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There wasn’t much optimism around Leicester’s decision to appoint Claudio Ranieri as Nigel Pearson’s successor. However, the Tinkerman has silenced his doubters for now with a great start to the season. Alex Blinston has a look at their great start and ponders how far they could go.
He certainly divided opinion with his off-field antics, but what can’t be doubted is that Nigel Pearson performed a minor miracle with Leicester City last season. Seven wins from the last nine games of the season saw Leicester avoid the drop after looking dead and buried in early April. Thus, when Pearson was replaced with Claudio Ranieri many feared for the Foxes future. However, under “The Tinkerman” Leicester have gone from strength to strength and they are showing few signs of letting up.
Leicester chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha would have been hard pushed to find a more contrasting figure to take the helm at the King Power Stadium after Nigel Pearson’s departure this summer.
While Pearson’s enigmatic, fiery personality often landed him in deep water – his ostrich based rant will live long in the memory – few can doubt that he produced a tactical masterpiece in the back end of last season. His 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation coupled defensive solidarity with zing and bounce going forward, and Pearson had seemingly found the perfect balance.
Instead of keeping faith with the man who had led them to the promised land, the Leicester board were after the man to ‘lead them into the next phase of their long-term plan’; that man was Claudio Ranieri. He arrived with a glittering CV featuring Chelsea, Valencia and Juventus amongst others, but there was certainly an air of scepticism surrounding Ranieri; ‘he’ll be gone by Christmas’ was the verdict from many.
Any uncertainty from Foxes fans towards Ranieri has been quickly eradicated, and in some style. He is seen as one of football’s ‘good guys’, unlike his predecessor, and his charismatic approach is reaping great rewards at the King Power Stadium – Leicester have accrued more points in ten games this season (19) than they had after 28 last term. Much of this is down to Ranieri who has, with some spending, taken this Leicester side to heights that were seemingly unreachable at times last season.
While Leicester have dazzled and sparkled this season, one player’s star has shone brightest: Jamie Vardy.
Vardy is leading the scoring charts after ten goals in ten games at the time of writing and it is his goalscoring prowess that has naturally filled the back pages; however, his importance to the Leicester side lies much deeper. No striker in the Premier League has made more tackles than Vardy (13) and he leads all strikers in key passes (15). Vardy still possesses the hunger of a player who has experienced the clichéd rags to riches story, but couples it with a predatory instinct in front of goal.
While Vardy has been the stand-out performer, many of the supporting cast have blossomed this season. Leicester ranked in the bottom half in both total spent (£26.70m) and net spend (£20.20m) this summer, only emphasizing the shrewd business carried out at the King Power.
Ranieri deploys his side in a formation that is often dismissed in the modern game, the 4-4-2. While it may limit their ability to control the game – Leicester rank 19th in possession (44.3%) and bottom in short passes per game (264) – it is reaping great rewards. The midfield pairing of Danny Drinkwater and summer addition N’Golo Kante – the Frenchman led Europe’s top five leagues in tackles last season (177) – won’t get the pulse racing but their tireless effort and defensive steel allows the full-backs of Ritchie De Laet and Jeffrey Schlupp to bomb forward and provide support to the Vardy-Okazaki strike partnership.
Riyad Mahrez has bafflingly found himself on the bench against West Ham and Southampton after five goals and three assists to open the season, but after changing the game as a half-time substitute at St Mary’s, he returned to the side against Crystal Palace, providing the winning goal for Vardy. Mahrez provides the Leicester side with the much needed Va Va Voom and without him the Foxes fail to fire on all cylinders .
The clean sheet against Alan Pardew’s Palace meant one thing in Leicester: pizza time. The Foxes had failed to register a clean sheet all season and the shut-out will have been worth every penny for Claudio Ranieri as he finally saw signs of defensive solidarity in his side.
There are worrying trends to Leicester’s play this term, that would suggest that this scintillating form will be tough to maintain.
No team has clawed back more points from losing positions than the Foxes his term (7) and Leicester have been in losing positions in six of their ten matches. While this points to a great deal of Brendan Rodgers’ trademarked ‘character’ and spirit in the dressing room, it is likely to be unsustainable. Furthermore, their defensive struggles are being clouded over by the mightily impressive attacking displays. Only five teams have conceded more goals – four of which are in the bottom six – and ‘keeper Kasper Schmeichel looks a patch of his former self.
Will Leicester be sitting in the lofty heights of 5th come the end of the season? No. However, Saturday’s victory over Palace was a statement of intent. The Eagles are a side with similar ambitions; to break in to the top half of the Premier League table and the win showed how far Leicester have come this season. With survival all but secured so early on, Leicester will only be looking up and with the infectious Claudio Ranieri at the helm it is going to be an intriguing ride.
Written by Alex Blinston
[Note: The above article was written prior to Leicester’s 3-2 away win against West Brom and all stats mentioned are as of the time of writing.]