The Premier League can be a hard and serious place. But every now and again, when pressing forwards align, systems click and form is found, teams can enter a wondrous cocoon within it and momentarily escape the pressures of its capitalism and rude ambition.
This secret garden exists at the top of any football pyramid, in a sweet spot somewhere among the top half of the table. Where the weight of a title challenge is a blessing and finishing among the top four would be a right rather than the necessity it is to the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal. Here relegation is no fear, rather a thought to pass the time while you gorge on the fruits of this care-free living.
Here, you can simply be as you are, with coherent plans and fun players, enjoying the kind of football that in normal circumstances would have you turning to your mate in the stands and sharing a knowing look that needs no words. “Did you see that? I can’t believe this is us.” It is a place for those who expect, but not too much.
Though Leicester City are top going into the international break, perhaps existing in this space is more indicative of their success over the last couple of years. They might dream of a repeat of 2015/16’s success, they can also be at peace knowing failing to do so would be no failure at all.
It has taken a great deal of work to get to this point. From acquiring a “big picture” manager in Brendan Rodgers, building a financial structure that attracts talent and allows them to keep hold of your better players, along with a functioning recruitment network that finds value in a treacherous market.
Sunday’s 1-0 win, the result of a system tailored to Wolverhampton Wanderers’ low block, with a goal from one of the best Premier League strikers of the last decade and confirmed by a dominant performance from 19-year old new recruit Wesley Fofana embodied all of that.
Wolves occupy this space, too, for a lot of the same reasons. After two seventh-place finishes, the second a little shakier than the first, and with attacking talent blended seamlessly by Nuno Espirito Santo, they have had a feel of “must-see” off-broadway entertainers.
We could probably throw this current iteration of Southampton into the mix, and Aston Villa, too. Chris Wilder had a waltz through with Sheffield United last season. Everton were eyeing up a spot in the grass at the start of this one.
Across Europe, clubs such as Borussia Monchengladbach and Sassuolo are currently enjoying their own time in the sun in the Bundesliga and Serie A, respectively. It’s no coincidence these are all teams outside their country’s Big “Insert Number Here” clubs that provide neutrals with a kick.
Perhaps because they are welcome antidotes to those Super Clubs. A reminder that collective excellence can breakthrough even from humble beginnings to add richness to their surroundings. Granted, “humble” is a relative descriptor given the financial and administrative clout these sides have over a vast majority. These aren’t quite rags to riches tales. But even the Mighty Ducks made use of a lawyer and his contacts.
Might they also be an antidote to the “super player”? The cult of the individual is a phenomenon that has permeated into most team sports, and is no bad thing per se.
But for all its benefits, such as bringing greater youth and diversity to a fanbase, it overshadows a team’s own identity as they become absorbed as part of a footballer’s accessory and aesthetic. While Jamie Vardy may be with synonymous with everything Leicester, his 90-minute presence is no more pronounced than his teammates, even if he did score the only goal on Sunday.
This is how things have played out in the NBA, an organisation that has successfully profited off the marketability of its personalities. Now, however, they find themselves devoid of the franchise rivalries that made it so compelling during the 1990s and 2000s.
Unfortunately – or perhaps expectedly – this state of bliss does not last long. One way or another, the Premier League’s interminable rat race will suck them back in.
The stress is now on Sheffield United, rock bottom with seven defeats and consigned to a scrap after the comfort of ninth-place. Three defeats in a row have given Everton and Ancelotti reason to doubt themselves. And given the manner of their defeat to Leicester, you wonder if Wolves may be on the cusp of a more anxious time, as the “real world” beckons.
They are no longer the zestful side they once were, with the loss of Diogo Jota to Liverpool and the fact that Joao Moutinho – an unused substitute on the weekend – no longer has the legs for 30 or more starts as part of a midfield two. Thus, Espirito Santo has made them more functional. Though it worked to secure 10 points from four games in October, their pragmatism meant little to no spark at the King Power Stadium.
Kasper Schmeichel made just two saves, which was as many touches as Raul Jimenez had in the opposition box, though neither of the shots on target were from him. Wolves have managed just eight goals in as many games this season, making them the league’s fifth lowest scorers.
Even Leicester do not have much time with this relatively carefree abandon. The longer their run continues, the greater the expectation. For all their deserved plaudits last season, the drop-off during the run-in cost them a precious Champions League place. A similar finish will rank as a failure.
Rodgers does not quite agree on that last bit. “I have always said failure is learning and if anyone says us not getting into the Champions League last season was failing then, OK. For us it was about learning and developing.” But he does cede that maintaining this vein of form and good vibes will be tough. “Our idea is to sustain that but I can’t promise.”
For now, they should be encouraged to enjoy this time and savour this feeling. Modern football has become an interminable quest for philosophies, vision, process and, for clubs like Leicester and Wolves, trying to break through a ceiling even if it might mean breaking yourselves.
A scarce commodity is clarity, and even scarcer is contentment. They owe it to themselves and the rest of us to bask in that while they can, even if just for the next two weeks. Because being this happy never lasts.
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