Given the week-by-week reaction to the big moments that have defined this most unpredictable of Premier League seasons, it’s worth remembering that we’re not yet near the end of the title race.
Last weekend, after Riyad Mahrez scored against Watford to put Leicester City five points clear of Tottenham and eight ahead of Arsenal, Foxes striker Jamie Vardy naturally described the 1-0 win as “massive.”
It certainly felt like a huge step but, in fact, things are just getting started. March is around the stage of the season that Sir Alex Ferguson’s infamous “squeaky-bum time” phrase is revived and, repetitive as it may have become, there’s a reason for it.
No one in the history of English football knew better what it took to win a title, and the 13-time champion understood that things can change at this time of year. Every game has a psychological significance beyond any that has come before associated with it; every step feels longer than the last.
Deeper qualities start to tell, from experience to freshness, and it’s a dynamic that is seen every season, regardless of the details of the race in question. This campaign, for example, has been commonly painted as unique because of Leicester’s incredible rise but how does it compare to the past 20 years?
What is the leaders’ pace?
Since 1994-95, based on the records of the leaders and eventual champions after 29 games, Leicester’s 60 points ranks them joint 17th out of 25 and ahead of just five teams.
That is quite low, but the identity of some of the teams they are ahead of is interesting, in that at least three are among the most admired in Premier League history, thus suggesting Leicester’s record far from poor.
Man United in 1995-96 (58 points) and 1996-97 (57), Arsenal in 1997-98 (57) and Man United in 1997-98 (59) and 2002-03 (58 points) all had fewer points at this stage, while Leicester also have the same record as Man United’s Treble-winning side of 1998-99 (both P29, W17, D9, L3.)
How tight is the race itself?
Out of 21 title races since 1995-96, Leicester have the 10th-best lead over second place, at five points. They also have the 10th-best lead over third, at eight, but just the joint 12th-highest over fourth: 10. Given that, it is reasonable to surmise that Manchester City are probably just about still in the race — especially as they have a game in hand — although history suggests it is unlikely.
How often has a lead been overturned with just nine games to go?
In the past 21 seasons, a leader after 29 games has been overtaken on just four occasions:
1995-96: Newcastle were three clear of Man United and had a game in hand. Man United won the league by four points.
1997-98: Man United were 11 clear of Arsenal, who had three games in hand and eventually won the league by one point.
2002-03: Arsenal were five clear of Man United, who eventually won the league by five points.
2011-12: Man United were one point clear of Man City — and would extend that to an eight-point gap with five games to go — but City won the title on goal difference. That should give all the chasers some hope, but is of course dependent on Leicester City dropping points.
How often have first-time challengers won the league?
One theory is that, in order to finally lift a trophy, you have to go close at least once in order to “learn” how to win it. Is that true?
Of 23 Premier League title winners since 1992-93, 19 were either champions or finished runners-up the previous season. The remaining four had all finished third and only Manchester City in 2011-12 had no recent experience of a race’s intensity. Every other outside challenger, such as Norwich in 1992-93, Newcastle in 1995-96 and Ipswich in 2000-01, has fallen away.
You actually have to go back to 1980-81, when Aston Villa went from seventh place to win the title, for anything even close to what Leicester are currently doing. The same applies to Tottenham; both would have to break the mould were they to finish the season on top.
What is a champions’ run-in?
Historically, what has been the required points return of a champion in the run-in?
The nine-game average during the past 20 years has been 20 points, which requires at least six wins. By contrast, some teams have won just four of their past nine but each — Man United in 2000-01, Arsenal in 2003-04 and Man United in 2012-13 — already had a big lead over their closest challengers.
Two sides — Man United in 1999-2000 and Arsenal in 2001-02 — have won all of their remaining games. If the Gunners, or Man City, are to prevail this season they will probably have to go on a similar run, especially if Leicester maintain their current form.