Saturday, May 14, 2016

Foxes and Swans

Foxes and Swans

A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri – May 2016

The younger crowd in the Delhi diplomatic scene, with whom I played football in the late nineties and early noughties, consisted of two types – those that endured India, and those that enjoyed it. Non-footballing interactions with the former were all about heat, dirt, and misdeeds of maids and cooks. The latter were much more fun, and Andy Peale, our midfield engine room, was one of these; he drove an ambassador whose engine he tuned himself, and his son, born in Delhi, was christened Robert Arun aka Robby. We all missed him when he returned to his home in the countryside in Leicestershire in 2002, where he said he was going to do two things; write, and follow his beloved Leicester City Football Club (also called the Foxes).

You would wonder why I am remembering him now. Well, something amazing has just happened in the world of football – the Foxes have won the English Premier League. The odds on this happening at the start of the season were 5,000 to 1 – the same as those of the Loch Ness Monster being found, and of Barack Obama captaining the English cricket team. To give you a point of comparison, cricket lovers of my generation would remember a team of no-hopers, who had lost every single previous world cup match they had played in (except one to some part-timers from East Africa), and who had ‘Mr. 36 not out’ himself opening the batting, going on to win the 1983 world cup – well, the odds on them doing it were a mere 100 to 1.

As a sports lover and supporter of underdogs everywhere, I am delighted that Big Football’s caste system (described in Table 1 below) has been so emphatically breached. There are already reams written about it, so I will restrict this paper to its consequences rather than causes. Are we on the verge of tectonic shifts in the world of football, or is this a one-off that we are lucky to have been alive to witness?

Table 1: The Football Caste System
The High and Mighty
The Upstarts
The Middle
Relegation Fodder

Society’s equivalent of the upper class - big clubs, with large stadiums, a huge fan base both in the city and globally, and lots of money and trophies
Society’s equivalent of the ‘noveau rich’ - middling clubs converted via a fund infusion (usually from the Middle East or Russia) into challengers for and occasional winners of titles. Can splash the cash, but they don’t have the history

Society’s equivalent of the middle class – smaller clubs that occasionally punch above their weight and hand out a hiding to the clubs above them in the hierarchy, but are at best good for the minor trophies and a fight for some European adventure. This is a fluid group, with some of yesterday’s members are now in lower leagues.
This lot are condemned to fighting against relegation from day 1 of their respective campaigns. Some survive the drop and continue the fight for another season, and some don’t. Of those who don’t, some return and others disappear into the lower leagues
Real Madrid
Manchester United
Bayern Munich
Manchester City
Paris St. Germain
West Ham
Tottenham Hotspurs
Athletic Bilbao
Leicester City

But first, when did the pundits figure that something big was brewing? After all, some team or the other punches above its weight for a while every season, and the Foxes themselves played down their own performances until the very end.

Speaking personally, I did not pay any particular attention to the Foxes phenomenon for the first half of the season (which included striker Jamie Vardy breaking the record for goals scored in the maximum number of consecutive games), fully expecting the statistical phenomenon of ‘regression to mediocrity’ to kick in at some point. It was only when the January transfer window began (this is when big clubs pick apart small clubs by buying up their high performing players) that one got the first inkling that something was up; the Foxes did not sell anyone, and there were no rumours about its players’ moving out – they had obviously collectively told their respective agents to keep their phones switched off, a sure sign that they themselves believed that they were on the road to somewhere. The second inkling was in Manchester on 6th February, when Man City were on an upswing and its expensively assembled squad was expected to make their title intentions clear by thumping the upstarts from Leicester. To cut a long story short, the exact opposite happened! And one of the funniest moments I have seen in football was towards the end of that thumping, when the home supporters were leaving the stadium in disgust and the away fans sang a song that went ‘Is there a fire drill?” The third inkling was during what has famously been described by Sir Alex Ferguson as ‘squeaky bum time’, the stage in the season when pretenders get exposed and chokers choke – this was when the Foxes put together a string of nerve wracking 1-0 victories in the face of a relentless, valiant and ultimately futile chase by Tottenham Hotspurs.

So, is this a ‘black swan’ event? To be one, it has to meet three criteria; it has to come as a complete surprise, it has to be easily ‘rationalizable’ in hindsight, and it has to have a major effect. It obviously meets the first – let’s look at the other two.

Can it be rationalized in hindsight? I have to say that none of the causes put forward make a convincing case, either on their own or in combination (and in these two paragraphs, dear readers who are not ardent football followers, please excuse the flashing of technical details). The coach had done stints in top clubs, but was appointed only this season (he was available because he had just been sacked by the Greek national team after a loss to Faroe Islands, in itself something of an achievement). The players were either journeymen rejects or complete unknowns (they aren’t now – for example, the Foxes’ box to box midfielder’s relentless running is the source of the joke ‘two-thirds of earth is covered by water, the rest is covered by N’Golo Kante’) whose combined cost was less than what Man U had paid for their teenaged winger Anthony Martial. The scouting system that put this team together has come in for much praise (Riyad Mahrez, who has won the player of the year award, was plucked from the French second division for a song – the scout had gone to watch another player on the Foxes’s radar when he saw Mahrez), but there were bummers as well such as their record signing having to be shipped out to another club. Their playing style was the antithesis of Barcelona – it played ‘smash and grab’ football, deeply attractive to the viewer but with the least number of completed passes of the 20 teams in the league, and the second least time spent in possession of the ball. Yes, the big four did their bit to contribute to the Foxes phenomenon; defending champions Chelsea imploded, Man City got psyched by the impending arrival of Pep Guardiola, Man U are still reconciling themselves to life after Ferguson, and Arsenal played to achieve their ambition of finishing fourth, leaving only Spurs to provide a realistic challenge (and what a challenge it was – had it not been for the Foxes, we would all be celebrating their achievements this season). Several other contributing factors have been bandied about (being injury free, not having European distractions, et al) but, in sum, nothing quite explains what happened out there.

What about effects? Will the Foxes’ win shake the roots of football, and alter that entangled web of relationships between history, money, performance and trophies that prevent clubs from crossing the borders of the caste system? Will strategic truisms and footballing philosophies change, or revert back to the times before telephone number like formations, media puntas, false nines and tiki-taka? After all, the Foxes played traditional 4-4-2; two large, slow centre backs (Huth and Morgan) who sat deep and two wing backs (Fuchs and Simpson) who bombed forward, two central midfielders (Drinkwater and Kante) who combined to boss the centre of the park, two inverted wingers (the left-footed Mahrez on the right and Albrighton on the left) who provided spark on both flanks, one striker playing high speed direct to the goal football and one working off the ball. It was 11 players and a coach having the season of their lives simultaneously, and their opponents thinking they were playing against relegation fodder until it was too late. The other big leagues had no such surprises, with the same old clubs using the same old methods to occupy the same old places on the podium; Barca, Real and Atletico in La Liga, Juventus in Serie A and Bayern in the Bundesliga. So – my reading is that this is a one-off, but one that reinforces to football lovers why we love this game and gives us hope for the future (that this can happen, and we merely have to wait 5000 years for it to happen again).

What does the future hold for the Foxes? I’m not optimistic here, because football is unkind to clubs that fly close to the sun. Do too well, and two things happen. One, the big boys descend like vultures and pick the team apart. And two, the reward of playing in Europe is actually a mixed blessing – great money, and travel to exotic places, but the wear and tear of playing midweek and on weekends requires a deeper squad and a different mentality. Many teams struggle after doing well (and I remember Ipswich Town being relegated the year after they over-performed – they are now ensconced in the lower leagues. I also remember their supporters thanking the team as it went down, for the two wonderful years and the European adventure – none of them would have had it different). A good outcome for the Foxes would be crossing caste lines from relegation fodder to the middle space, and staying there.

A word here about Tottenham Hotspurs, who lost the race to the finish but whose future prospects seem considerably stronger. The Spurs have a brilliant manager, a great goalkeeper, and a golden generation who have tasted blood, so to speak, this campaign – all the necessary ingredients for great things ahead. Watch this space!

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