Leicester City’s demolition job of the Premier League’s traditional caste system, an assault they’ve kept up long past the point where anyone could still consider them a fluke, offers a few insights into which cracks in this cash-rules-everything-around-me league’s foundation can be exploited by a smart underdog armed with only a chisel.
Savvy transfer moves facilitated by keen scouting can buy you a slew of very good players for a fraction of what they’ll eventually be worth. A consistent starting XI unburdened by lots of non-league matches can play almost every single match together at full fitness, developing over the course of the season into a cohesive whole. A manager that instills a sophisticated playing structure that limits the squad’s vulnerabilities while maximizing their strengths can cut through most any opposition thanks to England’s broad predilection for tactically naive, wide-open play.
This miraculous season of Leicester’s is a direct result of the club’s mastery of these strategies. Their three best players—the EPL’s top scorer, Jamie Vardy; the league’s player of the season, Riyad Mahrez; and the league’s best midfield destroyer, N’Golo Kanté—were all plucked up for relatively tiny fees after making their names in various lower divisions around Europe. Of their regular starting lineup, all 11 have started at least 19 of 28 total EPL matches, with nine of those starters making a minimum of 26 total appearances. Claudio Ranieri’s regulars have fully internalized the individual and collective duties of the manager’s imposed system of a tight, deep-set, nigh-impenetrable 4-4-2 that fends off the opposition, whom Leicester gladly grant the majority of possession until a clutch of Foxes nick the ball away and speed off on the break. This isn’t a case of a decent team punching above their weight for a couple months on account of a handful of lucky balls; Leicester are legitimately performing like an elite team for concrete, sustainable reasons.
While only injuries could prevent the Foxes’ bona fide stars from continuing to thrive, and only a sudden onset of dementia could lead Ranieri to abandon his proven style of play and the players who have perfected it, there does remain a lingering threat opposing teams could utilize to impede Leicester on their path to success; rather than running straight into Leicester’s trap by playing an open game, rival teams could start to play Leicester the way Leicester play everyone else.
In fact, we’ve already started to see this happen. In both of the Foxes’ last two matches, Norwich City and West Brom have rejected Leicester’s invitation to take the ball, play it around in harmless areas, eventually lose it when they try to push up, and promptly get killed on the counter. Instead, the Canaries and the Baggies both sat deep without the ball, forcing Leicester to build their attacks more deliberately, without the benefit of acres of space and only a couple defenders in the way. When these opponents have won the ball, they then focused on their own counterattacks with limited numbers to remain in position to preempt any Leicester counter-counter. In the two matches, Leicester had 55 and 64 percent possession, respectively—a damn sight more than their 44 percent season average. It’s no coincidence that these two teams gave Leicester two of their biggest challenges all season.
If anything, it’s testament to how stubborn-at-best, boneheaded-at-worst many of the EPL’s managers are that this isn’t already the go-to strategy when facing Leicester. Is it because no one believed Leicester were actually this good and didn’t require major tactical adjustments? Is it because no one realized the full extent of how dependent Leicester were on open space on the break for success? Whatever the reason, it’s baffling that it’s taken this long.
At this point, though, it appears that the opposition has finally caught on. It’s probably not an accident that it was Norwich and West Brom that committed to this strategy. These two relegation-battlers are used to trotting back and digging their cleats in deep within their own half to withstand the attacking onslaught of the league’s bigger and better teams. Maybe it took a couple of teams from the traditional lower class to finally take Leicester for the elite team they’ve been playing like all season.
To hang on for the title every neutral is dying for them to claim, Leicester will have to find better ways to combat teams playing them like this. While they did find the late winner in the Norwich game and probably should’ve put away one of the myriad of chances they had at the end of the West Brom match, Leicester still haven’t looked very comfortable breaking down compact defenses. When there isn’t as much open field for Vardy and Mahrez to shoulder-shimmy and fly their way into, the team finds itself relying too much on speculative crosses into a crowded box. Unless they find a way to manufacture more space for themselves, or prove more adept at incisive passing in the final third, it will be difficult for Leicester to maintain their separation from Tottenham and Arsenal at the top of the table. Leicester aren’t at risk of really collapsing and falling out of the top four—and because of that, this season is a miracle no matter how it ends—but to fall short of what would be a historic shocker of a title win would be a shame.
Luckily, Leicester still can count on the very real talents of their players to find a few crucial goals here and there during the final march to the end of the season, and have the luxury of a brilliant manager who should be able to come up with a few tweaks of his own to get their attack sparking again, even against parked buses. And from what we’ve seen for so many years, betting on all of the Premier League to suddenly become sophisticated tacticians and resist the urge to run around like headless chickens is usually a losing proposition.
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