With Leicester City on the brink of winning the Premier League title, now seems like a good time to check in with NBC Sports’ very own “The 2 Robbies.”
Below they discuss Leicester’s incredible rise to the top of the PL, plus touch on what the future holds for Manchester United.
This article originally appeared in Issue 08 of Eight by Eight, a quarterly magazine fusing longform football writing with high quality illustration, photography and design.
Robbie and Robbie, today we’re having a conversation about Leicester City winning the Premier League. How did we get here?
ROBBIE MUSTOE: A perfect storm. It’s the only way to describe it. The team benefits from the synergy of average Premier League players that are well-organized and have remained fit all season. They have an inspired manager. And, most importantly, they have two stars in Vardy and Mahrez. They’ve gone from small-time goal scorers to incredible goal scorers.
ROBBIE EARLE: Players, really. They weren’t even big players last year. At the same time, the powerhouses of English football are in places they normally aren’t this season. The combination of these factors means that a club like Leicester can be at the top of the table. And everything that a team like Manchester City aren’t—and why City won’t win the league—is everything Leicester are.
To your last point: what makes them different?
EARLE: Work ethic, hunger. I’ve played in every league in English football. And I always used to remember when playing in the fourth division, thinking that when I get out of here, I’m not coming back. It stuck with me, especially in the Premier League. When you come from that kind of background, like so many of Leicester’s players, you’re not going to be the type of player who says, “well, not today.” You’re brought up to play as hard as you can. Some days you’re rubbish, but you give everything. Because you have to.
MUSTOE: My son said to me, “Dad, they’re trying harder than everybody else.” And I think it’s as simple as that. When you watch them play it’s almost like you can see them thinking: ‘This dream is going to continue. And we’re going to find a way through.’ It’s everything a fan wants to see in their team.
What impact will Leicester’s success—and the way they’ve made it—have on the Premier League?
EARLE: It’s an interesting turning point in the whole of football. Because other teams are going to be more ambitious. Now, ambitious might not mean you finish in the top four, but newly-promoted teams aren’t arriving in the league asking, “well, how do we survive?” The likes of Stoke, West Ham, and Southampton have shown that with good recruitment and good management you can stay in the Premier League—and in Leicester’s case, maybe win it.
MUSTOE: It’s funny how success stories influence the style of football. Years ago, there was a period when Wimbledon were successful with a direct approach and longer balls. So others did it too. Then we saw it with Barcelona’s Tiki-Taka. My point: It’s stunningly obvious how effective work ethic is, and it feels like football is changing into a game of incredible athleticism and technical ability.
Let’s say Leicester wins it. Are we talking about the greatest-ever achievement in football history?
MUSTOE: Absolutely. The most incredible, unexpected football story ever.
EARLE: I’m talking sporting, not just football. It’s up there with Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson.
More incredible than Nottingham Forest in 1977–78?
MUSTOE: Yes. Because of finances. The richer have gotten richer over the past few years. There’s a big difference.
EARLE: Forest also had a genius manager. Brian Clough was the Mourinho of the day.
Say Leicester finish in the top four. What changes next season?
MUSTOE: I would worry that this perfect storm that we’re seeing could change. I’m not saying that they’re going to struggle. But I would not be at all surprised if Mahrez goes. And if new players come in, they can’t continue this same consistency. There has to be a drop off.
EARLE: But if you can retain what you’ve got and build—rather than losing your best—then you’ve got a chance. And it’s not like Ranieri doesn’t know what he’s doing in the Champions League. This whole thing is so hard to comprehend. Imagine, Cristiano Ronaldo at the King Power Stadium.
MUSTOE: Imagine saying this time next year: Norwich are going to win the League!
Is Jose Mourinho the right man for Manchester United?
EARLE: YES – José Mourinho needs Manchester United. And Manchester United need Mourinho. Right now, they’re dull, boring, and without gloss. They don’t look like they’re ready to win anything. They’re playing football in a style that looks slightly dated. Mourinho walking through the door at Old Trafford changes everything. He’s an outstanding coach and tactician. It’s a blind date that both parties have to go on. And they’ve got to kiss and make it work.
Now it’s important to note that I don’t think he’s a long-term solution. But if I’m Manchester United, Mourinho buys me two or three years where, one, I have a chance of winning silverware. And two, I have time to find the right young coach for the future.
And it’s really easy at the moment to say, “don’t hire Mourinho,” but it’s much, much less easy to say, “who’s a better choice?” After David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal, United can’t afford any more hiccups. People forget that this football club is also a business. It’s run by people who look at share prices. They can’t be out of the Champions League, and Mourinho guarantees that they make it. The game is changing, and you need to change with it.
There are times I don’t like some of Mourinho’s actions. But the guy’s a winner and he’s a great football manager. It’s the perfect situation, and Mourinho should go in and do a job for United. Especially when you have Pep Guardiola arriving across the road in Manchester. You need a guy who can go toe-to-toe mentally with him. Anything less will be a disaster.
MUSTOE: NO. I couldn’t disagree more. There is no man more unlike a Manchester United manager than José Mourinho. United is a club about building. It’s about having a leader for a long period of time. It’s about exciting, attacking football. It’s about giving academy players a chance. And Mourinho is none of those things.
Let’s say he is appointed, here’s what we know will happen: In the first year he’s going to assess the competition. In the second year, history says, he has a great chance of winning something. But in the third year, history says again, he has a great chance of unsettling the club and it’s players in a very destructive way. And for those who believe managing United would be different, look at his last stint at Chelsea: He was meant to be the “Happy One.” How long did that last?
Of course, I understand why Mourinho is attractive as a short-term band aid. The club is desperate to stop its decline. But they need to resist the temptation and go about a more holistic approach to filling the role of manager. They need to focus on finding the perfect person, or at least someone who has a chance to become the perfect person. That’s easier said than done, I get it. But what about Pochettino? A young manager bubbling with potential. He’d be perfect. Or Joachim Löw? A world champion and classy guy. Why not?
The bottom line: Manchester United need someone to respect—and grow—the club. Sir Bobby Charlton didn’t like him two years ago, and I think he’s still right today.