Could Sir Alex Ferguson be the reason Leicester will win the Premier League?
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few months, you will know that Leicester are currently big news in the land of football. A team that was very nearly relegated last season have, with a bare minimum of outlay, put together a genuine threat to finish first in the league, at the ransom of title-favourites like Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. Moreover, having beaten Manchester City at the weekend, Leicester’s title charge has been given an urgency and authenticity which may have been lacking in many minds- they are now, on most betting sites, the favourites to lift the Premier League trophy at the end of the season.
Understandably, pundits have struggled to explain this staggering turn around in fortunes. At a time when the hegemony of the bigger and richer clubs in English football has seemed fairly assured for a while now, Leicester are close to doing what many thought was no longer possible. The competitive and unpredictable nature of the Premier League of which fans often boast (comparing it favourably to other leagues on the continent) has only ever really seemed to count for single match upsets, or, at most, the European places at the end of the season. To suggest that a team not long out of the Championship could actually win the PL title would be scoffed at by even the most ardent football romanticists….and yet here we are. Several obvious explanations for Leicester’s unlikely rise have been posited: the record-breaking form of Jamie Vardy; the player-of-the-year worthy performances of Mahrez; even the sudden managerial renaissance of Claudio Ranieri.
Such points are now commonplace, and the real explanation for Leicester’s form is surely a mixture of all of them and more. Yet there is another way to look at this conundrum, which very few people have been willing to do. If we take this season as a suggestion that the title is now an open and unpredictable affair, even beyond the teams who would find themselves favourites before a ball is kicked, we would do well to look at these teams. The title favourites before the start of this year were Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City. So perhaps the question we should ask is not ‘why are Leicester going to win the title’ but, ‘why are these favourites going to lose it?’.
Here, it should be pointed out: this is not to take anything away from Leicester. They have been genuinely the most watchable, exciting, and consistent (‘the league table never lies…’) team in English football this year. But their strengths have been pored over by pundits for many weeks- this article merely wants to tread slightly newer ground. When looking at Leicester’s rivals for the title- at this time Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham- one can see a distinct pattern in their recent (and, arguably, older) history which will always give Leicester a chance. When fans of Tottenham, Man City and Arsenal think of the traits they associate with their club, several key phrases will inevitably pop up- ‘we always do it the hard way’; ‘we don’t deal well with pressure’; ‘they’ll always let you down’. Many people will be sceptical of thinking about football in this way, as if a club has a ‘DNA’ existing over different generations and teams. But a quick look at recent history suggests that, yes, failing to cope with pressure is indeed a trait inherent to these teams. Tottenham’s fall from the top four places in March-April has been a recurring theme in the last four or five years, and most Tottenham fans will, remembering the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 seasons in which they surrendered significant gaps over their rivals Arsenal, not even be entirely comfortable about securing Champions League qualification just yet. Arsenal fans too, however, will admit their own shortcomings in failing to uphold a title challenge- their draw against Southampton at the Emirates last week provoked several weary comments from supporters who recognised this position all too well. Going back as far as 2009 and 2010, one can remember Arsenal’s prospects of a title fall away in the last months of the season as they fail to deal with tough away opposition.
In terms of Manchester City, this argument may seem fairly strange- after all, they have been successful in their title ambitions in both 2011-2012 and 2013-2014. Yet football fans are often too eager to forget the circumstances in which the league tables of yesteryear came to be finalised; in both of these seasons, Manchester City very nearly managed to throw away the title to a rival, only to be first in line to capitalise when this rival also faltered. In 2011-2012, Manchester City were at the summit of the table for much of the season when, after several poor results, Manchester United (who City had already beaten 6-1 at Old Trafford) became favourites for the title instead. United were then beaten by Wigan, and threw away a two goal lead to draw 4-4 at home to Everton, thereby letting City back into a title chase that should have passed them by. On the last day of the season, of course, City again ‘did things the hard way’, stumbling to a 3-2 home victory over QPR with Aguero’s famous winner. A similar story could be said of their 2013-14 success, in which City let Liverpool overtake them in the last few weeks of the season, only to capitalise after the infamous Gerrard slip and the ‘Crystanbul’ debacle. A regular theme is developing here: teams in England seem to be very good at throwing the title away.
Chelsea fans may argue their case, and it must be admitted that Mourinho’s title with Chelsea last season was one of the only convincing wins of this decade. Yet, here, the urge to put focus on the manager is apt; before last season, Chelsea had not been serious title contenders since Carlo Ancelotti’s tenure in 2010, and those surprised by Mourinho’s brand of short-term success (a rapid, 1-2 season ascent, followed by his departure in the third or fourth year with a team in disarray) have clearly missed the definitive trait of Mourinho’s managerial history.
So move aside Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. The only truly convincing title-chasing team of this decade has been Manchester United. Their wins in 2010-11 and 2012-13 exemplified Ferguson’s ability to win the title with, arguably, squads inferior to some of his rivals; and the team’s collapse in 2011-12 proves to be a rare blot on Ferguson’s fairly spotless managerial record. In the average pundit’s terminology, the key ingredient he instilled was a ‘winning mentality’; whether one agrees with such an assessment or not, anyone can see that Ferguson’s reign was characterised by players that became great under his tutelage, exasperating last-minute winners, that famous ‘Fergie time’ added on just for them to get a result. Ferguson’s Manchester United simply never looked like losing at times.
Of course, Ferguson’s worth has been proven further with United’s rapid decline after his exit, and maybe the resounding nature of his title wins should be seen as an inimitable success of his own, rather than a failing of other teams. Yet Ferguson’s exit has left no team in England capable of dominating in the same way United did; his reign made other teams better, as they fought to snatch the title away from United rather than win it on a level playing field. In England now, the title-favourites have been too used to falling at the final hurdle (more often than not to Ferguson’s team) and no-one has taken up the space that United used to hold. City’s acquisition of Pep Guardiola is undoubtedly partly geared toward recapturing this supremacy, in the same way that the Spaniard has achieved in both Spain and Germany. Whether or not he can manage this is debatable, but he takes over a team who have too often flattered to deceive in both domestic and European competitions over the last few years. Arsenal have managed to put to rest their trophy-less hoodoo by winning the FA Cup twice, but they still seem a team who will crack at some point under the marathon-length pressure of a title challenge. Chelsea, meanwhile, are about to find that lightning does strike twice, as they struggle to replace Mourinho’s success with the inevitable parade of short-term appointments à la 2007-2013. This landscape of unconvincing title-favourites leaves room for an upset, and Leicester have taken up the challenge with aplomb.
As said, this is not to take anything away from Leicester; it is a lot harder to win the title than it is to lose it. Yet when the league table is finalised in May, and whether they win the league or not, Leicester fans might want to add another name to thank for their incredible season- Sir Alex Ferguson.