Leicester City: Searching for cognates in other domains

This blog has somehow avoided commenting on the magnificence of Leicester City’s Premier League title victory. In a world where the big guys seemingly always win, and have the game rigged so that things stay that way, watching an insurgent win in a sport where the decks are stacked more than most others is genuinely breathtaking and life-affirming, and all such other things that are good. This blog has previously written about the neoliberal hyper-capitalist system that pertains in European football, unlike the socialist regimes of the US major leagues. The Leicester Citys of this world have no right to win in the circumstances they must compete in, but Leicester’s title has only been a surprise only to those who have been casually observing the Premier League table and not actually watching what’s been happening week after week. Rationalisation is quite easy if you ignore preconceptions and appreciate that they’re actually just a good side. That hasn’t stopped people from accompanying their encomiums to Leicester with attempts to locate some reference point, to conjure some persuasive analogy, as if such an exercise is necessary to make sense of what they’ve done. And it’s been quite common to invoke other walks of life or to utilise their tools in order to do so.

One of those disciplines is that least esteemed and scruffy member of the mathematics family, the one that the more aristocratic fields of number theory and topology look down their noses at: Statistics. Even though it doesn’t naturally lend itself to such rigorous breakdown compared to sports like cricket and baseball, football has long been prey to statistical analysis. In the way that science will do most things once it has developed the capacity, because it is now possible to track players around the pitch, that is now what happens in football. But Leicester City, on top of toppling English football’s hierarchy, has also conducted a war on football statisticians, as they have upturned a lot of what was typically held to be important in the modern game. Unlike the dominant teams in Europe of the past decade, such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich, they do not dominate possession. Their pass completion rate is relatively poor. Could they be rendering a whole burgeoning profession meaningless? To be fair, stats do carry interesting information. Telling you what’s not important is of value, and in telling you what Leicester are good at (counter-attacking, breaking forward with speed), you are able to divine certain things about the current evolution of the game.

But if statistics don’t offer enough satisfaction to provide salvation, then what of the supernatural? With a manager who had recently presided over a home defeat for Greece at the hand of the Faroe Islands and a striker who has created a whole new Cinderella story archetype, the Leicester narrative has been felt by some to require divine support. There have been explanations invoking destiny and miracles and providence, as though Leicester has been especially blessed since the reburial of Richard III. How he even came to be found under a city council cark park is itself providential. While this writer ultimately rejects the suggestion that higher beings have intervened to deliver this title, these coincidences do demand to be remarked on. And if Leicester ends up becoming the world’s next Marian shrine to rival Lourdes and Fatima, I’ll happily revise my whole position on that.

I have so far struggled to uncover literary allusions or historical comparisons. One would have thought that an unknown siege or campaign that approximated the Leicester City story would have been unearthed by now. Even the acclaimed writer Julian Barnes didn’t try when he wrote about his long time support for the club, but he did admit to embracing the bust of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela in March 2015 when Leicester’s very Premier League survival was under mortal threat last season (more religion).

There is, however, one profession that has, more than any other, provided a platform for those seeking to contextualise the Leicester phenomenon, and it has curiously been unacknowledged. I refer of course to English common law, underpinned as it is by that key concept of precedent. Leicester’s success has precipitated one of the most avid searches for sporting precedents that this writer can ever recall, and it has extended both beyond football and England to find the most apt comparison. There have been attempts to explain Leicester City to Americans. As with statistics, while the exercise has been in vain – because there has never been anything that truly resembles Leicester’s story – it has provided its uses. And entertainment, seeing how far people will stretch themselves, reaching out to find that best analogy, such as the Ivy League professor saying it’s like “today’s Brooklyn Cyclones, a single-A minor league baseball team, beating the champion 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers”. It’s almost as entertaining as the lessons people in other spheres are trying to draw from Leicester’s title victory, such as the influence of behavioural psychology on investors (corporate bullshit).

There may, of course, be a simpler explanation as to how they got to be this good this season. Leicester City are a well drilled collective whose players have a good understanding of each other. They’ve had luck with injuries, and so there has been consistency in their team selection. They have had less matches to play, so they have been able to apply their high intensity game effectively throughout the campaign. They have consistently played to their strengths, in a style that not only makes the most of their abilities, but which has provided an effective template for counteracting teams that take greater control of the ball. And perhaps most importantly, they have exemplified the value of sports science in the modern sporting age. That, and the alignment of other stars (astrology?), such as their main rivals squandering their inherent advantages, is surely the simple reason why they’ve won. And yet, we can acknowledge and take account of all of this, and still feel a temptation to fall back on the transcendent (religion, again).

Nobody expects Leicester City to repeat their feat next season, including Leicester themselves. It has been demonstrated that a team’s league position strongly correlates with its wage bill (economics), so while it’s not impossible for interlopers to plunder the jewels in future, the odds remain as stacked as they ever were since gulfs in wealth and resources opened up in the 1990s. Next season the amateur film publicists will likely have their day, as Manchester City under Pep Guardiola regain the Premier League title. Prepare yourselves now for a thousand ‘Empire Strikes Back’ headlines.

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