Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson, Emma Raducanu shocking the world at the US Open, Japan beating South Africa at the Rugby World Cup… all were stunning upsets but, in the world of sporting miracles, nothing comes close to the events in the Premier League during the 2015/16 campaign as Leicester City made a mockery of the pre-season odds to achieving the impossible.
Having narrowly avoided the drop in 2014/15, the Foxes began the season hoping to avoid the relegation dogfight and possibly settle somewhere in midtable. It started far more promisingly than that, continued on an upward trajectory, and ultimately ended with Andrea Bocelli belting out Nessun Dorma in front of a jam-packed King Power as Claudio Ranieri made a valiant effort to hold back the tears of unrelenting joy. It was spinetingling stuff and the greatest sporting story of our time.
What made the Leicester City story so inspiring was just how unexpected it was. After all, the Foxes had never previously won the league – coming closest when finishing as runners-up way back in 1928/29. Nor were there any obvious signs that they were on the verge of breaking their duck. With a new manager in the hot seat on the back of a relegation-threatened campaign and a largely unheralded squad, they started as 5000/1 shots for good reason.
How Did They Do It?
In order to pull off such an outrageous success, a number of elements needed to combine. So how did a side – so poor in the previous season – transform into the finest in the land? Was it all down to Ranieri? The players certainly seemed to take to the methods of the Tinkerman, which involved the ringing of invisible bells, local rock band Kasabian, pizza, and champagne. However, there was much more to the “The Tinkerman”, with Ranieri rapidly transforming Leicester into a 4-4-2, heavy-pressing, counter-attacking beast. And, of course, he had the players to pull off such a system with aplomb.
With Kasper Schmeichel and Jamie Vardy already in situ, Ranieri had genuine quality at both ends of the pitch. The next cog in the wheel came courtesy of an excellent summer of recruitment. Robert Huth came in from Stoke and immediately forged an understanding with Wes Morgan at centre-back, free transfer Christian Fuchs single-handedly shored up the left side of defence, Shinji Okazaki started at 100mph and didn’t slow down, and then there was N’Golo Kanté. Brought in for £5.6m from Caen, Leicester hoped they had a promising talent on their hands. In reality, they had uncovered a genuine world-class star in one of the key positions of any side. Throw in the fact that the relative journeymen of Wes Morgan, Danny Simpson, and Marc Albrighton all ran into the best form of their careers and, the previously promising but frustrating Riyad Mahrez blossomed into a world beater, and the Foxes really were in business.
Leicester had everything in place to improve markedly on their 2014/15 showing, and, in hindsight, they were also entering a season ripe for an upset. Manchester City were becoming a little stale in the final year of the Manuel Pellegrini era, Manchester United were attempting to rebound from their slump under David Moyes, Jürgen Klopp was still getting his feet under the table at Liverpool, and defending champions Chelsea collapsed in a shambles, with José Mourinho receiving his marching orders before Christmas.
The pieces of the improbable puzzle were in place, but Leicester would still need a bit of luck. That fortune arrived with the consistent fitness of the squad, with Ranieri able to call on fewer players in his starting eleven than any other side over the course of the season. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Foxes Have Their Tails Up Once More
Happily, for Foxes fans, following the relegation disappointment of 2022/23, it appears increasingly likely that their stay in the second tier will be brief. Overhauled under new boss Enzo Maresca, Leicester are currently running riot in the Championship. Headed into February, they sit atop the table, fully 11 points clear of nearest pursuers Southampton, having scored more and conceded fewer goals than any other side. Stephy Mavididi and Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall are on fire, Harry Winks brings control and stability, Wout Faes and Jannik Vertergaard have rediscovered their best form, and Vardy continues to chip in with goals. All is rosy in the Foxes garden once more.
Leicester Miracle Version 2.0?
It is never wise to count your chickens, but it would be a surprise were Leicester to fail to secure promotion now – thus clearing the first hurdle on route to a repeat bid to stun the footballing world. They couldn’t possibly do it again… could they? Logic would suggest not, but for the football romantics, there are at least a couple of strands of hope to cling to.
Why It Won’t Happen
It was a surprise when Leicester upset the big guns in 2015/16. It would be even more of a surprise if they do so in the coming years. Since that stunning triumph, the gap between the elite sides and the rest has only widened, making it tougher than ever for a team outside the Big Four or Big Six to break through.
Leicester won the league with a total of 81 points. The points tally of the champions in the seven seasons since has been 93, 100, 98, 99, 86, 93, and 85. Had the Leicester of 2015/16 performed at the same level in each of those seasons, they would have finished no better than second in any year.
Not only are the top sides better than in 2015/16, but the shifting financial landscape affords these clubs a degree of protection. Even if Leicester were taken over by Elon Musk on a spending spree, they would still find their hands tied by financial fair play rules. These days spending allowance is stringently related to turnover – an area where Leicester can’t compete with the Manchester Citys, Manchester Uniteds, and Chelseas of this world.
Why It Might Just Happen
There’s little doubt it’s an extremely difficult challenge… but not an impossible one. If Leicester, or any other side outside of the established order, are to repeat the miracle of 2015/16, a few things must come together. Firstly, they will need a top-class manager with a clear blueprint and philosophy – a la Pep Guardiola or Jürgen Klopp. Enter Leicester’s first trump card, Enzo Maresca, who could scarcely have had a more influential tutor having served as Pep Guardiola’s assistant during the 2022/23 title-winning campaign. On the evidence of Leicester’s impressive displays this season, the 43-year-old appears to have picked up a thing or two from his former boss.
Next, the Foxes will likely need the big sides to perform well below the level displayed over the past seven seasons. Here, again, there is hope. Liverpool must do without Klopp from the 2024/25 season onwards, Pep Guardiola’s current deal expires in 2025, no one seems to be able to get it right at Chelsea, Manchester United still haven’t won the league since the departure of Alex Ferguson, and Spurs haven’t lifted the title since 1960. There are fewer holes to pick in Arsenal, who have a squad and manager in place to contend for a few years. Nevertheless, there does at least appear to be the potential for a season much like that 2015/16 campaign in which most of the big guns underperformed.
Lastly, the Foxes will again need to strike gold in the transfer market. In the modern climate, this is one of the only ways mid-level clubs can compete with sides able to spend vast sums on proven quality. No doubt the Leicester scouts are already on the case in an effort to unearth the next Kante, Mahrez, or Vardy. A tough task in the competitive transfer market, but then the Foxes have done it before and you can just never say never in football.