I apologize for being late with my column this week. I’m on vacation in Costa Rica and the coverage of the Premier League just isn’t what I’m used to at home on NBC Sports. Now, I understand that the coverage in the UK isn’t what it is for us in the States either but when I say that the coverage isn’t what I’m used to I mean that there wasn’t any coverage on the cable channels we got at our rental house despite the fact that we had multiple ESPN networks, a Fox network or two and a couple of other channels that looked sports-themed. Lots of Dutch soccer (I saw parts of PSV’s match on multiple occasions throughout the day) and more Serie A than you could shake a stick at but on the weekend/Monday when the Premier League title was ultimately decided, I was away from TV coverage for the first time this season. On the plus side, I was able to stream NBC Sports Live Extra on United on our trip here so the weekend wasn’t an entire loss.
So, Leicester City are champs! How f’n unbelievable is that? I’m sure that you’ve already read story after story underscoring one or more of the incredible statistics associated with that achievement so I won’t bore you with repeating them. What I will say is that this season we’ve just witnessed is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing was every day of unexpected, amazing drama that saw a team tipped for relegation win the title while another generally expected to be outside the top four presumably finish second. Jamie Vardy was an amazing story with his rise from non-league obscurity to 29-year-old superstardom. So was Riyad Mahrez and his sub-million-pound transfer just two years ago. N’Golo Kante coming out of nowhere to be the best holding midfielder in the Prem…Danny Drinkwater capped for England…son of Schmeichel joining his pop as a title winner…Danny f’n Simpson winning a Premier League title as a regular starter…Christian Fuchs as a stud coming in on a free transfer. Claudio Ranieri thumbing his nose at the sacked man who replaced him the last time he was in the Premier League. You get the idea.
What’s the curse, you may ask? For at least the next five years and maybe forever, we’re going to be burdened with preseason stories about how this club or that club can be “this season’s Leicester City”. That narrative will start out as a fantastic reminder of the wonderful rollercoaster ride that we’ve all been on this season but it will eventually just be a lazy journalistic device used to attempt to generate interest in hopelessly mid-table sides that sign a few unknowns. I can already imagine the stories awaiting us all this coming July after West Brom, another side that values possession statistics as little as the Foxes seem to, signs an unknown forward and cheaps out on a couple of other recruits. Hey, it worked for Leicester City last season.
The interesting thing about next season is that it feels like there will be a massive correction in favor of the “big” clubs presuming that you widen your definition of that term to include Spurs (great young talent, excellent manager and new stadium revenue coming soon), West Ham (good talent, very good depth, new stadium revenue coming online next season), and Liverpool (come on Reds supporters, you know you’ve only been “big” in small spurts for a long time now). If Spurs manage to keep their current players, West Ham adds one or two difference makers to what they’ve got, and Jurgen Klopp works some magic in his first summer at the helm then the notion of a “next Leicester City” is going to seem incredible far-fetched. How does a Crystal Palace or a Watford or even next season’s edition of the Foxes compete with Pep’s City, Conte’s Chelsea, Mourinho’s United, Pochettino’s Spurs, Klopp’s Liverpool, as well as Arsenal (still great talent and lots of money) and West Ham (see above)?
Assuming they can keep much of their roster together, the Foxes have the best chance to be “next season’s Leicester City” but they’ll be competing in the group stages of the Champions League in addition to the Premier League and the FA and League cups. They’ll likely lose at least one of Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante. They’ll have money to replace the between the transfer fees and all the additional money they’ll bring in from the TV deal, winning this season’s title and being in the Champions League (plus potential boosts in sponsor money) but it isn’t like there are Kante’s and Mahrez’s around every corner.
To reiterate the point(s) of all this. Savor what we’ve just witnessed, it was just phenomenal. Be incredibly suspect of any column you read in the coming months analyzing who might be “this season’s Leicester City” or “the next Leicester City”. The reason that most pundits shied away from suggesting that the Foxes could really do it is because most mid-table clubs who fly high as late as the turn of the year usually end up the season closer to what we saw from Crystal Palace this campaign (5th at Christmas and fighting hard to avoid relegation in April) than even approaching Top Four. I’ll take a little credit for being on the Foxes “they could really do it” bandwagon earlier than most but I can’t fault those who doubted because that’s the story that has always played out until this year.
The Champions League Race (with the title decided this is all about the Top Four now)
Leicester City – Congratulations to the champions, may they continue to prosper in the transfer market and keep as many of their players as is reasonably possible.
Tottenham – I don’t think it was going to matter how well Spurs played down the stretch because I think the gap was just too wide. The disappointing thing was that Mauricio Pochettino’s squad just sort of capitulated over their last two matches. Their performances looked imperious enough leading up to Week 35 that we were all justified in believing that they were going to put a ton of pressure on. The popular notion was that the Foxes, the lesser brand name, would choke down the stretch because the moment was too big for them while Spurs, a bigger brand name but one that hasn’t won any more than Leicester City and featured a far younger squad, would rise to the occasion.
I’m not sure why any of us believed that. For every Jamie Vardy indiscretion that got him suspended for Leicester City, there was a Dele Alli answering for Spurs. While the Foxes were drawing with fifth place Manchester United, Spurs were drawing with West Brom. There was just never any evidence other than this crazy notion of a “brand name” that we should have looked at to assume that Spurs were in any better mental and physical place to win a title than Leicester City.
I don’t mean to diminish what a bright future Spurs might have if they can create a narrative for their young players and manager that this is the place to be long term. If I were buying stock in one of Leicester City or Spurs to hold for the next five seasons then it would be Spurs hands down. Kane, Alli, Dier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen/Wimmer, and Lloris is the spine of a very good team and there is depth and talent in the wider roles as well.
It would have been fun to see Spurs drag it out to next weekend or maybe even the final weekend to heighten the drama but let’s congratulate them on an exceptional season that has them positioned to potentially make a huge leap into the “big *however many*”.
The Second Tier (Ranked from most likely to break into the Champions League to least likely)
Arsenal – As you likely know, I’m an Arsenal supporter. I’m putting the Gunners here because it isn’t clear that either of the Manchester clubs has any interest in taking what Arsene Wenger and company clearly seem to want to give away. The performance against Norwich wasn’t good. It was obviously sufficient but it certainly wasn’t good. Danny Welbeck’s winner underscored the fact that Wenger has undermined the past few weeks by starting Olivier Giroud over the resurgent former Manchester United man. Continuing to have to watch Aaron Ramsey be aimless at the base of midfield while seeming to undermine Mesut Ozil’s mojo at the same time is just depressing. It feels like the shopping list for the summer just keeps getting longer with a manager not known for doing what he needs to do in the transfer market.
Manchester City – Speaking of disappointing. Manchester City were a disaster against a Southampton team that had exactly nothing of significance to play for. Kolarov was the worst of a bad bunch and should be sued by supporters for professional negligence for his “effort”. One wonders at the back room conversations at the Etihad about the balance between the Champions League semi-final second leg in Madrid on Wednesday vs. the need to qualify for next season’s edition of the competition. Certainly Manuel Pellegrini’s priority is clear – he’s all in on this season before he’s shuffled off to some other destination. How the “powers-that-be” at City let Pellegrini rest Yaya Toure, Sergio Agüero, and Kevin De Bruyne (in addition to David Silva being out injured) is either a testament to how little power they have over what their manager does these days or how hell-bent upper management is on winning the Champions League now while the iron is hot.
Manchester United – Thank goodness for Anthony Martial. What else, other on the positive side than the occasional youth player who has made a splash over a few weeks, would we have written about Manchester United this season if not for the former Monaco man?
West Ham United – Back at the fringes of the Top Four conversation with a match in hand on City. It was an easy assignment this weekend and they dispatched it with appropriate aplomb. I’m still excited about the possibility about a top four of Leicester City, Spurs, Arsenal and West Ham but hard to imagine that it will actually happen. You know, like it was hard to imagine Leicester City winning the thing or Chelsea hopelessly out of the title race before the turn of the new year.
The Relegation Battle (Villa are sunk but what of the other two spots in the Championship?)
Norwich City – The offense just seems to have dried up short of the finish line. They had a great three match stretch where they picked up seven points but they’ve done absolutely nothing since to convince us that they have any business staying up. Looks inevitable now with Sunderland having a match in hand and Newcastle ahead in the table.
Sunderland – How hideous to have another edition of “Late Season Salvation – Sunderland Style” usurped by your most bitter rival. The Black Cats picked up another point over the weekend but it needed to be three against a Stoke City team that has been rotten and has little motivation. I guess that’s what you get when you only play three players who can reasonably be described as “attacking minded”. I’m all for the notion of two holding midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation but, with all due respect to Tony Pulis, Sam Allardyce is rolling out four defenders, three holding midfielders (Kirchoff, Cattermole, and M’Vila) one attacking midfielder (Khazri) and two forwards (Defoe and Borini). You can argue that neither wide defender (PVA and Yedlin) is terribly accomplished at playing defense but neither both are at least required to use their formidable athletic gifts to run back and at least be in the defensive zone when the opposition is attacking. It may have stopped the goals from flying past the Sunderland goalkeeper but there’s no Vardy/Mahrez combo to make up for the lack of attacking numbers.
Newcastle United – The Magpies might have had fewer matches left coming into this past weekend than their opponents in the battle to stay up but they certainly can’t complain about the quality of their opponents. They knocked off the first laggard in Crystal Palace and they still have Aston Villa to pad their point total. It could just be enough. What a fascinating summer it will by Tyneside if they do stay up. If Rafa sticks around I will be very curious to see who he sticks with from the current group and how many players are shipped off for the sins that placed a team that spent a solid amount of money in a relegation battle to begin with.