In the 2015-2016 English Premier League season, the unlikeliest of unlikely upsets happened.
Backed by an ambitious Thai owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, and the eccentric journeyman manager, Claudio Ranieri, Leicester City broke the monopoly at the top of the English game, becoming only the 6th different team to lift the trophy in the 25 years since the new Premier League was created.
Considering that only 1 of those 5 other winners was the Blackburn Rovers, who surprised many en route to the 1994-1995 crown, and it gives an idea of how unlikely Leicester’s triumph truly was. A big six had been long dominating the English game, rounded out by the well-known sides, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, which is why it shocked many when a team nearly relegated a year prior in 2014-2015, Leicester, pulled off what it did.
To understand the monopoly that those 6 teams have on the game in England, consider that since 05-06, Leicester was the only team other than the top 6 to even qualify to the Champions League, where entry requirements consist of a top 4 finish (or winning the whole thing). Having a new team make Europe’s most prestigious club competition is shocking enough, let alone winning the league, which is why the Leicester triumph stands alone in recent English footballing history.
In the 3 seasons after their title win, history reverted to the way things were before, as the monopoly was restored. While the league quality was on the rise, with many more upsets than ever before, no team was able to break the deadlock formed by the top 6. It peaked in 2018-2019, when 4 English clubs found themselves among the finalists in both the Champions League and the UEFA Europa League, the secondary European competition, an unprecedented feat for any domestic league.
League transfer fees were increasing across the board, as this European boost was seemingly aided by the massive influx of TV money for all teams in the 1st division, with teams at the bottom teams receiving cash equivalent of top 4 teams in some other leagues. With teams all across the table able to chase top-quality talent, it was expected that sooner rather than later teams would be able to make a serious run to break the monopoly, provided they invested smartly in talent with the money they did have at their disposal.
Yet that hasn’t really happened, best summarized by the attempts of recently-promoted Middlesbrough in 2016-2017, who spent big to bring in established but ageing stars Alvardo Negredo and Victor Valdes, yet fell right back to the Championship after a poor season. Despite the purchases of many top-quality signings in clubs across England, the monopoly had yet to have been broken, with Wolves the only team appearing to come close.
And then this season, Leicester has risen from the shadows, refinding some of their 2016 magic, as they sit in 2nd at the time of writing, even despite a recent loss to 3rd place Manchester City. While they’re still 10 points behind runaway leaders Liverpool, they sit 11 points ahead in the Champions League places with 20 games to go, making them favourites to be among England’s 4 (or maybe 5) entrants to the competition next season.
Even despite the recent Manchester City loss, they have found themselves going toe-to-toe with many of the top teams in the league, showing that there is hope that the monopoly can be broken in England. Leicester’s manager, Brendan Rodgers, acknowledged as much after the City result, when he was asked by the Guardian on how far his team has come.
“In particular, in the first half, we weren’t good at all.” Rodgers said after the game, “I think it shows how good my group of players have done. It was a really good lesson for us tonight, for our young players. There are no complaints in terms of the result. It shows, for this young group, there is still a long way to go.”
A big part of their success, as alluded to by Rodgers, has come down to their investment in youth. While they still are buoyed by 2016 stalwarts Jamie Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel, who are 32 and 33 respectively, the performances of U23 players Caglar Soyuncu, James Maddison, Wilfred Ndidi, Ben Chilwell and Youri Tielemans have played a big role in getting them to where they are now.
The performances of Maddison, Tielemans and Ndidi, in particular, have been rather impressive, as they’ve given Leicester a deadly midfield trio to build their team around. While the midfield was a big part of their success in 2016, with Ngolo Kante and Danny Drinkwater forming a pivot that earned them both some big-money moves to Chelsea FC, teams like Leicester don’t often find themselves with midfield trios as they do now.
It’s also important to remember as lights-out as Kante was for Leicester, his biggest contribution was on the defensive end, as he did the dirty work of multiple players in the middle, allowing offensive difference-makers Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy to shine in transition. He’s a lot more multi-dimensional now at Chelsea, as he continues to grow into an all-around force, but when Leicester triumphed, his value came off the ball for the Champions.
By now having offensive difference-makers such as Tielemans and Maddison, it has allowed Leicester more flexibility in the middle, allowing them to play differently based on the opponent. While all 3 mostly feature in a trio, Rodgers has the ability to switch things around as needed, playing in a compact 4-5-1 against stretched teams, moving to a 4-3-3 against deeper-sitting sides.
With Ndidi filling in as a destroyer, Tielemens a two-way force, and Maddison a creative and pressing hub, it’s given Leicester a midfield that matches up with nearly all teams, showing what can happen when teams spend wisely on the right players.
To get an idea of how they stack up, first here is Maddison compared to some of the other top Premier League #10s:
And here is Tielemens compared to some fellow #8s:
And lastly, here is Ndidi compared to some #6s:
While some of the stats may be skewed towards certain styles of play, as Manchester City won’t be making as many tackles as Leicester does, for example. but it does give an idea of how some of the top players stack up when compared to each other.
Consider that Tielemans, Ndidi and Maddison cost around 87 million Euros, only 17 more than what Manchester City paid for Rodrigo this summer transfer window alone, and it shows how effective they’ve been on the market. While cheap signings like Soyoncu, centre back Johnny Evans and right back Ricardo Pereira, along with homegrown left back Ben Chilwell, have made a big difference by solidifying the backline, having a midfield that can defend, transition the ball forward and attack is something that can go a long way in team construction.
The biggest challenge for Leicester now, besides keeping up their push to the Champions League, is keeping these quality U23 talents, or at least that’s what history suggests. As seen with Ajax last year, keeping young talent is hard, especially when you’re outside the top 5 leagues. While Leicester doesn’t face that problem in the Premier League, you’d have to imagine teams lurk around the likes of Ndidi, Tielemans and Maddison next season, as there are many top teams around Europe lacking the qualities that the trio has to offer.
But with no sign of the Premier League money pot diminishing anytime soon, maybe this will become the new norm, at least in English Football, with smart-spending teams like Leicester becoming part of a new order in England. If they can keep up their push to the Champions League, and keep their young stars, there’s no reason to not imagine a spurn of imitators, with sides like Wolves and Sheffield United showing that midtable Premier League sides can spend money and play decently attractive football.
As all of that unfolds, however, continue to enjoy the presence of Ndidi, Tielemans and Maddison on the same team, at least while you still can. Leicester are playing a mix of counter-attack yet playing out of the back and high-flying liquid football, that is fun to watch, as they bring some flair to what has been a rather underwhelming title race, at least due to Liverpool’s unprecedented dominance, as well as the fall of top 6 sides Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal.
After making so many believe 3+ years ago, they continue to be a trend-setter in the Premier League landscape, as their latest quest to break the monopoly rages on.