Traditionalists may not like it, but sometimes the Premier League's scheduling does throw up some nice little story arcs. This weekend, Leicester City threw down a gauntlet by handily dispatching Stoke City at 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. That evening, Manchester City could only draw at West Ham, and then the following afternoon, Arsenal imploded against Chelsea. In the three-way title race (sorry Spurs), the big teams had blinked, and this means that the Foxes will go into February three points clear at the top of the table.
The title is still very much in "They couldn't, could they?" territory, but it's time to start thinking about what will happen if, or quite possibly when, Leicester qualify for the Champions League. Because the chances of that are very much in their favor. Those of you that enjoy the analytics side of things may like to consider this ...
EPL top four projection. An Arsenal-Chelsea match didn't move the needle more than fractionally. What a season. pic.twitter.com/fVMA3y8oeQ— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) January 24, 2016
... while for those of you that prefer your evidence historical rather than statistical, a nugget from the Guardian. Only one team has ever failed to finish in the top four after amassing this many points (47) after this many games (23). That was Aston Villa in 2008-09, and their 47 points only had them in fourth, five points clear of Arsenal in fifth. Leicester are top, and have a 10-point cushion on Manchester United.
Basically, either we're about to see a collapse of unprecedented proportions, or Leicester are going to the Champions League. Likely as automatic qualifiers. It will be a remarkable achievement; a remarkable overachievement. And once they've washed the champagne from their hair, Premier League sides that overachieve have to pay heed to two warnings from history. Well, two warnings from Ipswich and Southampton.
Can they avoid doing an Ipswich?
In 1999-00, George Burley, at the fourth attempt, led Ipswich through the playoffs and back to the Premier League. The following season, while Manchester United coasted to the title, Ipswich — widely tipped to go straight back down — found themselves mixing it at the top of the table with Arsenal, Liverpool, and Leeds United. They spent most of March and April in third place, but dropped five points in their last three games and eventually had to settle for fifth and a place in the UEFA Cup. Burley was named manager of the year.
So far, so heartwarming. But next season, everything went spectacularly wrong. In the league, Ipswich won just one game in their first 17. They had 12 points at Christmas, and despite a small rally in January, they were eventually relegated. Europe wasn't particularly kind to them either: they made it past Torpedo Moscow and Helsingborgs into the third round, contrived a famous 1-0 victory at home to Inter Milan, then got tonked in Italy. They haven't been back to the top flight since.
What went wrong for Ipswich? Burley identified three factors in his team's collapse. The first was the extra strain placed on his squad by the extra commitment of European football. Interviewed by the Newcastle Journal in 2012, "The players I had simply didn't have the experience to handle playing Thursday night, which it was even back then, and then on Sunday. We lost so many points in the weekends after our UEFA Cup matches. ... When you factor in the extra games, traveling and the lack of rest that gives you, it can be a massive disadvantage when you come up against teams that don't have any of this to contend with."
The second was a too-modest approach to strengthening: Ipswich bought a fair few players but sold and released a few as well — Richard Wright the most notable departure, off to Arsenal for £6m — and their overall expenditure amounted to just under £5m. Prudent, perhaps, but Burley felt it left them short. "Paying two or three million for players these days is not enough to improve your squad in the Premiership," he told the Guardian, as relegation loomed. "Manchester United don't have reserves. They have a squad of international players."
The third and perhaps most interesting reason, however, was a collapse in focus among the squad. At the time, Burley sounded baffled — "I found myself thinking, this is not the group of players I know." — but looking back, years later, he identified the start of the season as crucial. "[In 2000-01] we got off to a good start and never really lost that momentum. ... The players were confident of winning every game and they deserved all the praise that came their way. But we were never going to follow that up and [in 2001-02] you could see the confidence going from players who had got used to doing well. That is unavoidable whenever a team goes from winning all the time to one that is struggling a bit. It's a different type of pressure."
When it comes to the experience that Burley identified as being crucial, the knowledge of the rhythms of the three-games-a-week churn, Leicester are actually doing OK. Robert Huth, Gokhan Inler, Nathan Dyer, Christian Fuchs, Mark Schwarzer and Shinji Okazaki have all played some part in at least one European campaign, and of course Claudio Ranieri himself reached the semifinals of the Champions League with Chelsea, indulging in plenty of squad rotation along the way. He presumably won't be dwelling on the result.
As for recruitment, we'll have to wait until the summer to see exactly how prudent or imprudent Leicester are likely to be. So far this January they've been relatively quiet: they've picked up a couple of highly-rated young players in Demarai Gray and Daniel Amartey, and are apparently looking for a striker to replace the departing Andrej Kramaric and support Jamie Vardy and Okazaki.
It's the third question that's perhaps the most interesting. Fairly or unfairly, and rather like Liverpool in 2013-14, Leicester feel like a club high on momentum and confidence, giddily pelting from one result into the next. Perhaps that's a consequence of the way they play; perhaps if they'd achieved the same results via a series of dour 1-0 wins, they'd feel like a solid, gritty, well-drilled machine, and we'd all be worrying about something else. But if there is anything in that suspicion, then maintaining that momentum over a summer of recruitment and the Euros will be its own challenge, and there's always the chance of an unfriendly opening to next season.
Then there's the question of familiarity. So far this season, Leicester have lost just twice in the league. The first was a stupidly open let's-see-who-can-score-the-most exercise against Arsenal that ended 5-2 to the north Londoners; the second, however, was more worrying. On Boxing Day, Liverpool effectively shut Leicester down, limiting them to just seven shots and preventing them scoring for the first time all season. While that might just have been a rare off day — Vardy was unwell, while Mahrez was "tired" — it did expose a lack of depth beyond those two, and perhaps offered a blueprint for how to contain this team. Nobody gets to be a surprise package for long.
If Leicester are a confident team, and if their opponents are going to be better equipped to play against them next season, then the extent to which they can avoid doing an Ipswich next season might depend on two things. One, a friendly fixture list, at least for the opening few weeks of the season. And two, hanging on to at least third place and securing automatic qualification for the Champions League. That way, they'll get a little bit of a grace period before things get busy.
Can they avoid doing a Southampton?
A more recent precedent here: in the seasons since returning to the Premier League, Southampton have finished 14th, 8th and 7th, playing some tidy football and claiming some decent scalps along the way. And they've paid for it in bodies: Rickie Lambert, Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Calum Chambers, Nathaniel Clyne and Morgan Schneiderlin have all gone, to Liverpool and Arsenal and Manchester United, along with Mauricio Pochettino to Tottenham. Southampton were handsomely reimbursed, of course, and not all those players have gone on to remarkable success, but still, we can be fairly sure that their departures affected the team.
Why did those players leave? A cynic would suggest money, a romantic might point to ideas of personal and sporting betterment, and the truth is probably a combination of the two. Those are bigger clubs, and that bigness manifests itself both in larger wage packets and in the promise of higher achievements. Southampton, though they were as high as second for a couple of months last season, are not currently a place for any footballer with immediate Champions League ambitions. (Whether Liverpool and Manchester United are is an argument for another day.)
But Leicester, it looks likely, will be. Qualification for the Champions League won't immediately destroy the hierarchy of clubs at the top of the English game, and it probably won't enable Leicester to directly compete in terms of wages, but it will mean that they can offer these players, most of whom are having the season of their lives, a tangible next step. You earned this opportunity, and you should enjoy it. That might not keep them out of the grip of, say, Barcelona, but it might mean that the rest of the Premier League can be kept at bay. Particularly if Chelsea, Liverpool and United all miss out on the top four. Why would you want to slum it in the Europa League, Jamie, Riyad?
We might also speculate that Leicester's squad has a more motley and unfamiliar look than Southampton's. Of those that Southampton sold, Shaw, Lallana and Chambers had all come through Southampton's academy, one of the best in the country, while Lovren had come from Lyon. Schneiderlin and Clyne had been in English football for a while. This is not to suggest that Mahrez (Le Havre), Vardy (Fleetwood Town), N'Golo Kante (Caen) and the rest aren't just as talented and potentially just as valuable, but you could understand potential suitors hanging on another season, just to see how things shake out.
Can they avoid being dragged back down by the inevitable power of money and cruelty of the universe?
Best case scenario (from the perspective of a variety-craving neutral): Leicester win the league, keep all their fun players, buy sensibly, and next season do well in Europe while simultaneously mounting a decent title defense.
Worst (from etc. and so on): Leicester qualify for the Champions League qualifying rounds, all their best players join Chelsea, they waste all the money on washed-up former talents, and then crash out of first Europe and then the Premier League.
It says something depressing about football that of those two scenarios, the worst feels far more likely than the best. But if Leicester make it to the Champions League then they will likely do so at the expense of two or three teams who think they should be there, whose business models and sponsorship deals demand they should be there, and who have deep pockets. Leicester might well avoid doing a full Ipswich, or being subjected to a Southampton-like pillage, but the idea of a second miracle season following on from the first seems almost totally implausible.
Perhaps the most realistic best-case scenario is that they can use this season to transform themselves into every owner's dream: an established Premier League side. That this should be the extent of the ambitions of any side outside the rich elite is vaguely sad, but until some bubbles burst, then this is the world we've got, and we can only hope for the best. Miracles are inherently unsustainable, and Leicester can be delighted if they get in, get the Champions League money, and retire to the safety of midtable with the proceeds. And if they can deny Manchester City and Arsenal a title in the process, well, so much the better.