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?

U.S. Soccer makes it official: USMNT’s first Gold Cup tuneup to be vs. Jamaica

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It will be a rematch of the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup final as the U.S. begins its preparations for this summer’s Gold Cup.

U.S. Soccer announced that the U.S. Men’s National Team will host Jamaica in a friendly match on June 5 in Washington D.C. at Audi Field, the home of D.C. United. Jamaica, ranked No. 53 in FIFA’s latest world rankings, has made the finals of each of the last two Gold Cups, and they’ll be hosting matches at the Gold Cup for the first time in tournament history in this year’s edition.

“As we prepare for the start of the Gold Cup, this is the perfect opportunity in terms of opponent and venue,” USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter said in a statement. “Playing against Jamaica we get exposure to another different style of play, and one that we may see later in the tournament. For us, there’s always something special about playing in the nation’s capital. There have been so many memorable games for the National Team in Washington, D.C., and now we look forward to beginning another chapter in the new stadium.”

For the U.S., it’s a strong test and part of a really solid 1-2 punch of friendly matches, beginning with Jamaica and then Venezuela ahead of the Gold Cup. Berhalter is hoping it will prepare the U.S. for battles with Panama and Trinidad and Tobago. Should the U.S. advance, it could face potentially Jamaica, Honduras, or even El Salvador in the quarterfinals or semifinals, with a trip to the final on the line.

Gregg Berhalter has just a few weeks before he has to make one of his first big decisions, albiet one with a lot of flexibility. By May 16, Berhalter must submit to CONCACAF his provisional Gold Cup squad, which can include up to 40 players and four goalkeepers. By Monday, June 3, just two days before this friendly match against Jamaica, Berhalter must submit his final roster of 23 players, including three goalkeepers.

Berhalter, any any coach, has up until 24 hours until the USMNT’s first game (on June 18) to make any emergency replacements. As such, it’s likely that Berhalter will carry more than 23 players with him when the U.S. plays Jamaica and Venezuela.

Adebayor reveals reason behind that celebration against Arsenal

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Just about everyone remembers it. (If not, watch it here on Youtube)

Then Manchester City striker Emmanuel Adebayor finds himself in space between two of Arsenal’s centerbacks, Adebayor’s former teammates, before the Togolese striker heads home a terrific goal. Adebayor then go on a 100-yard sprint down the left side of the field, finishing in an epic knee slide right in front of the Arsenal away support at the Etihad, then called the City of Manchester Stadium.

[MORE: MLS still has a long way to go]

It was audacious. It was outrageous. But we didn’t know why he truly did that until now.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Daily Mail, Adebayor said that racist abuse from Arsenal fans that day was what led to his famous celebration for Man City. Racist abuse has been back in the news recently, as many Afro-descended players including Raheem Sterling, Danny Rose and Daniel Sturridge have spoken out about the hate, abuse, and vitriol they experience on a weekly basis.

“I remember getting to the stadium and Arsenal fans were there,” Adebayor told the Daily Mail. “All I heard was the the chant ‘Your mother is a whore and your father washes elephants.’ My father worked in currency exchange and my mother is a businesswoman. But this went on and on. So how can I reply? I didn’t have a voice to go against thousands of supporters.

“And now the same FA are trying to stop racism? I’m sorry. It does not work that way. Today is too late. We are tired. Enough is enough. I see Mario Balotelli and Didier Drogba on Instagram. How many times do we have to post something? We have to react. We have to leave the pitch.”

Earlier in the interview, Adebayor also stated he did not want to leave Arsenal, but said he was forced to by then-manager Arsene Wenger. The now 35-year-old striker also admitted that Arsenal didn’t do enough to hold onto its top players, allowing the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie, along with himself, to leave and win titles and earn more money elsewhere.

“I did not just wake up one morning at Manchester City,” Adebayor said. “I had signed a five-year contract at Arsenal. I came back for pre-season and Wenger said ‘You have to leave’. I said ‘Why should I leave?’ I asked for one more year and if it does not work, I will walk off. He’s like ‘No.’ He said if I stayed he would not put me in the squad. When you hear that, you have to go.”

The rest of the interview is worth your time, in which Adebayor reveals he nearly committed suicide as a teenager in the Metz academy, what it was like seeing death flash before his eyes in Angola during the 2010 African Cup of Nations, when the Togo team bus was attacked by militants, and, on a lighter note, who his favorite teammates were.

Marseille president proposes video-game like rule changes

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If he’s serious, Marseille’s club president could be proposing a rule change that would drastically alter the way soccer is played.

Speaking at a summit in France for start-up companies, Jacques-Henri Eyraud stated his support for allowing goals scored from shots fired outside of the box to count for two goals, instead of one. It would be similar to how in basketball, a ball shot from outside the arc is worth three points instead of two. Of course, when that rule came into existence in the NBA in the late 1970s, it completely revolutionized the game.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Eyraud compared the rule change to the ultra-popular FIFA video game, saying if it could happen in the video game, why not in real life (note: it’s unclear whether this is actually possible in FIFA, but Eyraud could have been speaking in hypotheticals).

“FIFA (the video game) is one of my competitors,” Eyraud said. “Fortnite is one of my competitors in the digital world. Football is extraordinarily conservative, it has to evolve. “Why does (the video game) now propose that a goal put outside of the box, is worth two points? Why could not that be the case in real life?”

While soccer is still the world’s most popular game, it’s true that video games in general – and the rising cost of tickets in certain countries – are having an impact on getting fans into the stadium. With the ease and joy of playing soccer in a video game, some people could be convinced to stay inside on their couch and enjoy the game from home instead of going out to the stadium.

It may just be a crazy idea or a marketing ploy, but it’s fun to think about how that rule change could revolutionize soccer. It would certainly have made players such as David Beckham and Steven Gerrard, as well as free kick experts like Beckham, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo all the more valuable. Plus, one free kick late in the match, with a team trailing 1-0, could lead to a dramatic 2-1 victory with one kick.

It probably won’t happen – though it would be cool to toggle that on in the FIFA video game – but it’s a fun idea to think about.

Impact travel saga highlights how far MLS still has to go

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Major League Soccer has made many impressive strides in its 24 seasons of existence. But if the Montreal Impact’s travel situation proved anything, it’s that the league still has a long way to go to be compared alongside the big four American leagues – The NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL.

[READ: Top Premier League Storylines for Week 36]

The Montreal Impact spent around 13 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday in transit ahead of its match on Wednesday evening against the New England Revolution. Remarkably, the Impact beat the Revolution, 3-0 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., but it should never have taken that long to get the Impact down – or any professional team – from Montreal to the Boston suburbs.

According to an article in the Athletic, which details the Impact’s administrative travel mishaps, the team ended up spending seven hours in the Montreal International Airport waiting for a delayed flight to Logan International Airport in Boston, only for the flight to be cancelled at 10 p.m.

The players were then scheduled to arrive back at the airport the next morning to take a charter flight, but then that flight was delayed a further five hours, due to a flight schedule change – Logan Airport wouldn’t accept the charter – and having to go through customs and immigration in Montreal before re-boarding the flight and waiting their turn.

Shockingly, the Impact arrived at their hotel with just three and a half hours before kickoff. Evan Bush, the Impact’s starting goalkeeper and representative for the MLS Players Association, believed that the game should have been called off. Per the Athletic, the Impact asked the league to postpone the game, but the league apparently didn’t want to inconvenience fans and TV broadcasters, who are ultimately the ones that pay to watch the players. So it was a financial decision. The Impact had all their limbs, hence, they were ready to go.

As per the most recent collective bargaining agreement signed between the MLSPA and the league, teams are only allowed four charter flights per season (Montreal’s charter planes to and from Boston reportedly won’t count against their four for this season). MLS views charter flights – now seemingly archaic considering how many incredibly rich owners there are in the league – as a type of competitive advantage, which could sway one international or domestic signing from joining one team over another.

Thus, in 2019, everyone from Evan Bush to Wayne Rooney and Zlatan are taking commercial flights and sitting in economy, sometimes having to split up into multiple groups on different flights to get everyone to the final destination. Most teams save their charter flights for long-haul journeys, like Montreal to Los Angeles or Vancouver to Atlanta, leaving medium and short-haul flights to the mercy of the weather or flight delays at some of North America’s busiest airports.

In 2019, it’s a shame that MLS is still operating this way, as though team owners can’t afford to fly their players around in the type of accommodations that would – over the course of a long, difficult season filled with a lot of travel – help keep players fresher by the end of the year.

Since it’s been negotiated, there’s nothing the league can do right now, but hopefully when the CBA next comes due in 2020, the league will take that off the table and allow all teams to use charters as they choose.

While events like this can happen in the other sports, having players take charter flights significantly helps both the team administration and helps avoid many of the pitfalls of flying basic economy with the rest of the country.