Ken Early: When the dust settled, the four richest teams were top

Final day marks Leicester’s card: second again suggests project has plateaued

Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers: ‘It’s not the punches in the face that knock you over, it’s the pats on the back.’ Photograph: Getty

Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers: ‘It’s not the punches in the face that knock you over, it’s the pats on the back.’ Photograph: Getty

 

It was the Premier League season when the clocks rolled back, when the trends of recent seasons went into reverse, when the chaotic slog generally resisted all attempts to make sense of it.

The last day at least affirmed one eternal principle of football: the one that might be called The Law Of Don’t. In the football context, the word “don’t” is a magical incantation that makes your worst nightmare come true.

In an interview with Gary Neville last week, Alex Ferguson remembered an example from one of the most famous Premier League comebacks. Manchester United were 3-0 down at White Hart Lane, and Ferguson’s message to his team was simply “next goal wins”. As Ferguson went out for the second half, he bumped into Teddy Sheringham. “He was their captain and he came out to the door and looked at me, turned and said to his players, ‘don’t let them score early’. “We scored in the first minute” – and the rest is history.

You think of Lionel Messi in the dressing room at Anfield in 2019, psyching up his team with the prophetic message: “What happened last year against Roma was our fault, nobody else’s. Don’t let it happen again!” Or the immortal battle cry of Steven Gerrard after beating Manchester City at Anfield in 2014: “This does not slip!” That was more “doesn’t” than “don’t”, but the point is the same: at the moment of truth, try not to name your worst fears, or you risk giving the football gods ideas.

Few bore closer witness to Gerrard’s suffering than Brendan Rodgers, so it was a surprise to hear the Leicester manager, in his Friday press conference ahead of yesterday’s Champions League decider against Tottenham, blunder into a mention of the D-word. “What we don’t want is for the door to be open for us and us not to walk through it. So we need to get a victory and see where it takes us.”

It would have taken them into the Champions League, as it turned out, thanks to Chelsea’s 2-1 defeat at Aston Villa. But Leicester found a way to lose at home to Tottenham on a day when the referee gave them two penalties. It completed a stunning collapse from Rodgers’ side, who were 10 points clear of Liverpool and five clear of Chelsea with nine games to go, but lost five of those nine games to see both rivals go past them.

Own-goal disappointment

Rodgers must have felt the familiar twitch of doom in the guts when Alisson scored that 95th-minute winner at West Brom, a witchy moment that convinced a lot of people that Liverpool were going to finish in the top four, perhaps including people at Chelsea and Leicester. The fact that Spurs’ equaliser yesterday came courtesy of a Kasper Schmeichel own goal just heightens the bitter sense of the gods enjoying a joke at Leicester’s expense.

Of course, the truth is you don’t need to invent malicious deities to explain Leicester getting reeled in by Liverpool. The dice are loaded in Liverpool’s favour by a wage bill that is twice the size of Leicester’s. The crushing weight of their economic superiority made the difference in the end, as it ultimately proved across the Premier League: when the dust settled, the four richest teams were there at the top. It’s to the credit of Rodgers and his players that the race was ever close.

And yet. Leicester have been in the Premier League top four for all but seven of the last 76 matchweeks. The exceptions are weeks one, two, five, 37 and 38 of last season, and weeks 37 and 38 of this season. No other team has spent as many weeks in the top four places in that time, but Leicester keep getting elbowed out just when it counts.

It’s only nine months since the last time Rodgers and his players missed out on Champions League qualification by losing at home on the last day of the season. “Obviously straight after the end of the season you don’t qualify for the Champions League and people may want to tell you you failed,” he observed in December. Rodgers’ response was to take the players to the Grove Hotel in Hertfordshire for golf, team-building and man-to-man conversation. “It was important to reinforce that getting from where we started, to where we finished, was success – and we were in a process,” he explained.

Same finishing position

As Marc Albrighton told The Athletic: “His key message to us was that [Liverpool and Manchester City] were five years into a project. We were 18 months into a project at the time.”

So what is the appetite for another trip to the Grove? What is the message this time, now that the five-year project has reached the half-way point? The Premier League season as last year – a slightly better points tally, a slightly worse goal difference, the same finishing position: the project has entered a plateau phase.

Without the sort of investment that might have been made possible by Champions League qualification, it is hard to see how Leicester can improve on fifth. Just staying there will be difficult enough. Jamie Vardy’s two penalties against Spurs brought his total up to four goals in 25 matches in 2021. Maybe he will be reinvigorated by a long summer holiday, but there are signs that we might have seen the best of Vardy. His decline is a huge loss to Leicester because Vardy is one of the greatest Premier League players ever, and even if they can replace his goals they will struggle to replace his fearless and indomitable example.

Of course, Leicester won the FA Cup which goes into the record books forever – but in a dusty section of the record books that is now seldom consulted. In the context of the rest of the season it’s a consolation prize. The cup won’t make much of a difference to the reputation that is attaching itself to Rodgers after two Champions League near-misses with Leicester and Liverpool’s collapse in 2014: that his teams come up short at the biggest moments. If that seems cruel, he can take comfort in one of his own trademark morsels of coaching wisdom: “It’s not the punches in the face that knock you over, it’s the pats on the back.”

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