Leicester City: How on Earth Did it Happen?

By | February 21, 2016


King Power Stadium

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.



Works Cited
“Can Leicester City Sustain Its Improbable Success?” Tactical Breakdown: How Ranieri’s Leicester City Has Overtaken the EPL. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.
“Premier League Club’s Wage Bills In 2016 (Revealed).” TOTAL SPORTEK. N.p., 08 Jan. 2016. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.
“Premier League.” Player Statistics. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.
“Premier League.” Transfermarkt. Transfermarkt, n.d. Web.
“The Secret to Leicester City’s Success.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.
Wikipedia: Formation . Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.

3 thoughts on “Leicester City: How on Earth Did it Happen?

  1. Patrick He

    I like that you mentioned one of Leicester’s key features being its ability to gain possession and its ability to smother the midfield. The way Leicester plays, its midfielders find a compromise between man-marking and positional zone-marking. This allows the team to hold a more stable defensive structure but also pressures the opposing players by maintaining a certain distance within each zone. This, coupled with the fact that Leicester’s midfield tends to play deeper, means that the team is more happy to let their opponents keep possession in less dangerous areas but then work aggressively to win the ball later on.

    As a result, while Vardy and Mahrez have obviously been instrumental to Leicester’s success this season, N’Golo Kanté has been equally important in his midfield role. He leads the Premier League in both tackles and interceptions, but more than that, he has an amazing work rate and plays well into Leicester’s system. By playing into the team’s system, he is able to know which opposing players are already covered by his teammates, and as a result, he is able to better improve his own positioning and anticipate passes, leading to interceptions. This leads to opportunities for counterattacking, which Leicester’s pacey and clinical forwards can take advantage of, contributing to its success this season.

  2. Aristide Sangano

    It is moments like these that show why the English Premier League is unmatched. Having a team rise from fighting relegation to leading the table in just a matter of 2 seasons without any drastic financial boost is something quite special. Almost every season, a team has an unexpectedly good start and they spend some time either on the top or close to the top of the table but then it always ends up “going back where it belongs.” I actually believe that if there is one thing the English Premier League shows to the fans is that nobody is safe and every position on the table has to be seriously earned. Teams like Southampton, Leicester City and Chelsea are just a few that have proven this over the past few seasons. I find this very unique and particular to the Premier League. Other countries’league are admittedly exciting too but I personally feel like the pressure and excitement of winning every game as well as the unpredictability that comes with playing any game are simply not as high as in the Premier League. Now back to Leicester, Riyad Mahrez is hugely responsible for the success of the foxes and buying him (for less than a million Euros) is one of the best transfer decisions anyone could have ever made. He is an absolute wonder to watch. A lot of credit should also go to Coach Ranieri for being able to get a team which was relatively unknown to compete and succeed at the highest level.Jamie Vardy who is also having the season of his life deserves a lot of credit for his contribution to this side’s success. Looking at the current situation, I think it is fair to say that as far as title contenders are concerned, Leicester City definitely comes on top and we are past the point where it would be a surprise if they were to win it.

    1. Kuber Madhok

      I think the feeling that the Premier League is the most entertaining in the world is most true this year. What Leicester have done has never been done in the Premier League Era. In the last decade it’s been the same three teams that have been crowned champions, and the same statistic holds true for Spain and Italy. Meanwhile, despite PSG’s and Bayern’s recent dominance in their respective leagues, Ligue 1 has had 6 winners and the Bundesliga 4 in the same time period.

      Furthermore, the “Big 4” of the Premier League was very much a thing of the 2000s. There were only 6 occasions from 2000-2010 where a team other than Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, or Manchester United finished in the top 4. While during this time period the league certainly was not dull, it was nowhere near the level of excitement and unpredictability that characterizes the league at the moment.


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