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.”
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…
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.
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?