‘An exceptional product or achievement, or an outstanding example of something.’
You’ll struggle to find a more apt description of Leicester securing Premier League survival than the above definition of a ‘miracle’. In footballing terms, the Foxes were doomed by Christmas. Less than five months on and they have stayed up with relative ease, leaving three teams battling the drop and two already down.
But it’s that relative ease which threatens to take away from the overall achievement. The only other sides to avoid relegation after being bottom on Christmas Day are West Brom in 2004/05 and Sunderland last season. Both were branded ‘Great Escapes’ by many, but not so with Leicester’s salvo. Such an exceptional achievement shouldn’t be ignored simply because it wasn’t secured dramatically on the final day; it should be lauded because of the comfort with which it was eventually attained.
After a stunning start to the season including wins over Manchester United and Stoke, a hard-fought draw with Arsenal and plucky defeat to Chelsea, Leicester’s fortune appeared to run out by the end of September. Symptomatic of the growing gap between the Premier League and the Championship, the Foxes struggled alongside Burnley and QPR. A defeat to the latter left Nigel Pearson’s men rock bottom, a position they would not vacate until mid-April.
It’s credit to Pearson that he never lost belief. After yet another battling performance in yet another defeat, this time to Arsenal, the 51-year-old responded: “We work as hard as we can to alter our fortunes. I’m confident and have the belief in everybody associated with the club that we can do that.”
It was that 2-1 defeat to Arsenal which could be pinpointed as the turnaround in Leicester’s season. A run of just three wins in 21 saw Pearson revert to a formation with five in defence. Facilitated by perhaps the best signing of the January transfer window in loanee Robert Huth, the switch gave his side more solidity, as well as the perfect platform from which to counter-attack and for Esteban Cambiasso to help dominate the midfield.
Whether it was because it was Pearson or because it was Leicester, the change received little fanfare, certainly compared to Brendan Rodgers’ move to accommodate three centre-backs at Liverpool. While the Reds went on an excellent run before stumbling, Leicester simply haven’t looked back since.
Let’s not forget what a brave decision it was. Pearson’s first big Premier League chance appeared to be doomed before it had even started. Trusting the players who had won him the Championship the season before, little was invested in the squad.
Known for his belligerent and sometimes arrogant nature, Pearson was tasked with scrapping a trusted system to save the club’s Premier League status. Not exactly known for his tactical nous, he did exactly that.
The change instigated a clear change in performance on the pitch, but results were still lacking. Defeats to Aston Villa, Manchester City and Spurs could have had any other manager doubting themselves, but this time it was Pearson’s belligerence that paid off.
A 2-1 win over West Ham marked Leicester’s first win in nine games, but sparked that run of four straight victories which saw them finally claw their way out of the bottom three.
And so to Saturday’s draw against Sunderland, a point which secured a Premier League survival that was written off by pretty much everyone outside of the King Power Stadium by the turn of the year. A positive result against relegated QPR could see them outdo Sunderland last season and finish 13th.
The nature of West Brom’s ‘Great Escape’ in 2004/05 on the final day guarantees its place in Premier League folklore, while Sunderland’s unlikely results against Chelsea and Manchester City last season led to their much-lauded ‘miracle’. What those teams achieved was stunning, but Leicester and Pearson have usurped them both.
Pearson has come in for criticism this season, and much of it merited, but he deserves credit for stepping out of his comfort zone. As far as Leceister fans are concerned, he can ostrichcize (not sorry) anyone he likes if he gets results.