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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

The method in the madness of Leicester City’s success

The Foxes, who barely escaped relegation last season, are closing in on the Premier League title. What explains the dramatic turnaround?

Leicester City stand on the brink of English football’s greatest-ever miracle: a team widely tipped for relegation are about to win the Premier League title. This is unique enough in English football history. But in the context of such unequal wealth distribution between top-flight teams, it is verging on unfathomable. The scale of this achievement is unprecedented in English football, maybe even all team sports.

Terms like “magical" and “fairytale" have been strewn across many an opinion column as people come to terms with this most unlikely of triumphs. But once one dissects the considerable flesh of this success story, a strong tissue of logic becomes apparent, its sinews binding the narrative of Leicester City’s revelatory season.

While it is true that a sudden influx of television money has turned every Premier League club into a cash cow, Leicester City still sit light years behind the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea—even Tottenham and Liverpool—in terms of resources. The Premier League is entering a brave new age, with a more level playing field. But even so, Leicester City are wrecking the curve in a manner unforeseen in English football history. This is seismic.

Of course, there is a very strong element to which the stars have aligned for the Foxes. For a start, the Premier League’s superpowers have simultaneously undergone a sabbatical. Leicester City have benefited from a bill of health cleaner than a surgeon’s glove. They have made just 27 changes to their starting line-up this season, by far the fewest in the Premier League. This is especially astonishing from a team coached by a man nicknamed “The Tinkerman".

In fact, Claudio Ranieri’s masterplan has been to ditch his tinkering ways. Leicester City underwent a scintillating run of form to escape relegation at the end of the 2014-15 season, winning seven and drawing one of their last nine matches. Ranieri has made small, subtle changes at the right times. Recognizing that the Foxes were onto a good thing, he kept the backroom staff intact upon arrival. The Italian has candidly admitted that he resolved to change very little with the team last summer.

Ranieri took the managerial reins from Nigel Pearson. A tough, disciplinarian type of coach, Pearson did enough to steer the Foxes to an outstanding winning run at the end of the last season. But he lost his job as the club became mired in controversy, following the behaviour of some players—including his son—on a post-season tour of Thailand. In early 2015, Pearson was effectively informed that he had been dismissed by Leicester City, before quickly being reinstated. Pearson’s manner with the press became increasingly intense, culminating in him bizarrely labelling a local journalist as “an ostrich" last April.

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri (in black jacket). Photo: Reuters
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Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri (in black jacket). Photo: Reuters

While there was some tension with the previous manager, Ranieri sensed momentum and camaraderie among his players; his main aim was to maintain the buoyancy of the squad. He has operated a very simple reward system for his players. The Foxes conceded in each of their first nine fixtures, so Ranieri promised to take them all out for pizza once they kept their first clean sheet. The former Chelsea boss has also revealed that he has dangled the carrot of extra days off for his players in exchange for good performances.

With his avuncular nature, Ranieri was very much the right man at the right time for this Leicester City squad. He inherited a happy group and his amenability has provided a stark contrast to Pearson’s stern, serious approach. He has managed to harness the mood in the squad, adding a measure of trust to a contented group.

If Leicester are riding the crest of a happy wave, they have also made sure to take their fans along for the ride.

Club owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha gave fans free beer and doughnuts on his birthday recently. He also plied Foxes fans with free booze at their top-of-the-table clash with Manchester City in December. Free plastic “clappers" have been distributed to supporters at every home match this season. Gimmicky it may seem, but it has been a simple and effective way of unifying the fans in song and channelling mutual energy. Leicester City have adeptly mobilized the fan base and made them feel a part of the fabric of this unravelling phenomenon.

In truth, Leicester City fans would probably have been happy enough with Premier League survival this season. They were in English football’s third tier as recently as 2009 and were only promoted to the Premier League in 2014. Fans were happy enough with survival last season, especially as they propped up the Premier League table in March 2015. The mood was good among the Foxes supporters going into this season, but the club have also taken care to boost that atmosphere even further.

Leicester are in dreamland.

Photo: Reuters
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Photo: Reuters

Simplicity has been the key for Ranieri. He altered Pearson’s favoured back three, using a tightly knit back four that, at times, looks to have been bound together by rope—like a back four on a fussball table. As a result, Leicester City boasts the third best defence in the league. He added N’Golo Kante to stiffen up the midfield alongside Danny Drinkwater. Riyad Mahrez was given free rein to dance infield from the left wing, his impossibly slender frame sending defenders hither and thither.

Broadly, Ranieri has built a structure that caters to the strengths of every single one of his players. After years of “Guardiolization" and the fetishization of possession football, Leicester have grooved to a different tune. Seventeen Premier League clubs have recorded higher possession statistics this season (Leicester City have averaged 44% possession of the ball this season). Every single team in the division has recorded more successful passes than the Foxes. Leicester do not show us that possession football is dead, rather they point out the benefits of playing to your strengths.

“I would like to keep possession more, but we don’t have those characteristics in our team," Ranieri remarked candidly back in October. Their effectiveness is owed to simplicity and logic. It is almost as if they have plucked their attackers from a supermarket shelf. In Jamie Vardy, they have one sledgehammer. A pedal-to-the-metal striker who hungrily feasts on balls into the channels, snapping at the heels of retreating defenders and lashing the ball into the net whenever he glimpses the whites of a ’keeper’s eyes. Vardy is the Premier League’s third highest goalscorer this season and has forced his way into the England squad.

If Vardy is a jackhammer, Mahrez is a calligrapher’s quill. He is an impish wide player with velvet feet and svelte hips. Shinji Okazaki literally and figuratively sits somewhere between Vardy and Mahrez. He is the linkman in Leicester’s attack; he is not quite as fast as Vardy, but he is just as relentless. He is not quite as imaginative as Mahrez, but is just as skilful. He helps to blend Leicester’s attack, encapsulating its qualities in one composite body. Marc Albrighton plays the role of an old-fashioned, tireless winger, making shuttle runs up and down the wing.

Drinkwater, like many of his teammates, has discovered the form of his life within this complementary framework. Like Okazaki, he embodies a little sprinkle of all of the qualities that froth away alongside him in Ranieri’s cauldron. He can pass a little, tackle a little and run a lot. Leicester seem to have one of everything and a player or two who has a little of everything. A dash of fairy dust has seen these 11 stars align perfectly, but Leicester invest lots of money and time in scouting, analytics and fitness management and they have silently worked to weave this most irresistible tapestry.

But what is truly remarkable is that Ranieri has shown an ability to adapt. Leicester found that momentum carried them to Christmas, at which point they ran into a wall of tough-looking fixtures. In games against Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City, Leicester took a more circumspect defensive approach. While Arsenal and Manchester City crumbled like biscuits under a hammer in the new year, Leicester City sensed a shot at history and tightened the screws in defence.

The full-backs rarely move beyond the halfway line, to help protect centre-halves Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, who are far from mobile. Leicester City have resolved not to expose them, as Watford striker Troy Deeney observed back in March, “Part of my job leading the line for Watford is to occupy centre-halves...but I also look to bring centre-halves out of position to the flanks and make space for my team-mates in the middle.

“It is difficult to do that against Leicester because their centre-halves, Huth and Wes Morgan, never put themselves in danger of being isolated. When Watford had the ball in wide areas, they kind of left us to it, and concentrated on dealing with the cross rather than stopping it being put in."

As the title dream has moved closer, Leicester have concentrated on making themselves difficult to break down. So, a team that conceded in each of the first nine games of the season, have now kept clean sheets in 12 of the last 17. This cautious approach has helped them to hold their nerve as the pressure of the title race increased.

There are many interconnected factors that have governed Leicester’s success. That these ties have fastened themselves together so tightly is probably a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. But this is no fairytale. There is plenty of science behind the magic. The chipper Ranieri has increased the peace that he inherited and made small, cute decisions at exactly the right intervals, like a chef adding a perfect measure of spice to an already tantalising dish.

Distilled, the Leicester story is a triumph for simplicity. They have built a structure designed to accentuate their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. This is not magic, it is a strict adherence to the immutable laws of thermodynamics.

Timothy Stillman is an UK-based football writer.

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