Though it might seem like a long time back after Chelsea having reclaimed the title back this season, Leicester’s title win two seasons ago still remains a crown among the unexpected title winning jewels of recent times. Leicester have gone on to suffer a meltdown last season after their title win and only after firing their title winning coach Claudio Ranieri did they come back to grips and avoid the ignominy of getting relegated. In this article we look back to how Leicester won the title and why it is a thing to be cherished and celebrated.
When Claudio Ranieri was appointed as Leicester’s manager in 2015, he was not the same manager who was at the helm of Chelsea all those years ago in the Premier League. He had just been fired as the head coach of the Greece National team after losing to Faroe Islands. Yes, Faroe Islands. It did not look like a marriage made in heaven that it seemed to be after the title win right then.
But the ‘Tinkerman’, as he is nicknamed due to his constant rotation policy did just the opposite by having a stable team that did not change much over the course of the season. Players like Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante were virtually unknown before they helped Leicester to the league summit. While reputed players like Gokhan Inler and Shinji Okazaki were recruited,(though Inler did not play much of a role in the side’s victories as it would later become apparent with Inler being benched ) the squad as a whole were not necessarily a title winning one, on paper at least or so it would seem.
Leicester played an old fashioned 4-4-2 throughout the campaign as it perfectly suited the players on the roster. With Vardy and Okazaki leading the line, Leicester had two pacey forwards who could spring forward on the break. Okazaki’s role in the team is often underrated with his backwards pressing and selfless runs to open up space for Vardy proving crucial for Leicester’s set up. With Leicester looking to play on the counter, the 4-4-2 provided them the perfect base to remain compact centrally and look to contain the opposition. There was almost zero occupancy of the wings when Leicester defended as they looked to encourage the opposition to move to the wings.
Compactness remains the key:
Leicester’s success remained in their ability to remain compact. They totally neglect the wings and remain centrally occupied. If the ball moves out to the wing in their first line of pressing the ball near striker moves to backward press the ball while the team shifts laterally in a ball oriented manner. While they do not shift too much to the wings, there is a ball oriented shift with the ball far winger slotting in closer to the nearby midfielder. The key feature here is to ensure that the team remains accessed to the nearby teammate in a compact manner so that the opposition does not find space to exploit.
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Due to the lack of pace in Huth and Morgan, they cannot be left centrally exposed. Kante’s defensive intelligence in these instances come in handy as he slots into the position vacated by the ball near full back to press the opposition winger. Kante is mentioned here as it is usually him who is tactically adept at positioning himself to cut off attacks at their buds. Kante’s presence ensures that the back four have sufficient cover in front of them. The ball near midfielder which almost always happens to be Kante covers for the full back if he moves out of position to the wider areas to deal with the opposing winger/fullback.
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The involvement of Albrighton in these cases is especially commendable in these situations as his willingness to track back and cover is extremely crucial in Leicester’s access to the wings. Mahrez, not the best player at tracking back, is benefited from this system and does his share of the workload as well.
Transitions, Transitions and more transitions:
Playing a 4-4-2 Leicester can be left horribly exposed if they look to play a possession based game, with the personnel they have. They look to play on the counter and hit the opposition on fast transitions with the opponent not particularly well structured. By staying compact, Leicester essentially forced play out to the wings and completely negated attacks down the middle. A key component in this was the efficacy with which N’Golo Kante could cover ground in both offensive and defensive transitions. The more attacking nature of Drinkwater comes in handy in attacking phases with both his forward passes to Vardy and also his forward runs in support to the attackers.
Due to their limited world class talent on the pitch, Leicester benefit from a certain degree of chaos in the pitch when they hit the opponent on the counter. With the workhorse Okazaki doing his job at occupying the opposition defenders, Vardy is able to wreak havoc with his brilliant scoring form. The midfield pairing of Kante and Drinkwater is crucial in this set up as they provide the perfect foil for the team to bounce back on turnovers.
When the team attack, the back four remain usually reluctant at first in joining the rest up field. In due time, the compactness is maintained as the whole team moves up to maintain a degree of stability. The counterpressing from Leicester is not exactly a template but their compact structure gives them access to win the ball back. Also with Kante’s excellent ground covering capabilities their counter pressing/ pressing is excellent to not let the opposition build up easily.
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The above clip shows how the ball near midfielder is easily able to move and cover the ball carrier in a man oriented fashion with the strikers backwards pressing. This pressing from the strikers coupled with the keen sense of covering from the midfield duo ensures that the build-up routes for the opposition are hindered.
As mentioned, Leicester benefit from a certain degree of disarray amongst the opposition structure. This is usually generated from turnovers of possession. Generally, the regaining of the ball is a varying situation in each case and there are no particular ways with which Leicester can penetrate. However it is usually down the channels with Vardy using his pace to effect.
Long balls over the top help Vardy to break past the last line of defense and run at the opposition. In order to achieve this Leicester sometimes generate such situations in the match even when they are in possession. This is achieved by playing aimless long balls over the top just so that they can press and win the ball back. Their positioning is optimal for getting the ball back as they direct the play down the wings.
When the strikers help in pressing and Leicester hog a single side of the pitch it becomes difficult to play through them. In such instances Leicester are able to win the ball back and create opportunities through them. Balls won in the centre of the midfield lead to even more dangerous counters while their goal against Manchester United best shows this with Vardy’s goal coming off a United corner.
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When they attack, the wingers engage the opposition full backs and pull them up field. In such instances the channels are open for quick balls over the top from Drinkwater or Vardy. Drinkwater and Vardy were especially adept at this as they had a brilliant connect with the midfielder finding the striker at will with his long passes over the top. These direct passes have a great advantage as they are adept at breaking multiple lines of defence with a single pass. They can work in destabilizing the opposition and also avoid a congested block.
The direct nature of Leicester’s attack became blatantly obvious on the eye as the games went on. Leicester led the league by quite a margin with the distance of each pass taken towards the goal in attack. It was almost always vertical and at a very high tempo. A no nonsense approach combined with almost all their goal scoring chances coming off counters meant that this approach reaped dividends.
Arguably, this trio led Leicester to the title. In some ways, the order in which they are mentioned here too makes light of each one’s significance. Kante was literally the most vital piece of the jigsaw for the side as his contributions both defensively and offensively were immense. Defensively he was almost flawless inmost games with his astute positioning and reading of the game. It was the interceptions rather than the tackles that made Kante ever the more impressive as he could always get into the passing lane and intercept the ball.
His reading of the passes was so good most of the times that the momentum with which he arrives to take the ball in an interception is optimal for him to continue his run and release a pass in the next touch. His passing was also very tidy as he always played the free option and kept the tempo up. Kante’s efficiency in covering the ground is breath-taking and somewhat counter balances the player deficiency in the center of the park in the 4-4-2.
Riyad Mahrez, the Player of the Year for that title winning season was an absolute revelation as he was instrumental in both creating and scoring for the Foxes. His close control dribbling, feints and trickery coupled with his excellent vision and decision making meant that he was Leicester’s go to man when they could not break down an opposition. His creativity mean that they could create something out of nothing and always had an answer when they ran up against a wall. His numbers were astounding and in many ways, he was the one who kept the attack unpredictable for Leicetser in their otherwise sturdy set up.
Image courtesy: StatsBomb.com
Jamie Vardy was the gunman. His numbers for the season, seen above, shows how his contribution was superb. There is an expected high conversion in the rate of goals scored as the Foxes made use of the chances that came their way. Vardy hit gold and on his way in breaking Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of scoring in eleven consecutive games, he scored some very well taken goals.
Image courtesy: StatsBomb.com
The shots he took were always high quality and had a high expected goals ratio. His movement and pace along with his brilliant work ethics and attitude meant that he was a top striker for the club that won the league thanks in no small part to his goals.
What this title win meant?
While this was the tactical breakdown of how Leicester comfortably won the so called ‘toughest league in the world’ it remains mighty impressive how they actually managed it. Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and the likes of Liverpool and Spurs too in recent years have been the perennial challengers for the title since its inception.
There has been no history of a serious title challenge except for Blackburn in 1995. With the huge monetary resources for the bigger clubs, it is almost impossible for a team to try and break into the top six let alone challenge for the title. In such a scenario, Leicester City managed to break the shackles and win the title in extraordinary circumstances. They made light weight of the title win towards the end and were buzzing with confidence as the season progressed. They matured in stature and got the job done like how a regular title contender would.
Grit, determination and sheer ever growing confidence in their abilities as the season wore on played a huge role in their title win. They were not always the better side on the day but they still managed to get the job done with their clinical and lethal cutting edge up front. The fact that is so impressive about their win is that they did not recruit a lot of big names by splashing the cash nor were they the holders of a previous credible title challenge. Three of the six Player of the Year nominees were from the Leicester squad with the three cogs – Kante, Mahrez and Vardy being named in the list.
They got promoted three seasons back prior to the win and were a serial bottom half of the table club. With a lot of ‘big’ and richer clubs in the Premier League, their achievement remains a great example of what football is all about and how a underdog can always cause the upset virtue of organisation and commitment. Their unlikely title win sent shock waves throughout the footballing community and people are highly unlikely to forget their achievement anytime soon. This is why Leicester’s success shall always be the greatest triumph in Football Bloody Hell’s Unlikely Champions and in footballing history.
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