We can’t confirm that party, but what a missed opportunity if he’s not. What we can confirm is six years ago, Leicester City won the Premier League. Here’s our celebration. No red carpet, no cocktails, no dinner, but plenty of numbers to hand out. And Robert Huth’s along to provide the toast and plenty of commentary.
You could say it started on Matchday 1 or you could say it started when a little-known ball-winning midfielder joined unceremoniously from Caen or you could say it started in Rome 1951 when the manager was born into an austere post-war Italy to a family that perhaps knew how to do without possession.
The starts of the story are as infinite as it is unlikely, so let’s go right to the end. On May 2, 2016, Leicester City Football Club won the Premier League. The English Premier League, not one of those other premier leagues. The one with all those clubs at the top with impenetrable history, wealth and talent, and shirts you’re about as likely to see in Peru or Portland as you are in the pub.
There was a song. It was a fun song in which there was a reference to cocaine, which you’re not supposed to do, just like you’re not supposed to win the Premier League if you’re Leicester City. The cast of undervalued characters was not unlike an American football movie or Disney production about child ice hockey players, but that’s a lousy trope because they weren’t characters. They were players. And they were good. And very few people knew they were good. And when a substantial number of comparatively unknown football players all turn out to be good at the same time, people are amazed. But they usually still lose.
Leicester won the league, which is a four-word statement that with no additional information already reads unlikely. Leicester won the league by 10 points, which sounds like a Football Manager achievement. Leicester finished 10 points ahead of Arsenal, 11 ahead of Tottenham, 15 up on Manchester City and Manchester United, 21 in front of eighth-place Liverpool and 31 points ahead of 2014-15 champions Chelsea, which begins to speak to the weekly marvel that took place.
Since, no club outside of the big six has cracked the top four. No club – aside from that Foxes team – outside the big six has finished in the top four since Everton in 2004-05, 16 points back of third-place Manchester United.
When it was over, Leicester had managed to impose on the big six and take their trophy with a mere 42.4% possession. They underperformed their expected goals. They completed the league’s second-lowest percentage of passes. But they led the division in ball recoveries, they pressed early, and they countered at the pace of Jackson Pollock throwing paint with the precision of a Picasso.
OK fine, maybe Picasso wasn’t that precise. But we needed a ‘p’ there.
You know what, scratch all of that. You could say it started with Pearson, Nigel.
Part I: You Can’t Win the League if You’re Not in It
Robert Huth wasn’t thrilled by the idea of playing for Claudio Ranieri again. Ranieri was physically demanding, and Huth was on the wrong side of 30 for the kind of training he thought was coming. The defender had played for The Tinkerman at Chelsea, and Huth felt Pearson had gotten a raw deal.
“I wasn’t happy because one of the reasons I did sign for Leicester was obviously Nigel being there,” said Huth, who had been on loan with Leicester before signing with them that summer. “I had a good time with him there, and he laid plans for the future which I agreed with. I was happy with being part of it.”
Pearson, Leicester’s occasionally controversial manager until the end of 2014-15, had landed back in the East Midlands in November 2011. They finished ninth in the Championship that season, their third campaign back up after dipping to League One. They lost in the Championship play-off the following season. In 2013-14, the Foxes won the Championship for automatic promotion to the Premier League.
And then they fought for their lives.
After Boxing Day 2014, Leicester sat at the bottom of the Premier League with 10 points after 18 matches. They hadn’t won in 13 games straight and had lost six in a row. Only two previous Premier League teams had ever managed to survive after being in last place at Christmas.
They remained at the bottom of the table until April 18 with nine matches remaining.
If the Foxes didn’t conduct the greatest of escapes, Pearson would almost certainly have been sacked on their return to the Championship. What happened was they dropped five points from their last nine matches (W7, D1, L1), finished 14th and six points clear of relegation. And then what happened was Pearson lost his job anyway.
The important thing turned out to be that Steve Walsh didn’t.
Part II: You Could Say It Started With the Scout of the Century
N’Golo Kanté is from Paris, Riyad Mahrez was born in a Paris suburb, Jamie Vardy is from the Paris of the South Yorkshire (Sheffield), and no one cares where Steve Walsh is from.
It matters where he’s been. What that trio had in common before wearing blue shirts together was Walsh saw them play. Walsh, who was brought to Leicester with Pearson in 2008 and returned after Pearson was brought back as manager mid-season in 2011, was the man behind helping Pearson build the foundation for the title-winning team.
When Pearson was sacked, the Leicester board chose to retain his staff. Which meant familiar names like Craig Shakespeare remained along with less familiar names like Steve Walsh. He was then a scout with a knack for identifying undervalued talent.
Walsh had already brought in Vardy and Mahrez. On Aug. 3, 2015, Kanté joined them. He had five days until the season opener. He only needed three.
“By Day 3, we’re just talking and changing, saying, “How good is this guy?’” Huth said.
What Kanté did was lead the division in interceptions (156) and tackles (175) and underrated stature. Calling him a ball-winning central midfielder isn’t really fair because in 2015-16 he was the ball-winning central midfielder. No one in the Premier League since – including himself – has matched either of those single-season totals.
But he had company. It was actually Danny Drinkwater who led the team in ball recoveries. The duo were second and third in that category that season behind Aston Villa’s Idrissa Gueye, and Arsenal were the only other team with two players in the top 15 (Aaron Ramsey and Nacho Monreal). So this either begins to speak to the kind of assurance Ranieri had in the middle of the pitch or the style they were playing. Or both.
What’s certain is Kanté’s lasting impact on the game – not only as a star at title-winning Chelsea the following season and for World Cup-winning France but as a player who made clubs around the world reconsider their midfield priorities – has been immense.
“You look at the teams now that have had success, Man City with Fernandinho in that position, so many other teams,” Huth said. “Leicester, again with Wilfred Ndidi, similar position.
“I think if you talk to any center defenders you want someone like that in front of the back four. … It’s so important to have that position because when the game stretches and everyone gets a little bit excited and wants to score a goal or the thoughts get in your head, it’s massively important to have that guy in front of you. All good teams have that position.”
And sometimes that season when he won the ball, he looked to his right and Mahrez was there, starting wide and frequently cutting in as the club’s inverted winger and main chance creator.
Mahrez, the eventual PFA Player of the Year, scored 17 goals and assisted 11. He led the team in chances created, though he was just ahead of Marc Albrighton. They were the only team to have five players in the top 40 of the same category.
Note the presence of Christian Fuchs in the above graphic. He – and his long throws – was second in the division in chances created by defenders.
So Kanté was the holding midfielder disrupting attacks, Mahrez was the lovely left foot stretched wide out right with 28 direct goal involvements, and Vardy? Jamie Vardy was fast.
“He’s so fast,” Huth said. “Even in training, I used to kick him thinking I’d get the ball.”
Vardy as we said was born in Sheffield but came out of nowhere. His ascent through English football is well documented from non-League roots with Stocksbridge Park Steels, FC Halifax Town and Fleetwood Town before joining Leicester in the Championship for 2012-13.
He went through the growing pains in their first season in the Premier League, and in the second he broke the Premier League record for consecutive scoring appearances in November 2015. The 11-game run broke Manchester United forward Ruud van Nistelrooy’s 10-gamer in August 2003.
His pace matched nicely with the ball-winning and countering style of the 10 teammates behind him, and it helped win them some penalties. Only Manchester United in 2019-20 (14) have won more in a single Premier League season than Leicester City did in 2015-16 (13).
Add the penalties in, and with 24 goals and six assists, Vardy was the only player to top Mahrez’s goal involvements that season. Their 58 goal involvements have been surpassed by Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino (64) in 2017-18, Harry Kane and Dele Alli (61) in 2016-17 and Kane and Christian Eriksen (59) the same season, though Vardy and Mahrez stand as the only teammates to finish first and second in Premier League goal involvements since Didier Drogba (39) and Frank Lampard (36) in 2009-10.
Kanté. Mahrez. Vardy. The biggest names, yes. But there were (almost always) eight others on the pitch.
Part III: The Tinkerman’s XI
Fleetwood Mac had to ditch the blues in order to sell 40 million copies of Rumours. Charles Darwin and Che Guevara were med students before switching focuses to evolution and revolution. Taylor Swift went from country (or was it folk?) to pop in 2015, and maybe Ranieri was inspired. Even football managers can change.
Ranieri, as Huth noted, wasn’t the most pleasant man to play for when the two worked together at Chelsea a decade before. Publicly, he was known as The Tinkerman because he was constantly changing something. He tinkered his way out of Chelsea in time for José Mourinho to come in and win a title with Huth playing a small role.
But he was a different man than in 2015-16, and Huth saw that from the start.
“He was very dominant back at Chelsea where we saw the alpha male around the training ground,” Huth said. “I just had that in my mind when he came. I thought, ‘If it’s going to be like that here, it’s going to be difficult,’ but full credit to him, he was a completely different character. He was open, he listened, he treated you really with respect. Gave me a few days off as well. I can’t remember ever getting days off from him when I was younger. He obviously learned a huge lot along his career and he implemented it with us and he trusted us.”
It was also evident on the team sheet, where Ranieri found something that worked and often stuck with it. Behold:
Leicester City used this starting XI on 13 occasions during their title-winning Premier League season. That might not sound like a lot in a 38-match marathon, but once you factor in formation changes from week to week, major injuries and events similar to that epic PlayStation sesh from Rio Ferdinand, it’s hardly done more. Leicester are one of only four teams to use an XI that many times in a Premier League season.
1992-93 Manchester United used their main lineup 17 times while 2009-10 Birmingham City and 2016-17 Chelsea matched Leicester’s 13. Three of those clubs won the league. You know which ones. Leicester used 23 different players on the way to winning the title in 2015-16 – the fewest of any side in the Premier League that season.
“The teams that have won something or will win something, they tend to have really a base 13 to 14 players that rely on,” Huth said.
“Sometimes managers overthink and give players a game when they really shouldn’t just to keep them happy. For us, it was the case we had something great going, and why change it? The players were fit, they were eager, they were motivated, so it fell into its place. There was no need to change it. Why change your winning team? It’s a really basic saying but it’s true.”
Get to know your teammates, maybe buy their kids a birthday present. But it helps if they know what they’re doing with a ball at their feet. Or with the case of Kasper Schmeichel, with the ball coming off someone else’s foot at an alarming speed.
2015-16 was Schmeichel’s fifth at the club, and it was one in which his value was measurable. His 15 clean sheets were tied with Joe Hart and David de Gea behind only Petr Cech, and his goals prevented (3.69) ranked fourth among those with at least 20 appearances. It was an improvement from a 2014-15 season in which he neither hurt nor helped the Foxes across the season as a whole.
Schmeichel was better than average, but it wasn’t just him in and around the box. Their 47.1 xG against was eighth lowest in the league. That’s hardly noteworthy for a title-winning side, but their 36 conceded was one off the league low shared by Manchester United and Tottenham. Their xG against per shot was 0.09, which was fifth lowest. OK, we’re getting somewhere.
Leicester allowed 317 shots from inside the penalty area (tied for fifth most). Not ideal. But only 31.5% were on target, which was the lowest percentage in the league. That was at least in part because they blocked the third-most shots in the division (166) and blocked the most crosses (169). The Foxes led in interceptions (819) and ball recoveries (2,287) and were second in tackles made (869) to Liverpool (871).
What that all combines to say is Leicester defended and they defended actively. And it was intentional.
“I loved it,” Huth said. “It really puts the responsibility on you. Completely focuses your mind. When you watch Man City play, they obviously have so much more of the ball, they’re defending differently than how we used to. For me, and I think I can speak for my teammates, we used to love it as defenders.”
Fuchs led the Premier League in crosses blocked (53), and Danny Simpson was fourth (34). Huth was fifth in the league in clearances (258), tied for sixth in shots blocked (34) and sixth in aerial duels among defenders (183).
Perhaps most important to that was Wes Morgan, who played every Premier League minute. He’s one of only five outfield players to play every minute of a title-winning campaign for the Champions along with Gary Pallister (Manchester United 1992-93), John Terry (Chelsea 2014-15), César Azpilicueta (Chelsea 2016-17) and Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool 2019-20).
“I can’t remember him in a bad game that year,” said his centre back partner Huth, who missed three matches that season. “I think he’s always been in the top three performers that year of the players on the pitch and really was. Obviously, the strikers get the headlines or the goalkeeper when they save a penalty and so on, but I think he went under the radar.”
Consistency perhaps contributed to collective responsibility. Their 11 errors leading to a shot were second fewest that season, and their single error leading to a goal has only been matched once since (West Brom 2017-18) across a Premier League season.
What was that error leading to a goal? Glad you asked, Kevin.
Morgan attempted to volley a bouncing ball back to Schmeichel on Sept. 19 in the 20th minute against Stoke City. He misplayed it and Jonathan Walters went in alone and scored to give Stoke a 2-0 lead. Mahrez and Vardy scored second-half goals to salvage a point, but Leicester lost their next game 5-2 to Arsenal and were hardly a twinkle in the early-season title race’s eye.
You could say it started Oct. 3 with a win at Norwich City. From there, they found their form and went unbeaten in 10 (W8, D2). Christmas was right on time for Foxes fans.
As for the 10-match unbeaten streak, it only took a few months to better it.
Part IV: Style Is…
If you type style is into Google’s search field, very few of the autofill options will apply to Leicester City Football Club circa 2015-16.
Style is serene. Early-90s neon windbreakers say otherwise.
Style is eternal. In the Instagram world, yes. In the football world, no.
Style is the answer to everything. Bit hyperbolic.
Style is knowing who you are. Sentimental, yes, but also pragmatic.
The Foxes averaged 42.4% possession on the way to the title in 2015-16 – the lowest of any Premier League champion in recorded history (since 2006-07). This was also the third lowest in the competition that season, and they won eight matches with under 40% possession.
They were second to last in pass accuracy, yet they managed the second-most expected goals, just a fraction of a goal back of Arsenal. The Foxes had the highest percentage in the Premier League of passes directed forward. They underperformed their xG, yet they converted the highest percentage of their shots (13.0).
And they are absolutely the outlier in the last decade of top-flight champions.
Leicester had the fastest direct speed in the division (2.26 metres advanced toward goal per second), though that’s hardly ever indicative of success. The next three teams were West Brom, Sunderland and Norwich City. Those teams finished 14th or worse. Leicester’s average sequence time of 5.5 seconds was the lowest in the division. Their average sequence length of 11.5 metres progressed toward goal was the lowest in the division.
But as we said, Ranieri’s side led the division in ball recoveries, and their 10 direct attack goals were tied with Newcastle for the most in the division.
“You’re at your worst when you’re chasing the game,” Huth said. “You make stupid decisions. You don’t track your runner, you get too excited, you get out of position. … Some teams did exactly that. Twenty minutes into the game, they were one-nil down and they were doing stupid stuff, both full backs bombing on leaving one on one with Vardy on the halfway line. I’m like, ‘What do you think you are doing? You’re going to lose.’”
Even so, a press was at times a part of it. Leicester were fourth in high turnovers (284) behind Liverpool (324), Manchester United (295) and Manchester City (294), but that didn’t exactly result in a rash of goals. Their three from high regains were tied with eight other clubs for eight best in the league. More often than not, it was about letting the opposition come to them.
“It was so obvious at times for us to go, ‘We just need to let them come on to us. Let them come on, soak up the pressure, soak up the pressure,” Huth said. “Then with one or two quick passes, we are 60, 70 yards up the pitch.”
Because of that, sometimes they had to be patient for their chances. Leicester were leading for 1,254 minutes overall this season, which is the third fewest by a Premier League champion. Only more than Manchester United in 1992-93 (1,115 minutes ahead) and 1996-97 (1,156).
It made for a side that, in the end, won the league rather comfortably and closed the season unbeaten in their last 12 (W8, D4), a run that again began following a loss to Arsenal with a win over Norwich.
Only six of the other 27 Premier League champions have won the title by a greater margin: Manchester City 2017-18 (19), Liverpool in 2019-20 (18), Manchester United 1999-00 (18), Chelsea 2004-05 (12), Arsenal 2003-04 (11) and Manchester United 2012-13 (11).
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about this is 13 clubs finished ahead of Leicester City the previous Premier League season. They went from 46 points off Chelsea’s 2014-15 pace for a 77-point swing on the title holders.
Part V: You Could Say It Started
Leicester City topped the Premier League for 149 days in 2015-16, and it took until this season to return.
The final day of the season, May 15, 2016, remained the last day they’d been top of the league before September of this campaign. Other than the 26 days in 2020-21, they have only spent 44 days leading the English top flight outside of 2015-16. Nine were in 1926-27, two in 1927-28, seven in 1933-34, two in 1937-38, nine in 1962-63, two in 1963-64 and 13 in 2000-01.
There are any number of ways to measure the remarkable in this sport, and one more to add to your list is how uncommon it now is for a new club to win the top flight of English football. What you know: Leicester City won their first English top-flight title in 2015-16. What you perhaps don’t know: The previous team to win their first top-division title in England were Nottingham Forest in 1977-78.
What the title meant for the club five years ago is slightly different than what it means now, which is slightly different from what it’ll mean to the club 25 years on. Since that celebratory spring, club owner and chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha passed away in a helicopter crash on the Leicester grounds. Ranieri was sacked in February 2017. Kanté moved to Chelsea the summer after the title. After two more seasons in the East Midlands, Mahrez moved to Manchester City.
That’s how the story goes. The heroes have to leave in order to make you feel. But in this one you get it both ways: Vardy is still there and he’s still fast.
The Foxes fell to 12th the following season and were ninth the next two, but they climbed back to fifth last season, albeit with a disappointing finish, and are well-positioned for the top four this season and a return to the Champions League. They’ve been a financially sound club.
It is becoming safer each year to say the 2015-16 Premier League season established Leicester City as a club with a lasting presence in the top half of the Premier League table. That might not seem like much, but you’ve got to remember six of those 10 spots tend to be occupied.
So you could say it started, and when exactly is debatable. But it’s even more difficult to say it stopped.
Design by Matt Sisneros. Animation by Paul Connors. Research support by Matt Furniss.