Morbid Symptom? Leicester City and the Future of Football

‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ Antonio Gramsci



istory,’ as Rudge put it indelicately in his mock Oxbridge interview in the film The History Boys, ‘is just one fucking thing after another.’ With these words, albeit in a modernised diction, he expressed an account of the inherent arbitrariness of historiography that had been articulated half a century earlier by Herbert Butterfield, Professor of History at Cambridge in the ‘40s: ‘History is just one bloody thing after another.’ Whilst there is inevitably an element of the gauche to any such aphorisms (and Alan Bennett is perhaps guilty on occasion of confusing aphorism and profundity), the material point remains: there is no delicate thread of history that can be easily traced through the events which occur within it. Why then, it follows, should historians continue in their attempt to create narratives that suggest neatly partitioned periods?

Periodisation, however, remains a dominant paradigm if not within the intellectual consciousness then within the broader context of every-day life. We think in periods. We are taught about ‘The Egyptians’, ‘The Greeks’, ‘The Romans’—in many ways because it is undeniable that periodisation is heuristically useful. Of course it is helpful to teach our children that there are broadly distinguishable periods of history in which general cultural and ideological continuities can be mapped out (with the appropriate caveats). Where problems begin to arise, however, is when periods become crystalised, when they accrue an implicit stasis which suggests that they can be neatly differentiated. Following this logic, the transition between periods would then be cataclysmic movements in which wholesale change occurred over a relatively short time. In fact, it is more helpful to say that we always find ourselves in the gap between periods. This is not to say that we may not be located at the centre of a fairly easily distinguished stretch of history. But to remind ourselves that history is always moving on, that ideas and technologies are constantly shifting and, whether we like it or not, time is impelling us towards another epoch.

In this sense, as historical creatures, we always find ourselves constantly returning to a point which Antonio Gramsci called ‘crisis’: ‘[C]risis,’ he wrote, ‘consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ History is not simply worked through positive shifts out of which the new emerges. There must also be a ‘tarrying with the negative’, to invoke Hegel, in which there occurs a struggle between the present moment and that which went before it. It is only then that the new can eventually appear. One has only to look at the current catastrophe within the Labour Party in which the past and present wings of the party are being so destructively juxtaposed to see how a crisis might unfold. Yet it is precisely through such vicious proceedings that the new emerges. The current Labour Party, then, is little more than the morbid symptom of a period of crisis in the left.

A similar crisis can be perceived in the world of football. Where the advent of globalisation has advanced a certain inevitability in the unfolding of the major leagues in Europe with the main protagonists adopting the model of running football clubs after the manner of Abramovich or Mansour, a nascent star has risen in the East and has shone its light over the King Power Stadium in Leicester for the course of the last footballing year. We find ourselves, therefore, in the unthinkable position that, with two games to go, Leicester City have won what must surely be the unlikeliest league title across the history of the sport. But how are we to read this history? Is football itself facing a crisis between the old and the new? Have Leicester City emerged as the new from out of an earlier crisis in the world of oligarchs and financial inequality? Or are they simply a morbid symptom of an even wider crisis in world football?

Leicester’s Mercurial Rise

To describe the rise of Leicester City as ‘meteoric’ is misrepresentative only to the extent that meteors travel downwards. With as few as six games to go last season, Leicester were bottom of the Premier League and looked certain to be heading back down in the Championship. Since that point, their form is now comparable to that of many of the major teams in Europe, earning them first of all league safety, then a Champions League spot, and finally, the biggest prize of them all, a Premier League trophy. With the bookies setting their odds at 5000-1 at the beginning of the season (and subsequently losing out), this upsurge in fortunes must surely represent a footballing upset far in excess of Greece’s 2004 European Championship win and Nottingham Forest’s league success in 1977-78.

What makes Leicester’s success so unlikely is its occurrence at the height of a gradual rise of inequality in the sport of football. Since the early 2000s, Premier League wage bills have quadrupled in size, leading to those teams who possess greater financial clout mopping up the talent from around the globe and leaving the smaller clubs unable to compete at the highest level. With prize money and TV rights rising exponentially and the teams at the top who accrue the bulk of this money, a broadening chasm has opened up in recent years between the clubs at the top of the major European leagues and those below them. It is surprising enough that Leicester City have finished in the top four in the Premier League, let alone have won it.

It would be naïve to infer from this that Leicester’s success has been forged in the face of the economic excesses of world football. The club was bought out in 2010 by the Thai billionaire, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who himself was not averse to the idea of spending large sums of money on the club. After Leicester were promoted in 2014, he madethe bold claim that Leicester would finish in the top five within three year, saying ‘It will take a huge amount of money, possibly 10 billion Thai Baht [£180m] to get there, but that doesn’t put us off.’

Whilst this might have suggested that Srivaddhanaprabha was going to adopt the same model as some of the richest clubs from around the world in bringing in marquee players at great expense, what has actually transpired has been quite different. The club’s record signing, an estimated £9m for HNK Rijeka’s Andrej Kramaric, remains fair below that of other Premier League teams and their most expensive signing in the summer before the current season, Shinji Okazaki at around £7m, was only the 41st highest signing within the league during the summer transfer window. Viewed from below, all of the teams currently fighting against relegation in the Premier League this season have spent more money on transfers than Leicester City across the same time period. In this way, the club were able to achieve the target set for them by their owner at a cost of only £100m, £80m lower than the figure he had forecasted.

Viewed in this way, one of the most startling aspects of Leicester’s success is the extent to which it does not conform to previous models of football management adopted by championship winning sides. Where the balance sheets of the larger clubs are bolstered by large transfer fees and alleviated by careful amortisation of costs over long periods of time, Leicester City have accrued a healthy profit without falling into these sorts of economic sleights of hand. As the Swiss Ramble blog has shown, the board of directors at the Leicestershire club have managed to increase turnover through a number of revenue streams whilst simultaneously driving down overheads. Most notably, a wage bill of £57m put Leicester above only Hull City and Burnley in the list of Premier League wage bills last season. This has been achieved through, as the club itself put it, ‘a strategy of performance-related pay whereby salary costs will fluctuate in line with income generated and on-field performance.’ In this way, player wages have become correlated to team success which allows the club to control its spending far more effectively.

Underlying the success of Leicester City, then, is a careful approach to club management in which, in spite of the investment of large sums of money, a level of financial sensibly allows the directors to protect this investment from risk. But of course, a careful financial model does not guarantee a Premier League trophy. If that were the case then comparable median-level clubs such as Southampton or Everton might be expected to be in contention within the course of a Premier League season. The question is, what differentiates Leicester City from its mid-table rivals?

There’s No ‘I’ in Team

With the benefit of a season-sized helping of hindsight bias, it now seems as though the appointment of Claudio Ranieri was a shrewd piece of business. But when the appointment was announced, it was met with suspicionaround the world of football. Within the space of ten short months, however, Ranieri has finally secured that ever-elusive first division title that had confounded him throughout his career.

Ranieri’s managerial credentials are beyond doubt. But more than simply tactical acumen, Ranieri brought to the Premier League what has been described as a form of ‘quiet’ leadership, a style of management for which many of the greatest managers are not know. Sarah Cain, who coined the phrase ‘quiet leadership’, has spoken of how quieter mentors often succeed in groups of individuals who are proactive and intelligent. In many respects, Ranieri has nurtured the team into this style of management, encouraging players to speak their minds, having a number of tactical sessions a week so as not to overload the players with information, and avoiding the kind of negative posturing that so often clouds the final months of Jose Mourinho at a club. His calm manner, mischievous deflection of questions about title success, and refusal to be pulled into the carping that football managers so often engage in must go some way towards explaining the success of Leicester City this season. Yet while Ranieri’s pedigree is generally acknowledged, the mildly insulting sobriquet ‘The Tinkerman’ aside, the successes of his team should not simply be products of his imput. In fact, Ranieri’s most astute decision this season might have been to retain the organisational structure of the club that he joined in the summer.

Two of the personnel essential to the accomplishments of Leicester City this season are head of recruitment, Steve Walsh, and assistant manager, Craig Shakespeare. Walsh’s credentials are well known: he is the man who brought N’Golo Kante, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez into the Premier League. Out on the training pitch, Craig Shakespeare has developed a healthy fitness ethos at the club which has contributed to their on-field success. Shakespeare now posts the physical stats for every player after every game, praying on the player’s competitiveness so that they push each other in every area, from fitness drills to strength and conditioning work under coach Matt Reeves. In the words of Marc Albrighton, ‘Danny Simpson and I were chasing each other up and down the wing just to get our stats up. Some are off the charts, like Kante’s.’

By buying into the wider ethos of the club, then, Ranieri has displayed the often forgotten benefits of long-termism within modern football. The quick fix mentalities of the larger teams have shown to bring with them huge amounts of risk, swift latency periods and often unsustainable financial models. With teams like Leicester clearly demonstrating the importance of patient development within the game, both in economic and footballing terms, it is only a matter of time before smaller clubs will adopt similar models to that of Leicester City. But will this be enough to make the Premier League more competitive?

Lashings of Luck?

The American soccer analyst, Michael Caley, can be forgiven for questioning Leicester City’s league title winning form. He is a Tottenham fan and so has a vested interest in finding out exactly how likely Leicester were to win the league. In a recent interview, he spoke of how Leicester’s title bid was achieve through a large helping of luck. Towards the end of the season, when Leicester pulled off a series of 1-0 wins, Caley reminded his listeners of how precarious a 1-0 win really is. ‘All it takes is one slip up or one piece of brilliant play and you find yourself with a 1-1 draw rather than a 1-0 win.’

If this sounds anecdotal, Caley has all the evidence to back it up. Football analysts have now taken to speaking of‘expected goals’ (xG). If you assign each shooting event on the pitch with a probability based on its likelihood, then you can add up all such events for a game and see which team was more likely to win the match. Obviously, on a game by game basis, such ratios are not statistically interesting. But over the course of a season, you can determine which teams have been lucky and which teams have been lucky according to the xG data. Based on Caley’s data for this season, it becomes clear that Leicester have over-performed with respect to the xG data. Theresultant table puts Leicester in fourth behind Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City.

This is certainly statistically interesting but should not be viewed as a simple inference of Leicester’s luckiness (and Arsenal’s unluckiness, despite what their fans tell you). As Michael Caley himself has admitted, xG data is simply based on on-ball events and these do not tell the whole story. There are huge swathes of off-ball events in a football match that are fundamental to the overall outcome of a game. Yet up until this point, the analytics companies are not yet harnessing this information. It could well be the case that, when the off-ball data is eventually collected and collated, we may be able to make more sense of the success of teams who play like Leicester City in the future. Given their reliance on N’Golo Kante, a player whose off-ball movement is fundamental to his role, it would seem logical that the emergence of off-ball stats would prove to be beneficial to any analysis of Leicester’s playing style.

It cannot be doubted that Leicester’s Premier League title has come to them through a fairly adequate slice of luck. They have won games which they might, on balance, have lost. Their competitors have lost games they should, on balance, have won. However, as every statistician will readily concede, you cannot just be ‘lucky’ for 38 games of a season. Leicester City played to their chances, they set up their teams in such a way as to maximise their potential and in the end beat off all the competition to the trophy. In that sense, any eventual winner of the Premier League will be the beneficiary in some form of luck.

Morbid Symptom?

What, then, are we faced with by Leicester City’s triumph in the Premier League this season? Are they the harbingers of a new period of football—emerging out of a dark ages in which it was assumed footballing success could only be correlated to financial excesses? Or are they a merely a phantasmagoric monster—the morbid symptom of a historical crisis which will pass away as soon as normality returns? Yet as Hegel himself would tell us, the dialectic of history can only be assessed after the fact. Only time will tell how the history will play out.

Yet whilst that might seem too much like a side-stepping of the question, we have learned something from the rise of Leicester City in recent months. And that is this: it is possible for teams beyond the remit of the status quo’s Top Four to win the Premier League. And, however lucky Leicester may have been, they did do everything within their power to maximise their chances. If this impels the median clubs within the Premier League to think more carefully about their ethos, spending, training routines and youth systems, then it may turn out that Leicester City do transpire as the ‘new’ that emerges from out of the crisis of world football. And if that happens, then the future of football looks to be an exciting place.