How was it for you? Special guests Niall Quinn, Anthony Daly, and John Caulfield join Irish Examiner writers Liam Mackey, Chris Hatherall, and Larry Ryan to pick the bones of an extraordinary Premier League season
At what point of the season did you begin to think Leicester might actually do it?
LIAM MACKEY (Soccer correspondent):
There’s a part of me which, even after seeing Andrea Bocelli bringing the KP house down with ‘Nessun Dorma’, still thinks Leicester haven’t actually done it. And almost right to the end, I feared — as many did — that the Foxes would somehow contrive to do a Devon Loch. But, no, they clearly always believed in themselves more than virtually anyone outside the camp ever believed in them. But if there was one game post-Christmas which suggested to the naysayers that this special club could go directly from escape to victory, it had to be the 3-1 lesson they taught Manchester City in the Etihad in February. But did I plunge the life savings on them at that point? No, I did not.
NIALL QUINN (Sky Sports pundit):
I said at Christmas that if they kept on winning we would have to take them seriously, but the turning point for me was after they played Arsenal, when Welbeck scored that late winner. I thought they might crumble then, but instead they went on a run of three victories that showed the mark of true champions.
CHRIS HATHERALL (Soccer writer):
The memorable and comprehensive victory over Manchester City at the Etihad in February proved Leicester’s credentials but there were two games later in the season which confirmed they also had the mental grit to go the whole way. The first was against Norwich when the leaders had just lost at Arsenal and pretty much every pundit was predicting their downfall. It took a last-minute goal from Ulloa to prove people wrong but they got there; and suddenly you got a sense they really could do it. Similarly, after Jamie Vardy was sent off against West Ham, the way Leicester came back with a 4-0 victory over Swansea without him was a real champion’s performance.
ANTHONY DALY (Columnist and Spurs fan):
As a Tottenham fan all my life, I still held out hope until the third week in April, but with Leicester thumping Swansea 4-0 on the Sunday Spurs just had to nail West Brom on the Monday night. Despite taking the lead, I just had a feeling the equaliser would come. I think I accepted that night the game was up. Looking back on it now, I think no matter what the chasing back had done, Leicester City were not going to be denied.
JOHN CAULFIELD (Cork City manager):
Because they had goals in their team, they always had a chance. They weren’t a 1-0 team, even though they won a lot of games 1-0. It wasn’t like Arsenal under George Graham. Leicester never closed up shop and they always looked dangerous on the break. Now, did I think in February that they’d win the league? I didn’t. And I probably still thought Spurs would catch them until the day they drew 2-2 with Arsenal when Arsenal were down to 10 men. That was a significant result. But, even then, it wasn’t until the home run that I began to think Leicester would really go on and do it. And no-one could begrudge them their success. I remember Nottingham Forest winning the league and that was a surprise back then — but nothing like this.
LARRY RYAN (Columnist):
With round about 10 minutes left at the Bridge, and the bloodlust rising in the Spurs lads, the madness pumping through even Harry Hotspur up top, toys scattering out of every pram in the place, Chelsea thriving on the rediscovery of that intoxicating badness that has always defined them and Poch helplessly fuming through the mayhem and carnage with no hope in the world of reminding his lads they still only needed a goal to be very much back in it. From around September until that moment, I was fully convinced that every Leicester game would bring the calamity that triggered collapse. In the end, they didn’t have to take that last step and win it. So I’m claiming case unproven.
Not necessarily the best or most influential, but which player did you enjoy watching most?
Hard, as ever, to look beyond the champions. You could argue that Kante was the best for being the most consistent and Vardy the most influential for his goals but, not far behind in either department — and adding the delightful x-factor of devising numerous silky ways to give his opponents twisted blood — was Riyad Mahrez. That he was named the PFA Player of the Year was a welcome reminder that, yes, the pros like winning but they value entertainment too. My personal runner-up would be Dele Alli, destined to be one of England’s all-time greats if he can learn to control the red mist as immaculately as he controls a ball.
Riyad Mahrez — for me it was a pleasure to watch Leicester because of him. He seems to glide through matches, so graceful and skilful but also willing to put in the hard work, and he got his rewards.
In terms of up-off-your-seat skills, Riyad Mahrez was mesmeric at times and deserved his PFA Player of the Year award. But at the opposite end of the scale, I loved watching the old-fashioned defensive brutality of Robert Huth, too. I remember seeing him make his debut for Chelsea 14 years ago and he has suffered so many injuries over the years — but this season he was a monster in both penalty boxes and played 35 games. That mix of beauty and beast is what made Leicester so easy to identify with.
Even though he may not end up top scorer, Jamie Vardy was the man for me. To break the Premier League record of scoring in 11 consecutive games was just incredible, especially for a player that had essentially been a journeyman pro. His pace just terrified defences all season. You certainly wouldn’t like to be marking him in Thurles!!
There were a lot of great performances but you can’t beat the rags to riches story of Jamie Vardy. Even when he hit a bit of a bad patch — after scoring in 11 games on the trot — he kept going. He was consistent all the way through. And for a guy who’d come up from non-league, well, as they say, even Roy of the Rovers wouldn’t have written that script.
Mahrez’s insouciant shoulder-dropping was hard to beat this year. Kane, Martial, Bellerin for that youthful certainty in their belonging in the top, top drawer. Coutinho for that insolent burial of United and that Phil Cool celebration. But there is something joyful about watching Shane Long bullocking around the Premier League, uncertain, at times, what he is doing; uncertain, at all times, what he’ll do next. We want young lads to specialise early these days. Decide who they are. Footballer. Hurler. Egg-chaser. With Long, if you took the hurler out of him, the jostling, bursting spurts of savage hunger, you wonder what use you’d get out of the husk left over.
There has been an obvious levelling in quality across the Premier League. Have standards risen or just dropped at the top?
The drop at the top has been the key non-Leicester ingredient in Leicester’s title. If it hadn’t been for their astonishing achievement, the box office blockbuster story of the Premier League season would have been the staggering implosion of — lest we forget — reigning champions Chelsea, with limp-on parts for fellow wounded giants Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal. How their neighbourhood watch responds next season to the new noisy upstarts — not just the Foxes but also Spurs and, on the outskirts, West Ham — moving into their gated community, will be fascinating.
Definitely dropped at the top. Manchester United were poor, Chelsea were very poor, City were good, bad and indifferent, Arsenal were their usual frustrating selves and Liverpool are not quite there yet under Klopp. That allowed Leicester and Spurs to come through and dominate the title race.
When you look at the way Chelsea have imploded, at the way Manchester United have bored us all and at how Manchester City and Arsenal have struggled for consistency then it’s difficult not to argue that standards have dropped at the top; but it’s only half the story. Leicester and Tottenham have taken the headlines but in another year Watford and Bournemouth would have won just as much praise — while West Ham and Southampton’s rise would have warranted more discussion. The smaller clubs are richer than before, better run than before and have better players than before. There’s so much money in the Premier League that Bournemouth, with a ground of only 10,000, can out-bid clubs in France, Spain and Italy in the transfer market — so it’s only going to continue.
No doubt about it, standards dropped with the big names. City and Chelsea were pretty soulless. Arsenal fans have become frustrated with the lack of quality spending and United were a shambles most of the year even though they may take the FA Cup. Van Gaal strikes me as a Dutch version of Trapattoni (past it). I wouldn’t take anything away from Leicester though. They showed that unity and spirit and a level-headed manager gives you a great chance in any sport.
You’d have to say that standards at the top have dropped. Just look at Europe: it’s really been a bit of a disaster for English clubs. Take Arsenal against Barcelona — the gulf in class was phenomenal. And Barcelona haven’t even made it to the final. So while this was a competitive Premier League, the top clubs definitely lacked the quality they’ve had in previous years.
The bare improbability of Leicester’s rise seems to confirm the big guns have come back to meet them. But forget the false 1993 cut-off. Is their title win that much more unlikely than that of Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds in 1992, just two year after their promotion? Rather than Bocelli’s Time to Say Goodbye, the song Leicester’s triumph brings to mind is Strachan by The Hitchers, ostensibly about the star man who bags the hat-trick, but in reality a paean to the collective power of a team perfectly in sync.
Your favourite game of the season?
I’m glad you said ‘favourite’. There were certainly games of a higher quality but for sheer compelling, x-rated madness — illuminated by a rare moment of class with one of the goals of the season in the form of Eden Hazard’s sublime equaliser — Chelsea’s thunderous collision with Spurs under the lights at Stamford Bridge was hard to beat. And, best of all, of course, the game had only one winner: Leicester.
Emotionally, it was Ireland v Germany. But in the Premier League it has to be that fantastic 2-2 draw between Chelsea and Spurs the other week. It was a throwback to the 80s, real blood and thunder stuff. I know some people thought the players were over the top, but to me it showed that every single one of them really cared. We don’t always see that level of commitment or passion.
The Chelsea-Tottenham match was an intoxicating mix of crazy tackles, crazy atmosphere and an improbable comeback that provided the punchline for Leicester’s fairytale; so it has to be up there. So too West Ham’s win over Man United in the final game at the Boleyn Ground. But the most entertaining was Liverpool’s 5-4 win over Norwich in January. Jurgen Klopp’s side came from 3-1 down at Carrow Road to lead 4-3, then conceded an injury-time equaliser — but still found time to win the game through Adam Lallana’s dramatic volley in the 95th minute. The scenes at the end were a headline in themselves — not least because Klopp, taken over by sheer delirium, lost his glasses in the celebrations!
Easy one for me — it was that beautiful Super Sunday on the 10th of April when Spurs put three in six minutes past United at White Hart Lane. Sweet!
Well, I have a soft spot for the Gunners so, when they were going well at the time, I thought their 2-1 victory over Manchester City earlier in the season might be a sign of things to come. By the end of the season, like almost everyone else, I just wanted Leicester to get over the line so, from that point of view, the game that stood out for me was their 2-2 draw with West Ham, when they were down to 10 men and big decisions had gone against them — right up until they got that penalty with nearly the last kick of the game.
The first 20 minutes of Arsenal-United was good value. Norwich-Liverpool was spectacle-smashing. Chelsea-Spurs was a feast of malevolence. But Leicester’s 2-1 win over Chelsea had it all, including another delicious drop of the Mahrez shoulder. The Leicester ride was still a thrill, the Chelsea meltdown still gripping, the Mourinho boil was being slowly lanced, and the bile that spilt over afterwards proved to be endgame.
Will Leicester’s success bring a shift away from a possession-based approach? And what’s the next tactical innovation?
While you could argue that Atletico Madrid are on the verge of a Champions League triumph thanks to a similar counter-attacking, minimal-possession approach, it seems to me that for any team in the Premier League to try to emulate Leicester they will need their own versions of Vardy, Mahrez and Kante, the men most responsible for turning base metal into gold. And though players like that may have come cheap, they don’t come around too often. (Nor will they come cheap again). My own guess is that the long-term impact of Leicester’s success will be more psychological than tactical, in that it will give all those clubs who have hitherto felt they were just making up the numbers, a tangible reason to believe the top four is no longer a closed shop reserved exclusively for superstars and the super rich.
Leicester were a one-off, freakish, really. Their stats suggest they should have been mid-table, but they ended up winning the title. I don’t think too many will copy their style, though. It will be interesting to see what Guardiola does with Manchester City. If he gets them playing the way they can, I think a lot of people will try to copy that style.
There’s certainly been a shift away from a previous obsession with possession stats — even teams such as Arsenal and Swansea, who have been so committed to that style of play, have been more pragmatic this year. Swansea’s late-season victory at West Ham was achieved with a counter-attacking style of football more akin to Leicester than Barca and Arsene Wenger has clearly been tinkering with something similar. Professional gamblers cottoned onto the fact that possession stats mean very little a long time ago — they base odds on chances created and the number of shots per match rather than how long a team keeps the ball; so you can be pretty sure a lot of clubs will be reviewing their tactics after Leicester’s success. It takes pace and incredible fitness to make the Leicester style work, however — so expect big money to be spent on players who fit that mould this summer.
Managers everywhere will look at the Leicester model. They were happy to allow teams possession but defend their box stoutly with Wes Morgan and Huth phenomenal in the air and then break with speed and numbers through Okazaki, Mahrez, Kante and the lethal Vardy. I think teams will look at playing through the numbers with tiki-taka type short sharp passing or take a look at the West Ham game against Arsenal late in the season when the Hammers got the better of them mainly through Andy Carroll beating the centre backs in the sky. Bring back Niall Quinn. The other definite edge Leicester had is the element of surprise. But maybe that elitism from the bigger clubs will be gone out the window next season.
I don’t think it will bring a big change because, with Guardiola and Conte coming in, I’d expect football in the Premier League to revert to that Barcelona/Bayern Munich style of play: Keep the ball, pass and move. But what it probably does show is that if you’re a mid-table team and have pace and maybe a big guy up top, you can mix it to good effect. Like West Ham with Andy Carroll: They can keep the ball but also play it long. But with the quality of the coaches coming into the league, I still think it will be the possession-based game which will dominate next season.
Whatever about tactics, maybe a subtle shift in philosophy is in store. We have heard a lot about Expected Goals this season, the statistical device that purports to tell us how many goals a team’s performance deserves, based on their chances created and shots taken etc. Turns out Arsenal strolled the league in that department, which says something about the dangers of great expectations. Expected Goals, as a device, should work out reasonably accurately over a longer-term, such as a season. A possession-based approach should pay dividends. But what we have seen this season is a return to a “One game at a time” approach, often talked about, but not necessarily practised. Taken over a campaign, the stats show Leicester didn’t do enough to win 23 games. But they usually did enough to win one game at a time.
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