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

3 Comments

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…

Opta Sports


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?

Leicester impressive again in 4-2 win over Burnley

Leave a comment

Leicester – Burnley saw Leicester City flex a bit of muscle en route to a mostly comfortable, yet somewhat thrilling, 4-2 victory at the King Power Stadium on Sunday.

[ MORE: How to watch PL in the USA ]

Harvey Barnes, Dennis Praet and James Justin scored the goals for Leicester, plus an own goal from Erik Pieters, as Brendan Rodgers’ side made it two wins from two games to start their 2020-21 Premier League campaign.


3 things we learned: Leicester – Burnley

1. Leicester back for another crack at top-four: It’s only two games, admittedly, but Leicester have the look of a side out to prove that their late-season collapse, which saw them fall from third to fifth in the final five games of the 2019-20 season, was very much an aberration. Rodgers’ men hardly ever looked worried as they cruised to a win against last season’s 10th-place finishers.

2. Foxes firepower: Leicester managed to score four goals without a single one of them coming from Jamie Vardy, who bagged 23 last season. James Maddison only made his return from injury on Sunday as well, lending credence to the notion this is far from a one-man team as has, to a degree, been an issue in the past. They might not actually finish inside the top-four this season, but they have the look of a side with plenty of staying power.

3. Burnley crying out for reinforcements: Sean Dyche had some rather critical thoughts about Burnley’s ongoing inability — or, perhaps, refusal — to move in a more timely manner to sign new players and improve the squad. Until such a change occurs, Dyche’s words are probably worth revisiting regularly.


Wood got the scoring started in Leicester – Burnley after just 10 minutes, with equal parts brute force and delicate touch. Charlie Taylor floated a cross to the back post, where Wood was waiting and battling for positioning with a defender. He managed to create a half-yard of space to allow for chest control and a quick, but difficult, finish from the corner of the six-yard box.

Jamie Vardy was instrumental in Leicester’s equalizer 10 minutes later, though hardly the typical manner in which he contributes to goals scored. Vardy latched onto a forward ball in an attempt to split the center backs, but was ultimately forced wide and to hold the ball up. He cut it back to Castagne, who played it on to Barnes for the far-post finish.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Leicester’s second goal was more a product on constant pressure than exquisite, incisive chance creation, but the ball hitting the back of the net counts all the same. Castagne overlapped down the right flank and hit a cross for Vardy as he streaked past the penalty spot. Erik Pieters wasn’t tight enough to Castagne to deny the cross, only to redirect it past the wrong-footed Nick Pope.

The Foxes’ third goal, however, was the result of a free-flowing attack involving a handful of blue shirts along the way. It ended with Ayoze Perez playing the ball across the penalty area and left back James Justin slotting home for his first PL goal in the 61st minute.

It was Justin who was beaten by Jimmy Dunne as he rose highest to bag a goal on his PL debut 12 minutes later, giving Burnley a brief glimmer of hope. 

It didn’t last long, though, as Dennis Praet bagged a stunning fourth goal for Leicester in the 79th minute. Barnes picked up the assist to go with his earlier goal, but it was Praet’s powerful finish that will get all of the headlines, and deservedly so.

Follow @AndyEdMLS

Klopp reaction on Thiago debut, Fabinho; loved ‘perfect’ Liverpool’s hunger

Leave a comment

The Klopp reaction from Chelsea v. Liverpool was full of smiles and laughs as he called the win ‘perfect’ in every way.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned

Jurgen Klopp is a happy, happy man. He usually is, but his side took care of a much talked about Chelsea with minimal fuss at Stamford Bridge on Sunday to make it two wins from two this season for the reigning Premier League champions.

Sure, Andreas Christensen’s sending off right on half time shaped the game but so too did the hunger of Sadio Mane to strike twice early in the second half to secure the win.

[ MORE: Player ratings

A penalty save from Alisson and a debut for Thiago Alcantara made Klopp even happier and as long as captain Jordan Henderson didn’t suffer a serious injury, he said the trip to Chelsea could not have gone better.

Thiago debut showcases why he was bought?

Speaking to ProSoccerTalk after the game via a Zoom call, we asked for the Klopp reaction on Thiago Alcantara’s debut display and if it underlined exactly why he was signed from Bayern Munich.

Thiago came on at half time and completed 75 passes in 45 minutes, a new Premier League record, as the Spanish international slotted in superbly and allowed Liverpool to dictate the tempo of the game against an opponent which sat back deep and was only focusing on defending.

“We signed Thiago for different reasons and only one of them is against deep defending sides. We improved in that department a lot, I have to say, with all of the players who were already there before. But, yes, it is something that suits him. It is natural to him. I like that. Of course it is good. It is one reason of a lot,” Klopp said.

Fabinho dazzles as a stand-in center back; Jurgen Klopp reaction

ProSoccerTalk also asked Klopp about Fabinho’s display, as the Brazilian switched from his usual position of holding midfield to center back due to injuries to Joe Gomez and Joel Matip.

“Fabinho, yes! If Sadio wouldn’t have scored two goals then I think Fab would have been a proper contender for Man of the Match!” Klopp smiled. “I loved his performance, he played outstandingly well. He helped us a lot, with the ball and in defending as well. A proper performance.”

With Thiago arriving in midfield, Fabinho at center back could be something we see a lot more of this season, especially as Gomez and Matip have a nasty knack of picking up small injuries consistently.

Liverpool send out a message

Klopp admitted that his team are only focused on the three points each week, but when asked about making a statement early in the season by winning at a Chelsea side who has spent over $250 million on new players, the Liverpool boss raved about the performance of his side.

“I liked the performance a lot. We are not playing for two things, for three points and then showing everybody you ‘better be ready when we arrive’ or something. That’s not us,” Klopp said. “The next game will be incredibly difficult for their own reasons because Arsenal is obviously flying since a few months already, it is going to be really tough.

“For ourselves, and that we feel the way we play, with adaptations and improvements, with development, that made us successful and will make us successful if we really throw it consistently on the pitch. This Chelsea game away will, for the next 500 years, be one of the most difficult games you can ever play and it will become even more difficult now when all things things are settled for Chelsea. That is clear. For today, it was difficult enough but we did it and I’m happy enough.”

Chelsea’s Lampard: Happier with play in Liverpool loss than Brighton win

Leave a comment

Like a lot of neutrals, Chelsea manager Frank Lampard feels deprived of what could’ve been a thrilling second half between his new-look Blues and Liverpool on Sunday.

Scoreless heading into first half stoppage time, Andreas Christensen was sent off for a DOGSO tackle on Sadio Mane, who scored twice early in the second half in Liverpool’s 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 0-2 Liverpool | 3 things ]

“For chances the first half was pretty even,” Lampard said after the game. “The red card changes (the game). Makes me go into a reshuffle and against a team of that quality it’s obviously going to be really difficult. I think it could be given or not, Kepa was coming out. If anything I’m surprised it’s a yellow to start and gets changed.”

While Lampard had questions regarding the red card, he didn’t try to make any excuses for Kepa Arrizabalaga’s second-half mistake that gifted Mane his second goal.

Lampard would not be drawn into discussions on Kepa’s status and the heavily-reported arrival of Eduoard Mendy from France, but he says the goalkeeper error and Jorginho’s late penalty miss take away from what could’ve been a point.

“Big mistake, clear mistake,” Lampard groused. “When you reflect on the half, without that mistake and (if we) make the penalty, it’s 1-1. In lots of ways I’m actually happier than I was after Brighton. Lots of individuals showed me lots of good things.”

Chelsea hosts Barnsley in League Cup action on Tuesday before visiting West Brom on Saturday, two prime chances for Lampard to get his players’ heads right without a top four challenger on the fixture list until Manchester United on Oct. 24.

Player ratings: Chelsea v. Liverpool

Leave a comment

Chelsea – Liverpool player ratings: This game ended up being a very straightforward win for the reigning Premier League champions.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

A red card to Andreas Christensen right on half time swung the game in Liverpool’s favor and two goals early in the second half from Sadio Mane sealed a comfortable win for Jurgen Klopp’s side. With big mistakes and star performance, the Chelsea – Liverpool player ratings are extremely mixed.

[ MORE: How to watch PL in the USA ]   

Here’s a look Chelsea – Liverpool player ratings as Frank Lampard will be trying to keep things in perspective, while Liverpool and will be keen to keep building momentum.


Chelsea player ratings

Kepa: 3 – Wandering around early on and generally indecisive. Hesitant on the ball over the top which led to Christensen being sent off which forced the decision. Gave the second goal away with a poor mistake. He knows he will not be Chelsea’s goalkeeper with Edouard Mendy coming in soon.

Reece James: 6 – Wasn’t able to showcase his attacking talents from right back and Mane beat him to head home the first goal.

Andreas Christensen: 4 – He was actually playing pretty well until he was sent off right on half time. One long ball over the top set Mane free and Christensen hauled him down with Kepa dallying.

Kurt Zouma: 6 – Steady and tried his best to hold everything together at the back.

Marcos Alonso: 4 – He knows Chilwell is the first-choice left back, and he worked hard but was caught out on a one-two by Firmino and Salah for the first goal.

N’Golo Kante: 6 – One glorious chance to shoot when found in the box but looked for a pass. Struggled to shut Liverpool down.

Jorginho: 4 – A few loose passes, which is unlike him, and the captain struggled to hold down midfield. Missed a penalty kick too.

Mateo Kovacic: 7 – Plenty of mazy dribbles and was the one Chelsea midfield he looked to support the attack.

Mason Mount: 5 – Spent most of his time defending and wasn’t able to impact the game in a positive way.

Kai Havertz: 5 – Some lovely touches and oozes class on the ball, but not involved enough. Subbed off at half time.

Timo Werner: 7 – Always a threat and went close a couple of times in the first half. Caught offside too often. But that’s his game. Won a penalty kick in the second half and never stopped trying.

Substitutes
Fikayo Tomori (on for Havertz, 45′) 6 – Did his best to try and stop Liverpool’s juggernaut and made some decent blocks.
Ross Barkley (on for Jorginho, 79′) N/A
Tammy Abraham (on for Kovacic, 79′) N/A


Liverpool player ratings

Alisson: 7 – Hardly had anything to do throughout the entire game, then he saved a penalty kick superbly. Involved in the red card incident too with his claim and quick throw to turn defense into attack.

Trent Alexander-Arnold: 7 – Always whipping in dangerous balls and a real outlet on the right. Off target with his set pieces.

Fabinho: 8 – Stood in superbly at center back for the injured duo of Joe Gomez and Joel Matip. Could he play at center back now that Thiago is around?

Virgil van Dijk: 7 – Did his job well enough and no uncharacteristic mistakes this week. Almost scored from a set piece situation.

Andy Robertson: 6 – Didn’t see much of him as an attacking threat but worked hard, as always.

Jordan Henderson: 7 – Led by example and a lovely ball over the top which led to Christensen’s red card. Subbed off at half time with a small issue.

Georginio Wijnaldum: 7 – Typically robust display in central midfield. Is he really going to be allowed to leave for Barcelona?

Naby Keita: 6 – Always wants to get on the ball but didn’t really happen for him with Kante and Jorginho around.

Mohamed Salah: 7 – Worked hard to conjure space for himself and teammates. Didn’t score but involved in the first goal.

Roberto Firmino: 7 – The Brazilian forward took a while to get into the game, but created the first goal with a lovely one-two and cross.

Sadio Mane: 9 – Great run to force Christensen to foul him and get sent off. Then headed home the opener in style and scored a second as he chased down Kepa’s pass. Incredible desire.

Substitutes
Thiago Alcantara (on for Henderson, 45′) 6 – Did okay on the ball but did give away a penalty kick on his Liverpool debut for a slight trip on Werner. Not ideal, but not disastrous. Showed his quality in possession.
James Milner (on for Keita, 64′) 6 – Solid as ever and helped Liverpool see out the win.
Takumi Minamino (on for Firmino, 86′) N/A