The sports story of a lifetime, how Leicester City FC won the Premier League this season has been analysed from every possible angle by every man and his dog.
From Fleet Street’s elite to Twitter’s best trolls, the masses have lauded Leicester’s tactical nous, mental strength and physical effort as they made the impossible leap from fighting relegation to winning the league in just one season.
Tactically most have pointed to Leicester’s system moulded to get the most out of Jamie Vardy’s pace and willingness to chase as the key to their title winning system. Mentally, many have hailed how Leicester have been fearless in their approach to games. Physically, all have been blown away by Leicester’s work-rate and tenacity.
And of course, it is obvious that after Jamie Vardy scored for 11 games in a row, making himself a record breaker, the squad believed anything was possible.
Yet, there is more to Leicester’s incredible season. With something this unthinkable happening, it is only normal that there will be many, many factors that contributed towards it happening. And here are three that have gone largely unmentioned.
- The removal of the Ferguson Bar
For nearly every year he managed Manchester United in the Premier League era, there was a very simple equation relating to Sir Alex Ferguson; beat him and you win the league.
This gave the league stability. Ferguson was the marker which other managers used to gauge what was required to win the title. Once that went, there was something of a points vacuum in the league that even now no one has filled.
Since Ferguson left we first saw Manchester City set the bar and nearly drop it because of pressure from Liverpool. Then all order seemed to have been restored when Jose Mourinho – the heir apparent to Ferguson – won the league at a canter with Chelsea. However, after a bad start this season, the so-called team to beat were languishing around the bottom half of the table, leading to a false sense of security for teams around the top end.
The likes of Arsenal, Man City and Tottenham were competing to stay ahead of each other, instead of overtaking Leicester. They assumed, like we all did, that when Leicester would start falling away. By the time we all realised this was not going to happen, it was too late. Leicester had already found their feet at the top of the league and weren’t ready to move.
It must be noted, that this points power vacuum is still likely to be there next season, as it is doubtful Leicester are ready to take the Ferguson bar just yet. History has proven how difficult it is to retain the league and nowadays it seems it is nearly as difficult to even sufficiently challenge for the league two years in a row. So who will set the marker as the team to beat next year? Who knows. And that’s why the Premier League is the most exciting in the world.
- Quarterback? Pass off!
The fact that Leicester have the lowest amount of average possession of any team to ever win the Premier League has been noted, but just how it happened and what it did for the team has not been explained.
Firstly, Argentinian maestro Esteban Cambiasso – Leicester’s player of the year last season – left the club before this season. A deep-lying midfielder that likes to dictate play with his passing ability, Cambiasso’s departure was considered a huge loss. From Xavi to Andrea Pirlo to Paul Scholes – in midfield most top sides nowadays always look to have a player whose main asset is their passing ability and Leicester had just lost theirs.
But Leicester’s coaching staff did not look for a like-for-like replacement. Instead head scout Steve Walsh went for the signing of N’Golo Kante from Caen for around £5million. Kante’s strengths as a player lay in his ability to run and tackle. He was played alongside Danny Drinkwater, who although a good passer, has the bulk of his strengths lay in defensive abilities. In assessment, a decision was made to change tact with the loss of Cambiasso.
Together the two formed a formidable partnership which was built on the ability to destroy rather than dictate. Yes, Leicester gave up possession to other sides, but only because they could win it back in the right areas.
Leicester did not look to control games through possession, even against lower league sides. Instead they formed a style built on their central midfield defensive platform that allowed the more creative and penetrative players ahead of them to stay in the last third. Riyad Mahrez especially benefitted, as often a lot more work would be expected of a winger in a midfield four, but he was given more freedom thanks to Kante’s and Drinkwater being attuned to their defensive duties.
Neither player ever really got ahead of the ball. If Kante won a tackle, he’d look to drive forward with the ball before releasing it. Drinkwater mainly looked to spring Leicester into attack with his ultra-direct raking passes into space for Vardy to chase.
Through this key partnership, Leicester found a formula to bring out the best in Vardy and Mahrez, as well as providing cover for the solid but not so nimble Wes Morgan and Robert Huth centre-back pairing. And this was the key to their style of play which won them the league.
The success stemming from the Drinkwater-Kante partnership could signal a tactical reform in football, as more sides may now look to ditch the accommodation of a “quarterback”, especially if we see Atletico Madrid – a team similarly built on their defensive abilities – win the Champions League.
- Aged to perfection
At 64 years old, Claudio Ranieri started the season as the joint second oldest manager in the league and with the average age of the squad being over 28 years old, the team are also the second oldest in the league. Whilst only one player had experience of playing in a team fighting for a league title (Robert Huth for Chelsea), the team were all very experienced in their own way.
Riyad Mahrez played regularly in the 2014 World Cup as Algeria reached the knockout stages. Wes Morgan played for Jamaica in the Copa America (yep, seriously) and the CONCACAF Cup, both in 2015. Kasper Schmeichel is now Denmark’s first choice goalkeeper. Marc Albrighton, Christian Fuchs, Danny Simpson, Nathan Dyer and Shinji Okazaki are also all vastly experienced, having played over a 100 games of top flight football in the Premier League or Bundesliga. Gokhan Inler who spent most of the season on the bench for Leicester, has been Switzerland’s national captain for much of the last few years. And even the players without top level experience were still very experienced in fighting for promotion, thus knowing how to win games in high pressure situations, namely the likes of Jamie Vardy, Andy King, Jeff Schlupp and Danny Drinkwater.
The byword for Leicester’s title winning season has been “fearless”. But there is a thin line between fearless and reckless, and thanks to this squad being of the right age, Leicester were able to keep their heads and grind out results when it was required. A younger team may not have had the temperament to do this, as some would say Liverpool proved when they let the title slip out of their hands in the 2013/14 season. As such, the experience of Leicester’s squad definitely helped them win the title.