Congratulations to Leicester City, winners of the 2015-16 Premier League. Who’d have thought I’d be writing that when I made my predictions for the season back in August last year? I was expecting them to go down, as were many others, after their dismal 2014-15, in which they narrowly avoided relegation. Apparently they were 5,000-1 against winning the Premier League this season. This was why I was so incensed when West Ham lost their first home game of the season… to Leicester. Little did I know it would be a fate shared by many other teams.
So what on earth happened? How did one of the worst teams in the Premier League become one of the best? And with pretty much the same squad. Some point to the run of form at the end of the 2014-15, which saved them from relegation. They simply continued it. Well, it’s true that they did. But that’s never happened before and the manager, Nigel Pearson, was sacked at the end of the season. So there was no continuity in that respect.
What about money? The two teams which broke the Man Utd-Arsenal duopoly of the late 1990s and early 2000s were Chelsea and Man City. They both did it with the assistance of hugely wealthy owners who piled in breathtaking amounts of money to buy world class players. It worked – though others have tried, with only a little less money, and failed. But Leicester have not spent crazily. They have generous Thai owners, and every Premier League team now gets a huge injection of TV money every season now. But they still have one of the cheapest squads, taking £72m to assemble (according to September 2015 figures). The most expensive is Man City, at £560m.
I’m going for the following:
Which resulted in a growing confidence and belief which sustained the team through the season.
And maybe some complacency on the part of some of their big rivals, who underachieved this season. I’ll come back to that, but let’s concentrate on the positives first
So first, leadership: manager, captain, everyone.
In the summer Leicester brought in Claudio Ranieri as manager, from Italy. Oh, how we sniggered! Ranieri had form. He’d been Chelsea manager between 2000 and 2004. And in fact, he’d done pretty well. In his third season Chelsea qualified for the Champions League. Then multi-billionaire Roman Abramovich came in and Ranieri started to flash the cash. Chelsea came second to the Arsenal Invincibles and reached the semi-final of the Champions League before blowing it against Monaco. Ranieri acquired a reputation in England as “The Tinkerman”, always rotating his team and changing formations and players in bizarre ways during matches. He was replaced by Jose Mourinho and history did not treat him well.
So, ignoring his experience in Italy with the likes of Juventus, Roma, Fiorentina and Napoli, in Spain with Valencia and in France with Monaco, we assumed he and Leicester together were a recipe for disaster. An entertaining disaster perhaps.
How wrong we were! Claudio Ranieri has shown himself this season to be an astute coach, a motivator, likeable and courteous, always respectful of the opposition. His quirky phraseology has provided us with humorous moments, but we have increasingly laughed with him rather than at him. He is an admirable man, and his players have responded. Leicester have been a truly united team. Without a united team it doesn’t matter how good your players are. You won’t win the League.
He isn’t the only leader. His captain, centre back Wes Morgan, previously a stalwart with Championship Nottingham Forest (sorry Dood, I’ll rectify that later!) has risen to the occasion, commanding his defence, in partnership with German Robert Huth, another who has been round the block a bit. These two are classic old-fashioned centre backs. Not fast, not pretty – just solid, effective players. Immoveable and unwavering. They are truly at the heart of Leicester’s success.
And there are leaders everywhere in this Leicester team. Obviously early success bred confidence and togetherness; but, still, you get a sense that this team would do anything for each other. Each player knows his role and sticks to it. No-one gives up. They have only lost three times all season (twice to Arsenal).
Then simplicity and speed.
You know, football is a simple game. Or should be. Some managers make it very complicated, but I have always thought there are a few simple principles which will allow you to perform at a high level:
1 – Pass the ball to players on the same team.
2 – If you lose the ball make sure the team regroups, to keep the defensive structure.
3 – If you have the ball, make sure the player in possession has at least two players in support. Play those triangles. This aids principle 1.
4 – Use the whole pitch. Go wide when attacking. Stretch the opposition. Holes will appear in their defence.
5 – Keep the ball going forward at pace with those triangles.
6 – Each line of players – defence, midfield, attack – should imagine themselves on a pivot. If you are going forward on the right, make sure someone is tucking in on the left in case you lose possession.
7 – If you have a skilful player, give him some latitude to do the unexpected. If it doesn’t come off, applaud the attempt rather than decrying the mistake. Football is meant to be entertaining.
8 – If someone is in a better position than you to score give them the ball!
9 – Give the goalkeeper options for a short pass out. Big hoofs upfield usually result in lost possession, especially if your forwards are 5 feet 8!
10 – Midfielder and forwards must always track back. Don’t leave your defenders exposed, especially to pace.
I reckon Leicester have pretty much played to these principles this season. They have played in a classic English 4-4-2 formation in which every player is absolutely clear about what he has to do. There are subtle variations of tactics, but this has been the basic formula. Leicester are a lethal counter-attacking team. If they surrender the ball, they regroup quickly, allow teams to come on to them. And then, if they get the ball, bang! They are not averse to the long ball, especially to Vardy up front, who has been electric. But they can play it out of defence at speed too, with Kante at the centre of so much.
And then there is Mahrez. The players’ player of the year. Unbelievably skilful and fast. Wiry and strong. Stationed out on the right, but with licence to roam. See principle 7! A joy to watch and Leicester’s key man – even more so than Vardy, Kante and those centre backs.
A multinational team, like all Premier League teams these days, but one which plays a classic but intelligently executed English game. Roy Hodgson and England in the Euros, take note!
The leadership, the simplicity, the complementary talents with everyone knowing their roles, have combined with a desire, an unwillingness ever to give up. At home to West Ham recently they snatched a late equaliser. Poor refereeing decision for the penalty, but they were still going, still probing, heads never going down. Last Sunday, they drew again away to Man Utd. Utd gave them a bit of a going over early on, and scored a good goal. But soon Leicester were back, Wes Morgan – who else? – outmuscling Rojo at a corner, to head the equaliser. With 30% possession, Leicester could easily have won the game. Disciplined, fast, focused. Full of desire.
Now, there will be naysayers.
They will argue that Leicester have only won because the “Big Four” (or five, if you count Liverpool) have all misfired. Chelsea imploded under Mourinho, in the most remarkable and sudden decline we have seen in recent times. Will the true reasons eventually come out? They were most certainly not united. Man City have seemed distracted: doing well in the Champions League, and with everyone waiting for the arrival of Pep Guardiola as manager next season. And their leader, Vincent Kompany, has been injured for much of the time. Man Utd, under Van Gaal, are still finding their way. Stuttering, defensive until recently, when youth has been give its head. Will LVG survive to see the benefits? Maybe not. And then there is Arsenal – who have been Arsenal. ‘Nuff said.
All this is true; but you beat what is in front of you. And Leicester have done that. They are not the only ones though. Spurs, after all, look set to come second. A big club by tradition, but not top four very often in recent times. A young, exciting team, which will provide the core of the England team at the Euros. And I must mention the happy Hammers. We are sixth, after all. Playing some excellent football, with Payet the hero and Mark Noble a magnificent captain. Slaven Bilic, manager has helped the team, the club, rediscover its true self. Perfectly timed for the move to the Olympic Stadium. The future is bright. Southampton have been admirable too. Raided each summer for their best players, but regenerating each time, with new managers and players. Clearly a well-run club.
Everywhere else, there is strong competition. Few games (unless they are against Aston Villa) are easy. Things are clearly evening up as a result of that TV money. So maybe the Big Four oligopoly will not be restored. It will evolve, admit new members, expel others, readmit them (anyone fancy Liverpool next season?). Margins are getting finer and finer. So maybe it isn’t that the top teams got much worse this season – except for Chelsea – but that the next tranche are getting better and better. Even almost-relegated teams from the previous season!
So are Leicester the most remarkable ever top league winners?
In this self-obsessed football world in which history began with the creation of the Premier League in 1992-93, definitely. But there are precedents. In 1962, Ipswich came up from the Second Division and won the First at first attempt. Manager Alf Ramsey went on to manage England and take them to World Cup victory in 1966. And then there is Nottingham Forest. In the 1977-78 season, just up from the Second Division, they won the First at the first attempt… and then won two successive European Cups. Management team Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, who had also won titles in the early 70s with Derby County, another unfashionable club. Forest’s achievement remains the benchmark. Leicester have achieved only the first of the three, and even that was a bit different, as they were already in the top division – just close to relegation.
Can Leicester win the Champions League?
It seems unlikely. Can they bring that simple English game to Europe and defeat the establishment – Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and others, including some of the English giants? Can Claudio Ranieri persuade all his players to stay and add further quality? Can they keep that team spirit and focus on two very different fronts – Premier League and Europe? It seems like a huge ask.
But after winning the Premier League, as 5000 -1 outsiders, can you rule Leicester City out?