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23 May 2016

The year of the flop: why could none of the big-money clubs come close to Leicester City?

Manchester United recorded record profits for the first quarter of 2016, yet never looked in contention for the Premier League. 

By Phil Hartup

The fact that Leicester City won the Premier League title is a cause for celebration. A club proved that with the right players and the right manager you can be the best team in the country. However, the fact that Leicester City won the Premier League title easily should be a cause for concern.

What Leicester winning the title shows us is that the Premier League, in spite of its ever-increasing wealth, is not getting any better. Had Leicester scraped their title win by a point on the last day with a pack of England’s elite clubs snapping at their heels that would be one thing, but this was a stroll. The fat cats of London and Manchester couldn’t get near a team that had been assembled for a relative pittance. This inability to stay in contention with Leicester was less to do with how Leicester performed against the top clubs, though they punched well above their weight, but was more to do with the bigger clubs failing to perform in other games.

Not only could the rich and shameless of the English game not get close to Leicester, nor could any of the other clubs. Teams from up and down the country boasting bigger, better squads from Southampton to Newcastle? None of them came close. The last team to be mathematically capable of catching Leicester was Tottenham, but their challenge ended in a collapse and the embarrassing position of finishing third in a two-horse race.

There seemed to be two problems holding back most of the premier leagues sides this season, the first being a lack of incentive. For example, Manchester United recorded record profits in the first quarter of 2016. They recorded these profits despite being uncompetitive for the title, dumped out of the Champions League and playing some of the worst football that many United fans had ever seen. Louis Van Gaal at United was tough on goals, tough on the causes of goals, but this didn’t stop the profits. Why play well when you get paid more anyway?

At Arsenal, a team that would eventually finish a distant second, the finances are also looking rosy with a reported cash balance of £228m. Rather than spend any of this money to strengthen the squad Arsenal seem happier to horde it. At some point this must have looked like a winnable season for them: Chelsea spun out early, both Manchester sides struggling with their own problems. The league should have been ripe for the taking. Alas, Arsenal demonstrably would rather have money than new players, and they fell by the wayside as injuries and spells of poor individual form took their toll. It has always been understandable that Arsenal are reluctant to lock fiscal horns with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City, but when they won’t commit fully to a title race with Leicester alarms bells should be ringing.

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Greed is not a wholly unbecoming trait in a football club. A football club must have hunger, not just for trophies but for money, money to spend on new players and wages and the million other expenses that might give a team the capacity to win. There are problems with this, though. On the one hand, when a club is making so much money from things that are not directly tied to success on the field, there is a sense that what happens on the pitch becomes secondary. On the other hand, it is quite possible for a club to become so fixated on making money that they forget to use it. This is especially true when you have an owner who is more parasite than benefactor.

The second problem is that for all the talent in the Premier League, many clubs seem to struggle to get the best out of their players. The Leicester players delivered what any football club ought to expect as a normal work ethic, yet they looked positively heroic next to the mutiny at Chelsea, or the breakdown of discipline at Aston Villa, or the indifference at Manchester City. Any club ought to be expecting their players to give 100 per cent every week, but we’re starting to see that motivation is not as easy as giving a young man a few million pounds and telling him to behave himself.

Leicester City has proved that there are no excuses and no places to hide in the Premier League. If you’re in the league, you can win the league. Marking time and picking up those giant TV cheques should no longer be acceptable. The hope now is that other clubs see this as a challenge, learn from Leicester’s example and raise their game. Worst case scenario is the club owners look at this season, guffaw loudly about what a funny old game football is and go shambling off to the bank to do business as usual.

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