Leicester City’s title triumph was by all terms the weirdest thing to have happened in football in recent years. The very fact that bookmakers were prepared to be more optimistic about an alien ship landing in the UK or Elvis Presley returning back from the dead gives us some idea about the magnitude of the shock waves the Foxes sent rippling through the football world with their feat. Winning the league with a lead of 10 points, Leicester City and Claudio Ranieri did the impossible. Nevertheless, this season has been an absolute nightmare for Ranieri’s men considering the amount of money they spent in the summer. Given their performances and effectiveness of last season, it would seem difficult for a football fan to come to terms with the present scenario. The Foxes are now still battling relegation having lost their last 5 games in the league failing to score a single goal before sacking Ranieri. In this article I have tried to identify the reasons behind the team’s incredible collapse of this season trying to analyse the situation from a different perspective.
The Beginning Of The Incredible Run For Claudio Ranieri’s Foxes
While last season was the one that remains deeply ingrained in the memory of the supporters at the King Power, the actual turn of fortune for the Foxes happened at the business end of the 2014/15 season. Nigel Pearson was the manager of the team then which was rock bottom of the league, nailed on favourites to drop down into the Championship for the next season. While the Premier League itself has witnessed its fair share of miraculous escapes pulled off by the teams at the bottom over the years, to contemplate something similar for Leicester seemed like a little too much for even the most loyal supporter. The statistics further consolidated the general feeling when it was revealed Leicester has had the worst run of any team in the top flight for the season when they were winless for 13 games and the longest they have gone without conceding a goal in the season so far was only 173 minutes. In other words, the opposition was bound to score against the Foxes. Kasper Schmeichel kept just 4 clean sheets in the first 27 games as the defence was left exposed far too often.
Then, it happened. Six wins from seven games and a goalless draw against Sunderland in the final game of the season ensured the greatest escape in Premier League history. 19 points from the last 24 with Kasper Schmeichel keeping five clean sheets in the last 6 games reflected the defensive turnaround which fuelled the incredible run. It was the beginning of what eventually turned out to be another incredible feat, this time not saving the relegation but winning the Premier league title in the 2015/16.
The Purple Patch
Despite saving the team from the drop, Nigel Pearson was sacked from his post with the team management choosing Claudio Ranieri as their new manager. The change in management can be cited as one of the reasons behind the title winning run but in reality it was just the continuation of what started at the end of the season before. Ranieri did nothing differently to what his predecessor did other than offering pizza as an incentive for keeping a clean sheet. Tactically, Ranieri only changed the 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2, which was one of the formations used by Pearson during the incredible streak at the business end of previous season.
When it seemed impossible to get out of the hollow, Pearson was incredibly bold in his tactical changes. It was most apparent in the game against Swansea City, which started with a 3-4-3, only to get changed to a 4-4-2 with an inclusion of a right back after taking the early lead and then to a 4-2-3-1 in the second half. This was a perfect example of the adaptability the team showed in the final stages which helped them secure the all-important results. The new manager in charge was sensible enough to recognise that the team didn’t need much change rather than a continuation of what they already started in 2014/15.
The 2015/16 season started with 4-2 victory over Sunderland and they managed to put together a run of 3 wins and 3 draws before tasting their first defeat at the hands of Arsenal at the King Power. A record of 23 wins, 12 draws and just 3 losses made sure Leicester turned everything upside down to win the coveted Premier League title, 10 points ahead of 2nd placed Arsenal. Leicester City thus accomplished two almost seemingly impossible tasks within a matter of an year by first escaping relegation and then winning the league title.
The title triumph was a direct consequence of the extraordinary performances of the entire squad, but four players in particular stood out from the rest. N’golo Kante, Riyadh Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and Christian Fuchs. Kante’s inhuman workrate and ability to retrieve possession, Mahrez’s trickery which contributed to 17 goals and 11 assists, Vardy scoring 24 and assisting another 6 meant for exceptional penetration of the team’s attacking moves. Everytime the team went forward, things happened, as the players mentioned experienced their purple patches simultaneously.
Things Which Got Cloaked By The Euphoria and the Falsified Myths
While recognizing the incredible achievement of Ranieri’s men, it has to be said that on detailed dissection, the innumerable flaws came to light. In what can only be termed as the mother of all coincidences, 4/5 factors happened all at the same time over the course of a season to make the astonishing feat possible. The first of them was arguably the biggest contributor, it was underestimation. Leicester City were underestimated by their oppositions on almost every occasion. Even after the team was breaching the best defences of the Premier League with ease, securing the results for themselves, teams always left their backdoor open while playing against them. Leicester’s tactic of playing on the counter was allowed time and again as teams went on to try and outscore them rather than put enough emphasis on stopping them from scoring.
The subconscious feeling of Leicester stumbling eventually as the season approached its end played on the back of the minds of all the fans and perhaps even the teams they played against. As it turned out, it wasn’t the Foxes who faltered in their title quest but the other teams around them.
Last season was also an anomaly with several top teams becoming uncharacteristically inconsistent as they dropped points at regular intervals. Chelsea had their worst season in recent years dropping as low to 16th in the table at one point. The Blues recovered somewhat but could only manage a 10th place finish by the end. The Manchester clubs, despite spending well over 100 m pounds in player transfer, could only settle for the 5th and 4th place in the table respectively. It was surprisingly Tottenham Hotspur who had the best chance of winning the title after their surge in the 2nd half of the season. However, in typical fashion all too similar with their close neighbors and fierce rivals Arsenal, the Lilywhites crumbled extraordinarily, not winning any of their last five games to finish third in what was a two horse race, a point below the Gunners to confirm the 21st St. Totteringam’s Day around Ashburton Grove.
These factors all contributed highly to make the extraordinary feat possible. It can be argued that the chances of all of the aforementioned things happening in a same season was rightly reflected in the 5000/1 odds offered by the bookmakers at the start of the season on the team situated at the East Midlands. After securing their first league title in history, there was a slogan raised by the fans around the King Power accepted by most of the pundits about how Leicester proved that it was possible to win the league without spending money. A claim, which is totally wrong and disillusioned at best. Leicester spent £42 million last season which is a lot of money for a team of their stature. In fact, runners-up Arsenal spent less than the Foxes in 2015/16, a little over £24 million. N’golo Kante who was their most influential player alongside the versatile Shinji Okazaki, who facilitated the runs of Jamie Vardy, were bought from SM Caen and FSV Mainz 05 for a fee of £7.6m and £9.2m respectively.
Claudio Ranieri, who was crowned as the manager of the season for 2015/16, employed nothing different than the ancient 4-4-2 he used throughout his managerial career. High pressing, hardworking style of counter attacking football has been the brand associated with Ranieri for a long time but wasn’t appreciated that much owing to the fact that he has been the perfect example of the phrase, ‘always the bridesmaid never the bride’. The Italian manager has finished in 2nd place with Chelsea, Juventus, Roma and Monaco, failing to win a major title in his 30 years of management before 2016. It was said that if there was a competition amongst those who always finished 2nd in their career, Ranieri would end up finishing 2nd in that one too. Winning the Premier League turned the Italian from a loveable also-ran to a legend. It was perhaps the luck the 65 year old deserved for all the frustrations from those near misses he had experienced so far in his career. Nevertheless, realistically, as a coach, there’s little the Leicester manager can offer. The overly simple 4-4-2, which morphed into a 4-4-1-1, was something which just clicked as the Foxes made football logic and tactics look just like a malfunctioning compass under the electromagnetic interference in the Bermuda Triangle.
Why Are They Struggling This Season?
It seems something which was meant to happen. The plight of England’s defending champions looks to be more of a way of getting things back to normal rather than another oddity after spending close to £77m on player acquisition this season. The loss of their head of scouting department, Steve Walsh, was a big blow. The 51 year old was appointed by Everton as their Director Of Football a position for which he left east midlands. Secondly, the departure of N’golo Kante has left a void in the midfield which the team hasn’t been able to replace. It is almost impossible to replace Kante, whose impact at Chelsea is a bitter reminder of what the defending champions are missing this season. “70% of the world is covered by water and the rest is covered by Kante!” was one of the tweets which came up last season as a testament of the inhuman workrate provided by the new sensation in world football from France. Nampalys Mendy, was brought in for a club record fee of £13m, (which was later broken twice by the arrival of Ahmed Musa and Islam Slimani in the same window) could have been a decent replacement until he suffered an ankle injury to make matters worse and was sidelined for three months. None of their forward players are able to make inroads into the opposition penalty box due to a severe lack of presence in the midfield. Last season Leicester won the league with the lowest possession percentage of all the teams in the division, playing the second least number of short passes per game and the second highest number of long balls.
This season, the opposition has wisened up to their tactics, dropping their defensive blocks deep to deny any space to run in behind. The manager has failed to come up with something different when it mattered after watching his team run out of ideas repeatedly on the pitch. Leicester, before their game against Liverpool, had failed to win any of their last 5 games and were the only team in England to not have scored a single goal in 2017 until 23rd February when Vardy scored against Sevilla in their 2-1 loss of the Champions league round of 16 first leg tie. On that day, the club announced its decision to sack Ranieri, 9 months after leading his team to the most unprecedented title win in the history of Premier League. A decision which was met with mixed feelings from the fans and pundits. While some felt it was justified and needed in order to save the drop with 13 games remaining in the season, others criticised the management for showing their lack of trust and loyalty towards someone who has made history with the club.
This is exactly where the problem lies. While no one can deny the achievement of Claudio Ranieri last season, in actuality there’s not a whole lot he did which could be termed to the massive change in fortunes of the club’s results on the pitch, certainly not from a tactical point of view. Appointing him as the manager was an uninspired choice and after a season of anomalies it has been proved yet again. Even Ranieri accepted it when he remarked,
“Last season we were not in this world, we were out of this world
“And now we come back into the world and we have to react.
“What happened last season is something … it’s not possible, it’s crazy.
“Now we are normal. We are the normal Leicester, who have to fight.”
There wasn’t a lot required of him to do last season, apart from restraining himself from changing things in terms of players in the lineups, for which he is notoriously known as ‘The Tinkerman’. The Foxes are paying the price for last season. The rise in expectations and the British media who are always there to make an elephant out of a snail has contributed heavily in allowing some to daydream over a repetition of something pretty close to what happened. The poor recruitment of new players, lack of motivation for some and pressure has led to the state the team is in currently. It remains to be seen whom the board appoints as the new manager of the club for the remainder of the season.
The challenge this time around at King Power is far greater however with the usual directive of avoiding relegation at all costs written in bold on the first line of the contract. A desperate change in game strategy is needed now, with tightening the backline, which has conceded 45 goals in 27 games, high on the agenda. The new manager can still make the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 work but the mode of building up the attacks should change. A better distribution and retention of possession is what the fans would look to experience.
Finally, to save the team, they will need to call upon the spirit that is reflected from the club’s tagline. We have a fight on our hands again. It will be tough, it will be difficult and hopefully in the end we would see Leicester in the Premier League again next season. I know they will fight till the end once more for Foxes never quit.