5000-1 odds. Fairytale season. Video of Jamie Vardy and friends jumping around his house a day after they could have celebrated in an actual stadium had they managed to just beat United. By now, you're familiar with Leicester City's feel-good Premier League championship, and its improbable rise from near-relegation just last season to blue and yellow ribbons on a big trophy.
But how does Leicester's achievement compare to another heralded Premier League title -- the 2003-04 run made by Arsenal, the team christened "The Invincibles?" That year, Arsenal won 26 times and drew 12. They did not lose all season. In fact, it was a 49-match unbeaten streak which started the last two matches of the 02-03 season and extended nine matches into the 04-05 season.
We ask (not at all bitterly, losing the league in a year where the winner will top out at anywhere from 77-83 points):
What is the more remarkable achievement -- Arsenal's Invincibles championship of 03-04 or Leicester's 5000-1 championship of 15-16?
The Invincibles. LCFC's achievement is amazing, but the sheer improbability of not hitting 1 of 3 possible outcomes 38 times in a row is pretty hard to get past, for me.
Let me start by saying they're both amazing achievements. And of course, I'm an Arsenal supporter, so the Invincibles are right up there with the 116-win Mariners as the greatest individual seasons I've ever seen. And I'm not sure I'd put Leicester's 2016 in that pantheon...but. The fact that a team promoted two years ago and just one year away from finishing 14th, with 41 points, improved that total by 36 points this season? That's improbable. And it's even more improbable that that 36 point improvement would result in the championship; yes, it was aided by Chelsea's mirror image decline, and by other teams underachieving, but still.
The season that Arsenal went undefeated was close to peak Top Club Club era Premier League - there were only a handful of teams that had the resources to float to the top and stay there for any meaningful length of time, and as one of those teams, Arsenal of course had fantastic talent that season - talent that, crucially, stayed mostly healthy all season, much as Leicester did this year.
When you look at Leicester, you don't see a squad that says "league champions". Well, officially you do today, but you know what I mean. Their payroll is basically the annual lunch budget for the boards of any of the big clubs, and the players that comprise that payroll, of course, aren't exactly players that were in high demand anywhere else.
Now, I'm not claiming that LCFC was some sort of island of misfit toys that ragtag-charmed their way to a title wearing borrowed shoes and mismatched shirts - far from it. Like those 2001 Mariners and 2003-04 Invincibles, LCFC this year caught lightning in a bottle; the combination of good health, consistent play in an inconsistent season, and the fact that most Leicester players had more or less career years this season all combined to make this a pretty amazing accomplishment.
Again: both the Invincibles and LCFC's season this year were unbelievably amazing. But I think the likelihoood of the former happening again is probably greater than the likelihood of a team promoted two years ago, and fighting relegation in its first league season, winning the league the next.
This is a tough one. As an Arsenal blogger, I should pick The Invincibles, right? Well, I think I'm actually going to go with Leceister City. The Foxes barely stuck around in the Premier League last season. They added a few relative unknowns (at the time). Whatever your feelings on odds, or the reliability of the 5000 to 1 figure thrown around so much recently, they were incredible longshots to win the title. Many predictions had them firmly in the relegation zone. The "Claudio? Really?" articles were as numerous then as the "Arsene needs to go" articles are now. In this era where Champions League prize money and sponsorship dollars have crystallized a fairly solid top 6, LCFC's sustained success came out of nowhere.
They've improved by 36 points from last season and that figure isn't final. After doing some amateur research, the biggest point total jump I can find in the Premier League era from one year to the next is 24 by Liverpool from 04/05 to 05/06. The Invincibles were incredible, however, the very next season Chelsea came within one match of replicating their success. Other teams have come within 2 or 3 matches of replicating the same as well. There's never been a team similarly situated in the table or in terms of wage bill that has been even three matches within winning the title. While The Invincibles was certainly the greater achievement, I can't help but think LCFC's rise and title was more remarkable.
It's Leicester. While I don't want to demean or downplay the massive achievement of going without a loss for an entire season, the fact that people are scrambling to find prior accomplishments comparable to Leicester across all sports and can't come up with anything tells you how monumental their feat was. Again, the Invincibles season was special but Ajax did it less than a decade before and did it with kids while winning the Champions League. Milan did it in the early 90s while Juve did it just a few years ago. It's rare but there's a precedent for it in the major leagues.
Meanwhile, Leicester was relegation fodder for the better part of last season. They hired a manager who lost to the Faroe Islands in his previous gig. Their starting striker's story from factory worker to Premier League starter is well documented, as are the rises of their other two key players from the lower divisions just a couple years ago. They don't have anywhere near the budget of Chelsea, City, United, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool. That they had to leapfrog not just the 13 sides that finished ahead of them last season, but also to hold that lead and dodge injuries is something which is simply inexplicable.
Going back to the Invincibles, and I'm again praising them for their accomplishment, you have to look at their roster compared to Leicester's. That Arsenal squad had elite players at nearly every position with a couple world class legends leading the way. Now look at Leicester, how many players from this squad could crack that Arsenal's starting XI? How many could make it as a sub? Mahrez maybe, but anyone else? This Leicester team has one borderline world class player, one very good one and the rest are a bunch of average midtable players having career years. Yes, they added some players this last summer but no one batted an eyelash at those transactions because there was no need to. By all accounts this squad should be competing with Watford in terms of talent and not be in the conversation with the Invincibles but here they are. I simply can't overlook that despite my overwhelming respect for that Arsenal squad.
Invincibles. No question. Simply put, not only did the Invincibles go unbeaten the full length of the 2003-04 season, but they also went another eleven matches undefeated into the following season. Mind you, in England, where there is no winter break, and clubs in the Champions League have a total of four competitions to manage. Not to diminish Leicester City, but they were knocked out of both cup competitions fairly early and were not in European play so they could put all their energy and focus on taking advantage of an incredibly upside-down EPL.
Further, while the initial odds of Leicester City's achievement - which, I will absolutely say is something we haven't seen before in sports and probably won't again - makes this look incomprehensible, it quickly became apparent as the season wore on that this was a very good squad that played extremely well together. Those odds started to quickly shrink as the league found them out to be...a fox in sheep's clothing.
Rephrased another way, this debate becomes a choice between a bad team being surprisingly good and a very good team being very very good. At first blush, it would look like Leicester improbable title would be more remarkable in a money league and I think it is likely we'll never see such a surprise winner again. But I still think The Invincibles is the more remarkable feat.
Firstly, Leicester were not the 14th place team of last year. They took the boon of remaining in top flight football to add a very good manager and 4 key members to the team and, while some declare them "cast-offs", Raneiri, Huth, Fuchs, Okazaki and especially Kante, remade the team. Secondly, they got the gift of consistency and health, although this is not much different than the Invincibles who also were blessed that season.
Lastly, while Leicester shockingly increased their point total, at the same time every other major team ended up worse. Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal, Man Utd (and possibly Liverpool as well) will all end up with fewer points than last year. Finishing with 77-83 points is fabulous for Leicester but we've seen teams get that point total and not win the league. The door opened up and Leicester got to walk through.
The Invincibles achievement was solely on them. Along with consistency, they had to be present in every game to avoid a loss, something that can happen despite playing well. Start to finish it was an amazing run (which continued until you remember what happened... sorry). As well, Arsenal were a four competition team that made the FA Cup semifinals, League Cup semifinals and the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
This was done with a full schedule right up until April, when the League was all that remained. Perhaps they were better equiped to win the title and be amazing but it was a side that waltz all year to their own strengths and preformed the remarkable, something a Chelsea side the next season couldn't quite replicate despite boasting a better defensive record. Being Invincible is simply that tough.
Leicester's had a fantastic season to be sure. They didn't lose down the stretch to lock up the title relatively comfortably, they played an incredibly smart (if not safe) brand of soccer, and they did it having to replace its manager last summer due to some, shall we say, unfortunate circumstances.
They also will end up with a point total that is underwhelming compared to the most convincing Prem title winners, and they won in a season where everything broke their way. Chelsea, City and United all had managerial situations on fire, Arsenal contended with injuries and a lack of squad depth (again), Spurs exceeded expectations but still exhibited an uncanny ability to Spurs things up, Liverpool is in the process of rebuilding, and the other teams in the Top 8 -- Southampton and West Ham -- were never serious contenders to begin with.
Leicester had the good fortune of winning consistently in a year when other teams couldn't. The Invincibles simply didn't lose at all. Remember the talk of Chelsea being the New Invincibles a few years back and how quickly that proved not to be the case? We might not see another team go undefeated in the Prem ever? It's astoundingly difficult to do, and therefore, IMHO, is the more remarkable of the two. (Plus, Arsenal beat Leicester twice this season. Twice!)