Andrew Thompson has a look at Leicester City’s three key ingredients to their successful charge.
Rewind back into time to the 21st of March 2015 – Leicester City have just been downed 4-3 at White Hart Lane by Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham and perhaps an entire Foxes fan-base had consigned their beloved club to relegation back down to the Championship. If you had some unfortunate accident that required you to be put into a comatose state where you woke up in the present day, a brief look at the table would surely make you feel as if you were in a parallel universe…Leicester are topping the table, and with just seven matches remaining, look excellent value for completing their magical run to an improbable Premier League title. Further investigations would lead you to the facts that not a single big name player was brought in, they didn’t top the Premier League spending charts and the rest of the English top flight wasn’t shipped off to another location; this is indeed for real…but why?
In an age of football, especially in England, where money is king and the top clubs in the country have combined bank rolls that could feed small nation-states, little Leicester City are on the verge of something both historic and unexpected. You can debate for hours whether or not the Foxes winning the league is the best thing for the “best league in the world,” but surely you must give credit where it is undoubtedly due. But why not dig a little deeper and look at the ingredients that currently make up their own personal Charge of the Light Brigade…you know…just with better results.
For me at least, there are three key components that make up the perfectly simple yet delightful recipe that could turn from some mystical potion into staunch reality – let’s take a look.
The Drinkwater/Kante duopoly
Before the current Premier League campaign, the traditional names in regards to central midfielders were always being debated as to who was tops, but if this season has taught us anything, it’s that names don’t win you matches.
Danny Drinkwater had a less than stellar season last term, making only 23 appearances (7 from the bench), without registering a single goal or an assist and merely being a central player who was solid enough at winning the ball back and putting a tackle in. N’Golo Kante was a non-commodity if there ever was one, plying his trade for SM Caen and US Boulogne before that, but securing a move to Leicester in a deal reportedly worth 5.6 million pounds. No one could have guessed that this pair would be as important as their more famous teammates further up the pitch.
At the time of writing this article, Drinkwater and Kante have combined for 270 moments where they won possession from the opposition in midfield. Added to that, the midfield duo average for a combined 2.23 aerials won, 6.46 interceptions and 4.14 clearances all per a 90-minute metric (stats courtesy of Squawka.com). In simple terms they’ve been one of the best midfield pairs in the Premier League. They may not pull the strings or effect proceedings further forward like other central partnerships, but their ability to effectively shield the back four as well as winning possession and getting the ball to creative players like Mark Albrighton or Riyad Mahrez (though Drinkwater has chipped in with four assists, while Kante has three) has been probably Leicester’s most key tactical attribute this season – the strong midfield spine, missing from sides like Arsenal, Liverpool, United and City this season, is undoubtedly a defining factor which has put the Foxes at the summit so late on in the league campaign.
A Fantastic Supporting Cast
There is no denying the absolutely brilliant and crucial season both Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy are both having. Mahrez sits on 15 goals and 11 assists in 28 appearances and is arguably the Player of the Year, while Vardy and his 19 goals is tied for the best mark in the Premier League at the moment. While the pair account for 64% of Leicester’s goal scoring (Shinji Okazaki is the only player for the club who has more than five league goals this season, with six), it’s been the other nine players of the XI that deserve as much credit if not more.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story of the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team and their run to goal medal glory, I suggest researching it, as you’ll find one key similarity above all else – the proper way to build a side capable of challenging when you don’t have a star-studded lineup. From goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel (once courted by Arsene Wenger as a backup option for the Gunners), veteran defenders Robert Huth, Christian Fuchs and Wes Morgan, the aforementioned Drinkwater and Kante, to Mark Albrighton and Okazaki, Leicester are a team of role players who have a few key attacking options capable of popping up in the right moments.
When you lack the talent level of those around you, hard work can be trusted in closing the quality gap. On paper one would think the likes of City, Arsenal and others could walk over them in a style reminiscent of the German 7th Panzer Division in the spring of 1940, but bigger clubs are often accused of over confidence against supposedly weaker opponents, a trait that a smaller club like Leicester has never been able to afford itself. The same work ethic instilled under Nigel Pearson that saw them go on a run of six wins in their final eight of last season to avoid the drop is the same work ethic that has them flying high on cloud nine under new manager Claudio Ranieri, who is probably the most important cast member of all.
The much traveled Italian headmaster, who can boast the likes of Napoli, Fiorentina, Valencia, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Juventus, Roma, Inter and Monaco on his managerial dossier, has taken the framework laid by Pearson and expanded upon it. He has not only included end product, but also put faith in the right players for the job regardless of reputation as well as fallen back to a tactical deployment of a seemingly bygone era, the 4-4-2, which has since begun to pop up on the tactics boards of other Premier League clubs as well as in other leagues across Europe with greater regularity. Perhaps an album by Peter Frampton perfectly sums up the Leicester success story: “When all the Pieces Fit.”
Fortress Rail Car
Traditional wisdom has always stated that to win the league you must make your home ground a fortress, and Leicester have surely done that, boasting a home record that is best in the Premier League and have only lost a single time in front of their home support. But even more key, and not spoken of enough, is their away record – also best in the top flight.
Through fifteen matches away from the King Power Stadium, Leicester have won nine of their bouts while drawing four and only losing two, away at Arsenal and Liverpool. In those fifteen engagements they have only surrendered sixteen goals while netting twenty-eight, good for the second best goal differential away from home in the league behind fellow title chasers Tottenham. Perhaps this was all made possible by something I have mentioned previously, the will and desire to always work hard and put a shift in, something so many sides in the Prem struggle to do when they aren’t in the comfortable confines of their home base of operations.
With away tests against Sunderland, United and Chelsea still to come, and the match at Stamford Bridge being on the final day of the season, Leicester’s results away from home from here on out could very well be the defining factor in their run in to an unexpected finish at the top.
Can they see it through?
If Leicester has proven anything up till now, it’s that anything is possible. With seven matches to go, their destiny in their own hands and with no other commitments in separate competitions outside of the Premier League, the stars continue to align in favor of the unthinkable.
It could very well end up being a one off magical performance and we could see Leicester languish in mid-table or worse come next season, but with the money flowing into the Premier League season on season and an incredible rise to prominence, stability may not be as far fetched as many others claim. It’s true that the big boys haven’t been at their best and if they had been it’s likely that Leicester would not be sitting where they are, but results are results and it’s been upto them to take the situation by the scruff of the neck and make it their own…their time.
As I bring this to a conclusion with the hope that I am not wiping egg off my face come May, it’s fitting to put this to an end with a quote from a very famous work of poetry that perhaps could sum up Leicester City’s bid for Premier League immortality perfectly – thanks for reading.
“When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made! All the world wondered. Honor the charge they made.”
Written by Andrew Thompson