Perfect storm: This is why Leicester is top of Premier League

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Leicester City is on the cusp of clinching the Premier League title.

No matter how many times you hear that, it doesn’t get any easier to understand, does it?

[ VIDEO: Leicester story at warp speed

Leicester’s fans are pinching themselves as for the first time in their 132-year history they are about to become champions of England. Seven points ahead with five games to go. It’s a matter of when and not if… right?

A perfect storm has been created during the 2015-16 PL season as everything is falling in their favor and the Foxes have taken full advantage of it.

Here’s a look at the key factors in their remarkable rise to the top.


Direct, honest and realistic

One of the coolest things about this incredible rise is that the Foxes aren’t trying to be something they’re not. Every single player on the team knows his job and every single one of them knows they can do it. The synergy is sensational and like a well-oiled machine they just chug away game after game, each doing their individual jobs consistently at their highest level and the sum of their parts is a machine humming along without inconsistency. Six clean sheets in their last seven games (plus five shutouts on the spin) tells you they’re keyed in to grind out results when it matters most. That’s the sign of a champion. Winning at all costs and dispelling any defensive fragility which held them back at times earlier in the season. Now they invite teams to cross into the box and seem to clear everything. 

Leicester’s play, at least on the surface, is  massively direct and cuts through teams like a knife through butter. All season long teams know that N'Golo Kante, Danny Drinkwater and Riyad Mahrez love to chip the ball in-behind long and let Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki chase it down. Everyone knows it is coming, but yet nobody has been able to stop it. The simple yet effective formula has worked a treat. In 19 of Leicester’s 21 wins in the Premier League this season they’ve had less possession than their opponents. They wait for mistakes and pounce on them ruthlessly.

Whispers around the press lounges in England suggest Leicester’s performance analysts have found a formula, some kind of algorithm which allows them to recruit players good at winning the ball back quickly and then playing in the straightest lines possible. That’s what they do to get in-behind opponents and you rarely see them playing out wide if they don’t need to. They are direct, no-nonsense and know exactly what is expected.

I spoke with BBC Radio Leicester broadcaster Ian Stringer, a lifelong Leicester fan, before a recent home game — a 1-0 win (of course) over Southampton — and he summed up the simplicity of this team beautifully after watching them in every single game this season.

“Claudio made a very simple game very simple,” Stringer said. “Football is a very simple game complicated, isn’t it? Claudio has seen what his players are good at, are best at, he’s let them play to their strengths. He has said in press conferences all season ‘my players aren’t capable of playing possession football in midfield. So I’m not going to try and play possession football in midfield.’ And he said that his players, defensively, need to do a bit of work. I know what they are great at, they are great at counter-attacking football. Pressing, harrying, being horrible in their opponents face and that’s what he’s let them do. It isn’t rocket science.”

“They are playing two up front, who knew? Playing a 4-4-2, a good old-fashioned British 4-4-2 and they are pressing and it is working. It is simplicity. Press. Press. Press. Get the ball back and press and move. Get it up field as quickly as you can. Look around the stadium. Fearless. Those words are branded all around the stadium and they are… they are fearless.”


Peaking together

When you look at Leicester’s 18-man squad each week, you know each player is currently at the top of their game. Especially the starting XI.

Somehow these players have all hit peak form at exactly the same time. You look at every single one of them and say “well, this guy has never played this well in his life” and it is so true. Vardy, Mahrez and Kante have undoubtedly been the stars of the team and all three have been nominated for the PFA Player of the Year award. They are comfortable playing together and they have a collective drive and personality which means that if one player doesn’t pull his weight for a single second in a game, he knows about it. Uncompromising characters like Wes Morgan, Robert Huth, Kasper Schmeichel and Vardy aren’t around to make friends.

Most of those guys mentioned aren’t spring chickens either. They are players who have been around the block, and back again, and have now entered the prime (or are even passing it) of their careers. This is their one big shot and they aren’t going to blow it. Total focus from everyone involved has led to incredible achievements and performances this season. Sure, these guys are good players and we knew that before this season, even when they were relegation candidates and at 5000-1 odds to win the title. However, because they all continue to peak together, it means we are witnessing something truly astonishing.

“That is the thing Spurs haven’t got for me. Tell me, who have Spurs got in the dressing room who will get hold of someone around the neck and say, ‘oi! You can go and win the Premier League here, I want you to show some bottle,'” Stringer said. “Wes [Morgan] will do that. Robert Huth will do that. Players in the middle of the park, Danny Drinkwater will do that. [Jamie] Vardy will do that, Kasper [Schmeichel] will do that. We’ve got characters. I think Wes Morgan is just a leader. I’d follow him. I’d follow him into battle. No doubt.”

When it comes to Vardy and Kante, they have both received international callups and scored their first goals for England and France respectively this season. Vardy setting a new PL record after scoring in 11 consecutive games earlier this season — remember, at the age of 29 he’s in just his second-ever PL season and spent most of his career in the semi-pro game — summed up the confidence flowing through this team.

Kante’s incredible destructive ability in midfield has been spotted by the world’s biggest teams and he looks destined to move on from Leicester after this season. The little central midfielder covers every blade of grass in every game he plays and if Vardy is the goals of this team, Kante is the heartbeat.

“From probably the first two minutes of football I saw him play… I would happily change my name to N’Golo Kante,” Stringer laughed. “Kante does everything you would teach a young footballer to do. If you are building the fundamentals of football, you learn how to tackle, you learn how to protect the ball, exploit the space, positional play. But also his mentality and discipline. He will do whatever his manager tells him. No airs or graces about him. I think he is the best player in the Premier League this season and I think N’Golo Kante would not only walk into any team in the Premier League, he would also dispossess whoever has the ball on that team and then walk into their team.”

Just look at these stats below for tackles and interceptions this season in the PL. He starts everything. Hard to believe he was playing in France’s fourth-tier a few years ago…

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Ranieri’s experience

When he arrived last summer, everyone was scratching their heads. Now, he’s applauded everywhere he goes. And rightly so. Ranieri, 64, has performed miracles and he’s done it with minimum fuss. His persona is the exact opposite of the abrasive, strict and sometimes strange Nigel Pearson who he succeeded. Leicester did a complete 360 in terms of manager personality and it has worked sensationally.

Keeping the backroom team led by assistants Steve Walsh and Craig Shakespeare in place was a masterstroke and Ranieri hardly changed anything last summer as he continued the good work which took place at the end of last season. After winning seven of their final nine games in 2014-15 to stay in the PL, momentum was with the Foxes and the Italian manager was right to not making sweeping changes and instead add his own small twists and ideas to the mix. Throughout the season he has stayed calm, polite and utterly human as he continued to repeat his wish to reach 40 points and stave off relegation as soon as possible.

He’s like a grandfather we all want, he seems to want to hug everyone and pass them a piece of boiled sweet and give you a pat on the head.

In true Italian fashion he has added defensive steel to Leicester and he doesn’t ask his players to do anything they can’t do. He has truly got the best out of the talent at his disposal. Ranieri’s career has taken him to some of the biggest clubs in the world over the past 25 years. Chelsea. Inter Milan. AS Roma. Monaco. Atletico Madrid. Valencia. Juventus. Napoli. But his biggest achievement is undoubtedly leading Leicester to the UEFA Champions League this season and to likely become the champions of England for the first-time in its 132-year history.

Comments such as “dilly-ding, dilly-dong” will live long in the memory and his tears of joy after the recent win at Sunderland epitomized just how much this managerial swansong means to him. He has already been named the Italian Manager of the Year back in his homeland, is being touted as Italy’s next national team coach and is nailed on to be named Manager of the Year in England. 18 months ago, Ranieri was being fired by the Greek national team after overseeing a disastrous start to their EURO 2016 qualifying campaign.

“He is experienced enough to not let all of the bells and whistles of football to get in the way with what he’s doing,” Stringer said. “And his Italian swagger and charm allows him to get away with certain things an English manager might not be able to. But he’s so calm, so level headed, Imagine working in your job and knowing what your good at and what you’re not so great at. The gaffer says to you ‘don’t worry about what you’re not great at it’ and instead tells you to go and do what you do best. That is what Claudio has done.”

Now he’s one of the hottest managerial properties on the planet and after all those years of pleasantness to the media, fans and everyone else in-between, it seems like one of the good guys is getting everything he deserves… And then some.


Injury free

Staying healthy has been a huge reason behind this success. Yes, you can say plenty of teams stay healthy and struggle (Aston Villa, ahem), but Leicester has named the same starting lineup time and time again and it is so easy to recite their best XI.

Continuity is one of the most underrated factors in any successful team. Look at the great Liverpool, Manchester United, Barcelona or Real Madrid teams in decades gone by. You can probably rattle off the starting XI of each of their European Cup or league winning teams. We will be able to do the same with Leicester in 10, 15, even 20 years time.

Schmeichel, Simpson, Huth, Morgan, Fuchs, Drinkwater, Kante, Albrighton, Mahrez, Vardy and Okazaki.

Those 11 names will be etched into our memories for the rest of time because of their exploits this season.


Down year for the big boys

The perfect storm we alluded to has seen Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and even Manchester City and Arsenal all endure sub-par seasons. The fact that Leicester’s players have timed their once-in-a-lifetime form to coincide with a down year for the big boys shows us that after a red-hot few months to start the season, they realized they could achieve something special and have seized the moment.

Like Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester knows they may never get a better chance to win the PL.

In fact, both Leicester and Spurs may not challenge for the title again seriously in the next 10 years and Spurs would have a better chance than Leicester, long-term, of becoming perennial title contenders. That’s not a slight on Leicester. It is just being realistic. The big boys, as they always do, will come back strong. Liverpool will fire under Jurgen Klopp after a full preseason and after bringing in new players. Manchester City under Pep Guardiola could sweep all before them. Chelsea’s new direction under Antonio Conte promises plenty and the powerhouses of Arsenal and Manchester United will battle again.

“In the City of Leicester, it feels like the middle of the sporting earth at the minute and who can argue?” Stringer said. “This will be the biggest team sporting achievement ever. I defy anybody else to tell me a bigger sporting achievement by a team. There has never been a 5000-1 shot. Where do you get a 5000-1 shot? Are they ever in their lifetime going to get a better chance of winning the Premier League? Probably not.”

Leicester and their fans know it is now or never and even though they’ve got lucky with how bad some of the top teams have been this season, fair play to them for taking full advantage of it.

Now, most importantly, can they get the job done?

Hasenhuttl promises Southampton’s best XI for Pompey clash

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Southampton play against Portsmouth for the first time in over seven years on Tuesday as the South Coast derby returns.

[ MORE: League Cup scores live

The two South Coast cities are just 18 miles apart and the port cities just do not like one another. Not one bit.

Premier League Saints head to League One Pompey as the red hot favorites to advance to the last 16 of the League Cup, but with local pride on the line and two fired-up fanbases expectant, Saints boss Ralph Hasenhuttl knows it will not be easy.

That is why he is picking his best possible team.

“I will pick the strongest XI that I can put on the pitch because we know about the importance of the game,” Hasenhuttl said. “Every member of this club is looking forward to this game because we have a big chance to rewrite the history in our way. It is not about thinking what we can lose there, it is about thinking what we can win there. We can win a lot there.”

Hasenhuttl confirmed that Nathan Redmond may only be on the bench to start with as he rushed back to play in the 3-1 defeat to Bournemouth on Friday, while star winger Moussa Djenepo remains out injured with a muscle problem.

Focusing on what will be a lively atmosphere at Fratton Park, Hasenhuttl called for calm from both sets of fans.

“What I want to see is a football celebration. From two teams who do everything to win. This is what I want,” Hasenhuttl said.

Pompey boss Kenny Jackett, who has his side fourth from bottom in the third-tier of English soccer after a slow start to the season, was asked by Sky Sports if they can cause an upset.

“Of course we can,” Jackett said. “You can get things right on the day. Particularly with it being a home game, I think that really helps us.”

Local pride is on the line on and off the pitch, and Pompey v. Saints is a fixture which is rarely played due to both teams either falling on tough times or having their better years at totally different times.

In the past 31 years there have been only 10 games between these teams. That makes this passionate derby even more intense.

The pressure will be on Saints to win big, and if they don’t then Hasenhuttl and his players know extra pressure will be piled on them for the rest of their Premier League season.

VIDEO: Every Premier League goal from Matchweek 6

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Matchweek 6 was a beauty across the Premier League, and in case you missed anything, here is every goal scored.

Click on the video above to watch the action, as Man City won 8-0, Liverpool edged out Chelsea, West Ham stunned Man United, Arsenal launched a stunning comeback against Aston Villa and so too did Leicester City against Spurs.

And that’s just naming a few highlights from the 10 games.

What a weekend.

Mexicans Abroad: Weekend Roundup

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It looked as if Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez had scored his first goal for his new club Sevilla, at the expense for a former one, Real Madrid. Until it was taken away.

Chicharito came off the bench for Sevilla for a second-straight game and did his best to make an impact, but his offside goal aside, Sevilla slumped to a 1-0 defeat. Elsewhere, Edson Alvarez played in his first Eredivisie derby as Ajax took a 1-1 draw away from a trip to PSV Eindhoven.

Here is a list of several other Mexico national team affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) outside of Mexico this weekend.


Serie A

Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Napoli — Lozano came off the bench on Sunday for Napoli in the 73rd minute of it’s 4-1 win over Lecce.

Premier League

Raul Jimenez, Wolverhampton Wanderers — Jimenez started but was subbed off in the 76th minute of Wolves 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace. Jimenez now hasn’t scored in three-straight games in all competitions since the international break.

La Liga

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Sevilla — Chicharito came off the bench in the 69th minute against his former club, and even appeared to score the game-tying goal. Alas, it was ruled out for him being offside.

Hector Herrera, Atletico Madrid — Herrera finally made his first start for Los Colchoneros on Saturday in a scoreless draw with Celta Vigo. Herrera went 60 minutes before being substituted.

Andres Guardado, Real Betis —  The veteran midfielder returned to the starting lineup on Friday in a scoreless draw with Osasuna. Guardado played 78 minutes and picked up a yellow card.

Diego Lainez, Real Betis — The 19-year-old make the 18, but didn’t take the field against Osasuna.

Nestor Araujo, Celta Vigo — Araujo started and went the full 90 against his international teammate Herrera and Atletico Madrid in a scoreless draw. Araujo shut down an offense that includes Joao Felix, Diego Costa, Angel Correa and Alvaro Morata.

Eredivisie

Erick Gutierrez, PSV Eindhoven — Gutierrez made his return to the PSV gameday squad on Sunday for De Topper against Ajax. However, he didn’t make it off the bench.

Edson Alvarez, Ajax — Alvarez started and played the full 90 minutes in the 1-1 draw at PSV.

Primeira Liga

Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, FC Porto — Starting at right back again, Tecatito went 76 minutes and picked up a yellow card in Porto’s 2-0 win over Santa Clara.

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Omar Govea, Zulte Waregem — Govea made the gameday squad but didn’t appear in Zulte’s 2-2 draw with Genk.

Elsewhere around the globe:

Hector Moreno, Al Gharafa   On Thursday, Moreno started and played 81 minutes in Al Gharafa’s 3-1 win over Al Ahli.

Juan Gerardo Ramirez Alosno, Roda JC — The 21-year-old fullback was left on the bench in Roda’s 3-1 defeat to Utrecht II on Friday.

Carlos Fierro, San Jose Earthquakes – Dressed but didn’t play in the Quakes’ 3-1 loss to Atlanta United.

Carlos Vela, LAFC – Vela scored a penalty kick goal to help save a point for LAFC against Toronto FC in a 1-1 draw.

Jonathan Dos Santos, LA Galaxy – Dos Santos started and went the full 90 minutes, picking up a yellow card, as the Galaxy beat the Montreal Impact, 2-1.

Uriel Antuna, LA Galaxy – Antuna started and scored the game-winning goal for the Galaxy off an assist from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the Galaxy’s 2-1 win over the Montreal Impact.

Americans Abroad: Weekend Roundup

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One of the youngest Americans playing abroad had arguably the biggest weekend of any of his USMNT-eligible teammates.

Playing in his first derby for Ajax against PSV in league play, Dest started and set up teammate Dusan Tadic for a goal. Interestingly, with the Netherlands FA working to get Dest to commit to the Oranje moving forward, Dest had the chance to match up against Denzel Dumfries, the current first choice right back for the Netherlands.

The other big story? Christian Pulisic didn’t play again. More on that below.

Here is a list of several other USMNT affiliates making a name for themselves (or not) abroad this weekend.

Premier League

Christian Pulisic, Chelsea — Pulisic made the bench but didn’t appear for a third-straight match. Lampard explained to our own JPW why Pulisic has been on the sidelines.

DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle — The fullback returned to training following a serious groin injury. There’s no timeline on his return yet, however.

EFL Championship

Antonee Robinson, Wigan Athletic — Robinson is a fixture at Wigan. The young left back started and played the full 90 minutes as Wigan picked up a win over a top-ten opponent, Charlton Athletic

Matt Miazga, Reading (loan from Chelsea) — The 24-year-old is out with a hamstring injury. There’s no timeline on his return.

Eric Lichaj, Hull City — The Tigers captain started and played the full 90 minutes in Hull City’s 3-0 win over Luton Town.

Geoff Cameron, QPR — The 34-year-old defender started at centerback and went the full 90, picking up a yellow card in QPR’s 2-1 win over Millwall.

Tim Ream, Fulham — Ream started and played 90 minutes in Fulham’s 1-1 draw at Sheffield Wednesday.

Cameron Carter-Vickers, Stoke City (loan Tottenham Hotspur) — Carter-Vickers started and went the full 90 minutes as Stoke City picked up just its second point of the season in a scoreless draw with Brentford.

Duane Holmes, Derby County — Holmes made his second-straight start after coming back from injury, and his first 90 minutes on the pitch as Derby County secured a last-gasp 1-1 draw with league-leading Leeds United.

EFL League One

Lynden Gooch, Sunderland – Gooch started and played the full 90 minutes, though Sunderland needed a last-minute goal from Aiden McGeady to draw at Bolton. .

Bundesliga

Weston McKennie, Schalke —  McKennie started, picked up a yellow card in the second half and then was substituted in the 76th minute, before Schalke scored a late winner in a 2-1 victory over Mainz.

Zack Steffen and Alfredo Morales, Fortuna Dusseldorf — Steffen started and played all 90 minutes in Fortuna Dusseldorf’s 2-1 defeat to rivals Borussia Monchengladbach. Steffen recorded a handful of incredible, point-blank saves to keep Fortuna in the game. Morales did not dress again.

Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen  With an injury crisis, Sargent got the start and played 80 minutes. Unfortunately for Sargent and Werder, they were routed by Leipzig – even without Tyler Adams.

Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig — Adams remains inactive with a groin injury. There’s no timeline on his return.

Fabian Johnson, Borussia Mönchengladbach Johnson didn’t make Borussia Monchengladbach’s 18 for their match against Fortuna Dusseldorf.

Timmy Chandler, Eintracht Frankfurt — The veteran defender entered off the bench in the 83rd minute as Eintracht secured a massive 2-2 draw with Borussia Dortmund.

Julian Green, Greuther Furth – The 24-year-old midfielder started and played the full 90 minutes for Greuther Furth. Unfortunately, they lost 2-0 to league-leading Stuttgart in the 2. Bundesliga.

Eredivisie

Sergino Dest, Ajax — Dest started at right back in his first edition of “De Topper,” starring as Ajax drew 1-1 at PSV Eindhoven. Dest played the full 90 minutes and had an assist on Dusan Tadic’s goal.

Haji Wright, VVV-Venlo — The 21-year-old striker came off the bench in the 71st minute of VVV’s 1-0 loss to Willen II.

Desevio Payne, FC Emmen — The U-23 MNT fullback was left out of FC Emmen’s 18 once again. 

Ligue 1

Timothy Weah, Lille — Weah remains sidelined with a muscular injury. There’s no timeline on his return.

Theoson Jordan-Siebatcheu, Rennes — Siebatcheu made the 18 but did not feature in Rennes 1-1 draw with Lille.

Honorable Mentions:

Chris Richards, Bayern Munich II – The young Alabama native started and played the full 90 minutes as FC Bayern II defeated FC Ingolstadt, which was in the 2. Bundesliga just last season.

Andrija Novakovich, Frosinone – The 23-year-old striker, now in Serie B after five seasons on the books with Reading, made his first start for Frosinone, going 55 minutes in a 1-1 draw with Venezia.

Giovanni Reyna, Borussia Dortmund U-19 – Reyna started, scored, and played 77 minutes in Dortmund U-19s 6-1 win over Leverkusen. The 16-year-old attacker also scored earlier in the week in a 2-1 win over Barcelona U-19s in the UEFA Youth League.

Luca De La Torre, Fulham Reserves – Luca de la Torre is still stuck at Spurs without getting first team minutes, but he had a night to remember in the PL2. The 21-year-old midfielder scored the first, and game-winning-goal in a 90-minute performance as Fulham beat Reading U-23s, 5-4.