A huge congratulations to Leicester City and manager Claudio Ranieri on pulling off what is surely the greatest upset in Premier League, if not sporting history. I’ve held back from talking about Leicester till the moment they clinched the title, and whilst our heads couldn’t comprehend what was happening all season to this wonderful team, there is no doubt our hearts are well and truly won, especially after watching the scenes at Jamie Vardy’s house who finally had his long-awaited party.
So how have they done it? This isn’t going to be an article about their spirit, their daringness to dream, and how they’ve pulled off something that not even Ranieri believes they can replicate. Nor is it going to focus on Vardy and Mahrez and their stats pulling their team up the table. I want to talk about why they are rightfully the champions, just like any other champions of the past – by having the best players, the best squad, the best manager and the best system. It would be wrong to put this achievement down as a one off, and this is why.
- The System
I would like to start off with a bold comparison, and look at why this current Leicester system mirrors that of Fergie’s recent title winning sides and even Arsene Wenger’s 2004 invincible’s. Mastering the 4-4-2 formation has been key to Ranieri’s success. The interpretation of this formation is vital to how effective it can be. Manchester City won the title playing a 4-4-2 for most of the season as well in 2014, having their creativity on the wings, and the forward’s working really hard and grabbing the goals that made them so hard to stop. Manchester United favoured the 4-4-2 under Ferguson as well, and like City and Leicester, had two hard working midfielders in Cleverly and Carrick, who’s roles where identical to those of Fernandinho and Toure, Drinkwater and Kante, and even Vieira and Petit at Arsenal. Okazaki played ‘up front’ but was used as a ‘false 9’ as he defended deep for the team, and linked the midfield to the strikers whilst also hitting the wings and running the channels, freeing up space for Mahrez and Albrighton to show their creativity. This role was occupied by Dennis Bergkamp, Sergio Aguero, and Wayne Rooney in their title winning teams, and Oscar played a similar role for Chelsea last season. This system can’t work if the forward players aren’t working hard and helping in midfield, otherwise the team would be well and truly exposed, which is why understanding the dynamics of a 4-4-2 formation and how it should be approached is what makes it a winning formation.
Ranieri’s system didn’t come together by chance, he knew exactly what he was doing and as the title became more and more a reality, he adapted to that, regardless of whether he said he believed in their title chances or not. Leicester started the season by smashing in the goals, and enjoying their football. This choice of approach may not have been first favoured by Ranieri, but anyone could see that this run of form for Leicester stretches back to the finals weeks of the Premier League season under Nigel Pearson, and Claudio made the brilliant decision of not messing around with the team too much. The free flowing XI kept on scoring, and kept on raising their standards as Vardy hit new records, and Mahrez was slowly becoming one of the trickiest, most unpredictable wingers in the world. Much like Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, (who always valued the roles of wingers in football highly) and Chelsea of last year, they were picking teams off and looking fresher, faster, and more powerful than their opposition as every week passed. A 5-2 home defeat to Arsenal may have raised some alarm bells as Ranieri quickly learnt the weaknesses in his side, and rotated the following game to ensure that that result wouldn’t be repeated. From then one, it’s been nothing but consistency for Ranieri.
Again, like many other title winning sides, Ranieri adapted to the demands of a successful title challenge and the media pressure waiting for this bubble to burst, so he responded by tactically deciding – ‘we’ve come far enough, now let’s keep the rest away’. This was the method and approach Fergie often used, and one that Mourinho favoured in the run in for Chelsea’s title win. The lead was Leicester’s, and a 3-1 win at Manchester City followed by a 2-0 home win against Liverpool gave them all the confidence as they began to chalk off those big fixtures that many believed they would drop points in. Ranieri followed these managerial legends and implemented the same, tried and tested approach that’s won countless titles in the past – step aside Vardy, Kante and Mahrez, welcome Schmeichel, Morgan and Huth. There is no doubt that the whole team contributed in the run in, but these three players are the ones who’s level rose higher than anyone else’s to ensure that the goal was protected and their lead maintained. They were the leaders and the rocks, mentally and physically, and Leicester have relied on them as much as the attacking flair they possess.
2. No Weaknesses
I think this point is so important for having a successful team, whatever you deem success to be. ‘No weakness’ doesn’t mean being perfect in every area, but it means having ability in all areas and being accomplished at everything in the game. When you look at Leicester, they play XI good players who are all capable of contributing to all phases of a game. Marc Albrighton is a classic example of a player who can contribute going forward, but works hard defensively as well and gets stuck in. This can be said in one way or another about every Leicester City player. When we look at Leicester City’s rivals for the titles, I feel that it’s the weaknesses in the teams that have stood out and denied them this year’s trophy. Per Mertesacker has always been heavily criticised for his lack of pace which clubs have exposed from time to time, Theo Walcott possesses an inability to contribute defensively in any way, shape or form, whilst Man City have suffered from Yaya Toure’s shocking work rate and Mangala’s lack of technique on the ball which has put City in trouble many times this season. When these weaknesses are exposed, even the best clubs can’t always answer that. However, Leicester have been hard to beat because many teams don’t know how to approach Leicester and how to cause them trouble, because they are capable of competing in every area.
3. Intelligence In The Transfer Market
Leicester’s intelligence in the transfer market has built this team to have, as mentioned, no weaknesses, as well as building a strong squad of players that can step in and do the same job. Nathan Dyer, Jeffrey Schlupp, Ulloa and Damarai Gray have all proven to be excellent at coming into the team and not disrupting the form or way that they have gone about winning games. The signings they’ve made have maintained the team spirit, and signings like Damarai Gray have shown an awareness for the academy and the future of the club. They must take great credit for understanding what the ethics in the team are, and what is expected of their players, and Ranieri has quickly come out and claimed that nothing will change on that front this summer, and rightly so.
4. Ranieri’s Attitude
I’ve praised Ranieri’s system and tactics, with his willingness to adapt as the seasons gone on, but there’s something even more special about this manager and how he’s gone about this season. Positivity, positivity, and more positivity have been the ingredients to maintaining the surge up the table that’s landed Leicester a permanent place there. Every knock they’ve faced has been answered my Ranieri with a different view of the situation in which he has always seen the positive side. When Leicester dropped two points at Aston Villa, Ranieri celebrated with a pizza for his players as that one point took them to 40 for the season, their original target. When they kept a clean sheet he also rewarded the side, and then sat in one of his latest press conferences before winning the title, telling the press that Leicester’s achievement of entering Europe should be celebrated too and not ignored just because the title was a possibility. This all contributes to Leicester’s composure and class as they approached the final weeks of the season, and Ranieri deserves huge credit for that, as not many managers seem to have had this approach with their team.
It’s a fairytale, a dream, that’s become a reality and the world of football can’t begin to believe it. I don’t believe it’s a one off, I believe Leicester are an intelligent football club who have learnt from the best teams, players and managers in history, and these so called ‘bigger clubs’ need to do the same. They may not win the title again next season, and may not even finish in the top 4 or 6, but they’re certainly made up of the right qualities that win teams titles, and they should be recognised as a great side, not as a a lucky side, or as I side who thrived off confidence. I hope they do well again next season, and I’m sure they’ll put up a good fight in Europe. Let’s appreciate what can happen when a team is managed correctly, and when everyone learns the basics and builds a platform from there, something that Leicester City, West Ham and maybe Bournemouth are the only clubs to really do this season. It’s a great achievement, and it gives everybody in sport hope that they can also achieve great things, no matter how much money or how much experience you’re up against, it’s just about working harder. Once again, a big congratulations to Leicester City, their fans, the whole club and of course the most loved man in football – Claudio Ranieri – for showing us all how it’s done.
Leicester fans! Please get in touch and tell us how it’s been going through this season! When did you begin to believe it was possible? We’re all delighted for you, and enjoy Europe next season!