Every day I look at the Premier League table and I can’t believe it. Leicester and Spurs at the top. If it doesn’t put a jolt of electric pleasure into your football soul, then I feel sorry for you.
Everything about Leicester is challenging the football orthodoxies established in the wake of Barcelona’s 2008 side. I know we all think we’re so post-modern and weary about everything these days – but their success is so brilliant, unexpected and thrilling. There should be no seeking to decry it, no tempering of it, not one ounce of joy not celebrated because football is about being thrilled to your core and this season, Leicester City, as unlikely as it absolutely is, have thrilled me to my core in a way that few sides in the last 25 years have and I know I’m far from the only one. It feels wonderful and I can’t remember the last time English football made me feel wonderful. It is washing away decades of cynicism and sourness. It is nothing less than a total reboot of English football.
In hindsight, the biggest clubs got lazy and thought money could do all their work. So they bought expensive players and expected success. How shocking this season must be to those with that mentality and in truth, of course, that is also part of the thrill of 2015/16. Watching the likes of Chelsea, United et al, failing, has the same joy of schadenfreude as watching a pompous Tory getting jailed. How the mighty have fallen. You thought you were made for life, thought yourself superior and grew fat on privilege. Bye bye, pal.
Well, the Foxes are a reminder of what we used to call rock ‘n’ roll football. Like all fine bands, they are greater than the sum of their parts and are playing the football equivalent of three chords and the truth. Simple, direct, effective, committed. A big keeper, two huge slabs of defensive man meat, a midfield disrupter, a mercurial genius and a run-all-day whippet. It’s an old-fashioned mixture, common to many sides in the 60s, 70s and 80s. but decidedly retro-modern in the 21st century. It goes against all prevailing league-winning templates and of course that’s another reason it is so thrilling. If you’re under 35 you might never have seen a side play like this and it must look like some flavour of exotic. A modern update of an old classic movie, perhaps.
Created to be both exciting and successful, it has made the old-fashioned 21st century style purveyed by the likes of Arsenal and the rest of the big clubs look stale and, at times, very laboured. How long will it be before we see Arsene Wenger, ever the follower of trends, rather than the leader (pasta consumption aside) tries to play the same way? Too many clubs have spent an awful lot of time and money on short-arse midfielders, believing every game is won there. Well it’s not if you by-pass it with a long ball, is it? Ha. Wonderful. The world turned upside down. You don’t need a tactics truck to understand what is going on.
This season has shown how top English clubs have forgotten how to play simple, effective football and have tried to evolve their game into some sort of higher art form. Somewhere along the way, they got turned in on themselves and believed in their own innate primacy. Simple and direct wasn’t good enough for them. That’s why it’s so wonderful to see a Leicester defender boot it long for Jamie Vardy to chase after, beat the opposition to the ball and bear down on their goal. It makes a mockery of all the ‘death by football’ Brendans. Nah, we don’t do that, we just kick long to the pigeon-chaser. It’s so brilliant. And you know what? It looks wonderful too. It beautifully marries art and industry. The speed and dynamism as they take off from their own half is so exciting. And you can see opposition sides all season long have struggled to deal with it. Well, why wouldn’t they? No-one has played like this against them.
How refreshing, how wonderful to see this level of commitment and energy replace the more usual careful build-ups which showed off how many consecutive passes you can do.
All over the pitch, Leicester have returned football to the basics. A massive keeper, big heavyweight defenders who can lash it out of the ground, one hard-faced midfielder who breaks stuff up, and one who is creative; add in a little genius up front and a lot of pace. It is irresistible and it isn’t successful for no reason. It’s successful because it’s hard to play against. Simple is the hardest thing to do well and Leicester do simple well. They have played an out-scoring game this season and now they’re playing an out-defending game.
Perhaps if this had been achieved by a young, fashionable manager and their way of playing had a unique German or Italian name it would be seen as a new level of sophistication, but make no mistake, it is no less revolutionary for being the product of an unfashionable East Midlands club managed by a loveable elderly Italian.
These are the sunny uplands of a new spring dawn and the warmth it has invested in us will not be easily forgotten.