Leicester City making their own luck in Premier League title race
Leicester continue to stubbornly sit atop the Premier League table. Even if they don't hold on and ultimately win the title, qualification for the Champions League is all but guaranteed at this point, as is the fact that their incredible rise will have a lasting impact on expectations of teams up and down the Premier League.
The question of "why can't we do a Leicester?" is going to haunt teams for years to come. But the truth is that doing a Leicester isn't just about the things a team can control; it's also about the things they can't. From top to bottom, the Foxes are a wonderful story this year, full of timely goals, smart tactics, intelligent play on the field and shrewd business off of it, but that's only part of the story.
Leicester are currently on 57 points. This year that's good enough for first place at this point in the season; last year they'd have been in third. Two years ago, 57 points after 28 games would have put them in fifth place. That's not to do Leicester down, but it's inescapable that they're doing it during a season when a number of other classic powerhouse teams are busy imploding.
Of course there's plenty that has gone right within their own squad as well. It's impossible to imagine this team without Claudio Ranieri at the helm. Ignoring for a moment that the side finished strongly at the end of 2014-15 (winning seven of their last nine league games to stay up), the Italian had a lot of issues to fix the moment he walked through the door, and it was something of a gamble for both parties (given that he was sacked by Greece for losing to the Faroe Islands) that he actually signed at all. He could easily have chosen a different challenge -- like that of Napoli -- and spurned a return to the Premier League.
Yet his mix of simple but well-executed tactics and the light hand he's taken with the team behind the scenes was perfect to both help Leicester overachieve and then shield them from the pressures of overachieving. Whether or not that was by design -- there were reports that Leicester were close to appointing others and Martin O'Neill and Neil Lennon were in the frame before the board chose Ranieri -- he ended up being the right fit at the right time.
That goes for all their new signings as well. N'Golo Kante has picked up deserved praise, and he's joined by the underappreciated pair of Shinji Okazaki and Christian Fuchs as new arrivals in the Leicester City lineup, to say nothing of Riyad Mahrez, who arrived last January. But as with Ranieri, nobody could have predicted the extent to which those players have found success in their new side.
The club deserve great credit for identifying players who could improve them, but they operated, as all clubs do, with a number of targets in mind, some of whom they got and some of whom they didn't. The final magical alchemy that built their squad this season rests only partly in their hands and partly in the hands of the various players, agents, clubs and other decision-makers that aren't Leicester City.
Then there's the small matter of their play on the field. Leicester have remained largely injury free, though key players like Danny Drinkwater, Jamie Vardy and now Kante have had brief stretches on the sidelines. Compared with others in the title race, they have been able to keep a consistent lineup and have not fallen victim to the injury curse.
Leicester have scored a league-best 51 goals, but it's a total that has been helped tremendously by going eight out of 10 from the penalty spot, numbers far ahead of any other team. No other team this year have attempted more than five penalties; only three teams over the last six seasons have been given more than the 10 Leicester have been awarded. And the Foxes still have 10 games left.
Defensively, Leicester have conceded 31 goals -- three more than ninth-place Southampton -- but have managed to dance through the raindrops and avoid their dose of world-class strikes and unfortunate deflections. At the very least, Leicester have managed to avoid bad luck on the field this season. It's not hard to imagine an alternate universe where a couple of difference decisions don't go their way, they get a few more horrific bounces and they have five or six fewer points.
Emulating Leicester City's progress is an admirable goal. It would still be an admirable goal if several things went differently and they finished fifth or seventh or ninth. What makes Leicester so unique, so rare and so impossible to emulate is that in addition to doing everything that they can control well, everything that they can't control also keeps falling their way. That's what makes their season so magical.
Leicester winning a title or coming close is a great story, and it makes for a historic and incredible season. But that's not what "doing a Leicester" is. Doing a Leicester is about making smart decisions throughout the club. That process doesn't mean you win, but it does put you in a great position to take advantage when the stuff you can't control bounces your way.
Not even Leicester City can do a Leicester City without the help of the footballing gods, but they deserve great credit for getting themselves into a position where they have been able to take advantage.
Mike L. Goodman is a Washington, D.C.-based soccer writer and analyst covering European soccer, the U.S. Men's National Team and more. Follow him on Twitter @TheM_L_G.