The miracle at Leicester

How did a team who were favourites to be relegated and given a ridiculous 5000/1 chance of winning the Premier League actually go on and win the damn thing.

This is the Cinderella story of Leicester City FC and here we explore — in detail, the factors that made this remarkable achievement possible.

Claudio Ranieri was hired during the summer after Nigel Pearson departed after sensationally keeping Leicester up by winning 7 of their last 9 games. It was deemed an uninspiring appointment by many who felt the Italian had not done enough in his most recent jobs to deserve a chance with Leicester. He had been out of work since a winless four-game stint in charge of Greece last year losing to the Faroe Islands being the low point. So what was Ranieri's approach?

Keep it simple

Claudio Ranieri revealed that rather than focusing on introducing new complex tactics, sporting philosophies and/or fitness regimes, he has simply concentrated entirely on cultivating the simple things by forming a solid team ethic by letting his players play to their strengths.

Ranieri’s explanation of his fail-safe, hands-off approach is fascinating especially in the modern era when such focus has been on the tactical side of the game.

“When speaking to the players, I realised they were afraid of Italian tactical approaches. What football means to an Italian Coach is tactics, trying to control the game by following the ideas and systems of the manager.”

He told the players that he trusted them and would speak very little of tactics. It was important for him that they showed the same desire that had seen success towards the end of last season.

“I have a lot of admiration for those who build new tactical systems, but I always thought the most important thing a good coach must do is build the team around the characteristics of his players.”

Team spirit

The squad is built up of players who have something to prove and they’ve all got hunger and desire. At some point in their careers they’ve had rejection and disappointment. Marc Albrighton for example who was released by local rivals Aston Villa has been a pivotal player in Leicester’s success with his tireless work ethic.

Team spirit alone will not win you a Barclays Premier League, but without it, you sure aren’t going to be successful. Danny Simpson spoke about the importance of having an inclusive dressing room.

“We spend a lot of time together off the pitch. We’re serious on the pitch – even in training matches we all want to win – but we have a great bit of banter and wind each other up as well. The banter is always flying around.”

It’s important for any team to bond and interact outside of football, this helps to build relationships of players and only adds strength to the character of the squad. The focus for a lot of big clubs in the premier league in recent times has been all about buying the biggest big talents, regardless of whether they would fit into the team’s formation or whether they had the right character or personality. This proves that talent alone will not bring you success, as a team sport more focus needs to be placed on understanding the character of individual players and how they will integrate into the team and buy into your ethos.

Formation is a perfect fit

Some people think the 4-4-2 formation Leicester use is a bit prehistoric but they are showing it is a great system when your players know how to play it perfectly.

Leicester City FC formation breakdown

The average position of Leicester players’ touches against Aston Villa (a), Stoke (h), Liverpool (h) and Manchester City (a), where their possession was 43.5%, 45%, 36.1% and 34.1% respectively. The Foxes play the same way, home or away, whoever the opposition, with the full-backs (28 and 17) staying back, two defensive midfielders (4 and 14) shielding the back four and the second striker (20) dropping into midfield.

That is mostly down to coaching and the work they have done as a team in training, but it also relies on the intelligence of individuals to know they are all defending when they have not got the ball – which is a lot of the time.

Who needs possession?

Unlike the rest of the top teams, they are not bothered about possession – Leicester’s passing statistics are among the worst in the top flight.

Premier League possession, passes stats

Instead, they defend well, do not over-play at the back and get the ball upfield quickly, using the pace and efficiency of their forward players to punish teams. They give the ball away a lot because they play a lot of quick, long passes forward into the final third of the pitch. It is not always pretty, and is totally different to the way the rest of the leading teams play. Those sides expect to dominate possession because, in most matches, they have the better players and they trust in their attacking quality and strength.

Don't be a tinkerman

No one is suggesting a return to the days when Ron Saunders could lead Aston Villa to the title using only 14 players but this season has shown a reversion to a more old-fashioned model. As the customary top four have rotated and flailed from one shambles to another, Leicester have surged on with a regular core of players.

The statistics back up the point. Leicester have seven outfield players who have played more than 2,500 minutes in the league this season; no other side have more than five – Bournemouth, Swansea and, significantly, Tottenham. Manchester City don’t have any.

They show the benefits of an integrated, tight-knit, coherent squad fighting for each other and understanding precisely their roles in the collective.

“It’s the same group of characters we had at the start of the season and to be honest with you that’s the good thing about us. It’s a squad and we are tight knit. That’s how we have been from day one.”

Claudio Ranieri has made only 25 changes to his starting XI this season. In the Premier League era, the fewest changes made by a champion is the 26 by Manchester United in 1992-93. Leicester will not better that but if they do go on to be champions they will almost certainly take second place, held by Blackburn with 47 in 1994-95.

Allow for recovery

Some people have said they have been fortunate not having many injuries. But is it luck, or is it down to a really good medical staff and a training regime that keeps the players fit and at the level of fitness required to play the way they do? It is not a coincidence they have managed both.

Ranieri has adapted his methodology since returning to the Premier League, giving his players “at least” two days off a week in a strategy that appears to contradict the relentless grind of top professional football. He said

“In England the game is always high intensity and wipes people out. They need more time to recover. We play on Saturdays and then Sunday is free for everyone. We resume on Monday with light training, the way they do it in Italy.Tuesday is hard training, Wednesday absolute rest. Thursday another hard workout, Friday is preparation for the match, Saturday another game. I make sure the players have at least two days off from football each week.”

This is a pact he made with the players on the first day, he puts total trust in them as long as they give everything for the team.

What can we expect now?

Firstly, you would think that managers and boards are re-evaluating their strategies and looking under a microscope at exactly how leicester have done the unimaginable. From scouting sytems and player conditioning right up to the board level and directors. With all the tens of millions thrown around, something is wrong with football if you can buy a player for £400k (Mahrez) and two years later he can be crowned the best player in England. Clubs and owners will have to rethink transfer policies and investors will be less keen to bankroll large transfer fees.

Whatever happens, the 2015/16 Premier League campaign will go down as one of the most remarkable seasons ever. Even Hollywood are reportedly in talks with Vardy and co. in regards to a possible movie production, and why not? Brad Pitt starred as Billy Beane in the 2011 blockbuster Moneyball, which covers the MLB team, Oakland A's and their improbable run into the 2002 playoffs. Much like Leicester, the A's record-breaking season was against all odds and called for change in the way clubs manage and evaluate their players.

Photo credit: Paul Conneally under the CC 2.0 license.

Thanks for reading! DM me on Twitter at lapontin if you have any comments or want to get in touch.

Have a nice day ;)

Last updated: 30 May 2016

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About me

A venturing designer and avid traveller.

Hey, I'm Luke, a digital designer whose focus is web and mobile design. I'm currently part of a proud team at Bulb Studios where I work with clients to create smart and engaging digital experiences.

Born in Coventry, my travels have taken me to 5 continents and I've lived in France, Australia and the United States. I've also had extensive stays in New Zealand and South Africa.

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