Featuring in this year’s EPL... the foxtrot!

The achievements of Leicester notwithstanding, it remains a squad that still seems lightweight. It has not just punched above its weight, it has reordered the weight classifications. The Foxes have also had a luxury that most sides don’t often enjoy. Its first eleven has remained almost injury-free.

Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri has been fortunate that his team has remained injury-free.   -  AP

Leicester fans have lived it up all through the season.   -  GETTY IMAGES

“But it is hard to believe that anything much has ever happened there… The town seems to have no atmosphere of its own. I felt I was quite ready to praise it, but was glad I did not live in it. There are many worse places I would rather live in. It seemed to me to lack character, to be busy and cheerful and industrial and built of red brick, and to be nothing else.”

The English novelist J. B. Priestley was visibly unimpressed by the town of Leicester upon his visit there. This place in the Midlands was not a city then, although its eponymous football club suggested otherwise. Much like the town, its team was engaged in mundane pursuits. You could spot the city on the map, may be you knew it was nicknamed ‘Little India’ because of its relatively high South Asian population, but that was probably the most you could say about the place. Until this season.

In a remarkable campaign, Leicester City has made the city prominent on the map and much more. By now, it’s unlikely that you have not heard about the team’s remarkable resurgence over the last 12 months. On April 4, 2015, the Foxes were at the bottom of the table. No win in eight league games had left the team seemingly destined for relegation. But on April 3, 2016, Leicester found itself seven points clear at the top.

People often say, “What a difference a year makes!” But when you look at Leicester’s rise, you’re tempted to type that out in capital letters. It would be futile to look for a story in recent history that could do justice to Leicester’s success. Nottingham Forest won the league in 1977-78, the season it was promoted. But as incredible as the story of Leicester’s regional rival was, it was a time when the economic gap between clubs was nowhere as massive as today. Through its success, Leicester has turned some cynics into believers. Perhaps, years from now, that will be the team’s greatest glory.

But how has it happened? The achievements of the club notwithstanding, it remains a squad that still seems lightweight. Leicester has not just punched above its weight, it has reordered the weight classifications. The Foxes have also had a luxury that most sides don’t often enjoy. Its first eleven has remained almost injury-free. This has meant that manager Claudio Ranieri has been able to pick the same starting team every week. Certainly, this has had something to do with the conditioning and training practices at the club, but luck should not be discounted. Countless times before teams have tried to break the glass ceiling but have been held back by the lack of depth in personnel.

To credit luck for Leicester’s success is not to discredit its achievements. No title-winning campaign is bereft of the touch of fortune. But it is remarkable that none of Leicester’s first-choice players have suffered a long-term absence.

There’s nothing extraordinary about the team’s tactics, though. A standard 4-4-2; a dour setup that would perfectly complement Priestley’s view of Leicester. But formations in themselves do not carry any meaning. The key lies in Ranieri’s decision to not emphasise ball retention. This is a theme that has developed elsewhere in Europe too. Atletico Madrid’s run to the Champions League last four has been built on a similar eschewing of the ball. When Leicester defeated Manchester City 3-1 away in a crucial game for the title race, it finished with just 34 per cent possession. The Foxes don’t have passing metronomes in midfield; the industry of Igolo Kante and Danny Drinkwater makes up for that when combined with Riyad Mahrez’s creativity and Jamie Vardy’s burst of speed.

Mahrez and Kante were recently named in the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Team of the Year. The two recruits from France are shining examples of Leicester’s scouting network. Mahrez was signed in 2014 January from Le Havre for 350,000 pounds while Kante arrived last summer from Caen for a reported 5.6 million pounds. In light of their achievements since, they were clearly bought cheap. > Read: Mahrez named PFA Player of the Year

Due to their financial disadvantage, clubs like Leicester are forced to dig deep in the transfer market and hope that gambles come off. However, this game is fraught with risks as the team’s fans would remember. In January 2015, Leicester spent a club record nine million pounds to secure the signing of Croatian forward Andrej Kramaric. But after scoring just two goals in his first 12 months at the club, he was loaned out to German side Hoffenheim this January.

In the current scenario, the failure of Kramaric will be forgotten. The club lies on the cusp of its greatest honour and its model seems to be working. However, the presence of big money and super clubs in the football ecosystem will continue to raise obstacles. Even if Leicester’s fortunes take a sudden dip towards the end of the season and the club fails to win the league, its story shall remain worthy of celebration. As money tightens its grip over all things football, it’s likely that we will not see a repeat anytime soon.

By no stretch of imagination is Leicester on the fringes of the football mainstream. This summer, the club will be the beneficiary of a record television rights deal for the Premier League. The financial returns from this arrangement has already made English top division clubs richer than most of their continental counterparts.

The ongoing Football League investigation that is scrutinising Leicester’s activities in its 2013-14 promotion-winning campaign suggests the club may not be squeaky clean either. The club is facing accusations about the subversion of Financial Fair Play rules to spend more money on its squad. However, a judgment is still awaited.

If the investigation goes against Leicester, it will certainly leave a blemish on its romantic rise. But perhaps, that’s the most we can get in current times. In a world where Lionel Messi is battling a case of tax fraud and accusations of using tax havens, feel-good stories are completed by a dash of cynicism.

In line with the contemporary trend of foreign owners in the Premier League, Leicester has its own from Thailand. The investment in the club is meagre by the standards of the super clubs, but significant. The club has ridden on the shoulders of its billionaire owners and there is more money on the way. If Leicester wants to become a part of the football elite, it will have to adopt values that it is apparently fighting. This is the reality of football at the highest level.

Yet, for now, Leicester City is actively representing a place that many did not know much about and values that were widely seen as lost. Not since Nottingham Forest in 1977-78 has there been an English football champion that had not won the top division before. If Leicester wins, it will truly be a landmark achievement.

As the club has neared glory, the city has come alive. On match days, there’s a feeling of giddy anticipation. In recent weeks, although the football has not been highly entertaining, Leicester has not disappointed the locals thanks to a winning streak that would be enough to claim the title in any season. Since drawing 1-1 with Aston Villa in January, the Foxes won nine of its next eleven league games.

One expects that there will be a party to remember if the title does make its way to the King Power Stadium. If he was alive, J. B. Priestley may have wished to visit Leicester again.

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