Irrespective of how the rest of the Premiership season turns out, it seems safe to say that the real story of the season has been the success of Leicester City. In a league dominated by a traditional power set of 6 or 7 teams (if that), it is remarkable, and close to unprecedented, that a team like Leicester has slid into first place. Obviously, there’s been a quite a bit of dialogue surrounding the team, and how its success has come about. What I’m going to try and do here is parse some of that, and try and figure out what it is that makes the team special.
To begin with, though, we have to return to the sheer insanity that is Leicester City being here in the first place. I mentioned this in an earlier blog comment, but before the 2015-2016 Premiership started, Leicester City was given 5,000 to 1 odds of winning the championship. They had finished the last season at 14th, only 6 points clear of relegation, and so the odds were given with good reason. Those odds are astronomically small; to give a comparison that US fans might better understand, the 76ers, arguably mired in one of the worst stretches of basketball all time, had 200-1 odds to win the NBA this year. So how is it that a team with worse odds of winning the championship than Elvis being alive is on top of the table mid-February?
To begin with, the most obvious change between last year’s Leicester City team and this one is the new manager, Claudio Ranieri, who is doing decidedly old things. His 4-4-2 is nothing new, and in fact, is borrowed almost exactly from Arrigo Sacchi, the legendary AC Milan manager. Ranieri’s style is actually rather simple: his back 4 keep a high line, and his 2 forwards tighten back, leaving a compacted middle of the field with only 25 yards between the front and back line. The result: defensively, Leicester City smothers the middle of the pitch, where the popular passing styles of today like to thrive. It’s not a surprise with this style that Leicester leads the league with over 21 pass interceptions a game, and is second in tackles. The high line also gives Leicester the second most offsides calls against the opposition in the league.
The 4-4-2, though, is actually old news in England: it was the predominant style of the 90s and early 2000s in the EPL. However, it was done in by a run of failures, most notably England in the 2010 World Cup. Fabio Capello, the English manager, was famously accused of playing an ‘outdated’ 4-4-2 and refusing change, which supposedly led to defeat of the English side against a pass-oriented Germany. Everyone knows the 4-4-2, and Leicester City really isn’t doing anything remarkably new. However, they’re a great example of how sometimes playing the opposite style to everyone else is a good thing. When passing and owning the midfield is in fashion, why not make the midfield difficult to own? Why not make passing frustrating? Leicester City, it seems, are simply being the smarter side.
Oddly enough, this style means that possession and passing accuracy, stats en vogue in soccer, are the ones that Leicester City eschews. Worst in the league in passing accuracy and 3rd worst in possession, the team instead focuses on gaining possession and counter attacking quickly, passing out long diagonal balls to Marc Albrighton, Riyadh Mahrez, or even longer to the 2 strikers. Counter attacking is how the team scores, and it doesn’t help to have an absolutely clinical goalscorer. Jamie Vardy is hovering right around a 40% conversion rate, an absurd number, which basically says that 40% of his shots have been goals.
Vardy is a great example of something else this team has benefited from: players exceeding expectations. Amazingly, most people think Vardy, the top goalscorer in the competition, is not even the most improved player in the side. That honor belongs to Riyadh Mahrez, who by some metrics is the best player in the Premiership right now: not bad for 400,000 pounds. For all the formational solidity of Leicester City, it has been the brilliance of undervalued players that has truly made the system work.
In other words, Leicester City stands as something of an antithesis to modern football machination. When Ranieri took over last year, he kept on most of the old staff. That continuity is bizarre in the top-flight football world, in which every manager wants his own team. In particular, Steve Walsh, the assistant manager at Leicester City before Ranieri’s arrival, was kept on as the head of scouting. He’s given most of the credit for the signing of Mahrez away from Le Havre, a French Ligue 2 team. Quite simply put, no one paid attention to Mahrez, but clever scouting and continuity within the club brought one of Europe’s best players into the fold totally under the radar.
In other ways, Leicester City has followed the model of other trendsetters in football by leaning on their academy: Jeff Schlupp and Andy King are regulars in the starting lineup, and cost the team almost nothing. Sensing a running trend? Leicester City are arguably the smartest financial team in the EPL too: they are 17th in payroll, at a measly 48.2 million pounds this year. Chelsea spends more than 4 times that, and is in 12th.
Football at the highest level is increasingly becoming dependent on money and formational flexibility, and yet Leicester City seems to ignore both of those trends. While it remains to be seen if the Foxes can keep this improbable run going, they have certainly shown the world a different way to do things. Even after all of this, though, one improbable stat remains: Leicester City, the Club, is worth 100 million pounds, or thereabouts. Which is good for 11th in the league. In a world where money is almost always power, Leicester City is proving that with some good leadership, the right system, and little bit of luck, the ball will sometimes bounce your way.