spurs’ lack of fortune when attempting to turn those types of close games into wins, are likely why Tottenham won’t end the season as champions, even if they can make the strongest case for being the league’s best team. Tottenham opened the campaign by failing to win any of their first four matches, each one of which could’ve easily been three points with a little more luck. Win just a couple of those matches—which included a 1-1 draw against Leicester—and score one of the three shots that hit the woodwork yesterday, and it’s quite possible we’d now be talking about Tottenham’s wondrous whirlwind title season instead of Leicester’s.
Tottenham may have the better team, but Leicester have had the luck. And even in the Premier League, where the table is the closest thing to a truly meritocratic determiner of the country’s best team, luck can still make enough of a difference. Given how enjoyable Leicester’s magic has been to watch, maybe we spectators are the lucky ones.