Each and every Premier League season showcases an overachiever that emerges from the mass of mid-table teams and punches above its league, surprising the heavyweights and capturing the imaginations of neutrals that enjoy watching the commercial giants get their noses bloodied. Inevitably, though, the peoples’ champion falters around the halfway mark and they begin their descent into the mid-table positions once again, perhaps being lucky enough to snag a Europa League place if they try their best and pour blood and sweat into each performance.
This year, however, we’re witnessing an anomalous occurrence in that the overachiever has yet to falter, and has yet to show signs of relinquishing its grip on the #1 spot in the league. I’m of course talking about Leicester City Football Club, who have gone from crowd-pleasing upstarts to very genuine title contenders as this season has progressed.
A lot of people seem to be asking themselves; “What is Leicester doing differently that’s putting them ahead of teams like Manchester City, Arsenal, and Tottenham in the title race?” – and I believe it isn’t what they’re doing differently, but what they’re doing the same. The Premier League has historically had a very specific identity, playing a very particular style of football. Rather than discovering a strange new formula for success, I would argue that Leicester City are resurrecting the roots of English football.
Now, what exactly are those roots? In general, you’ll hear the clichéd response of “pace and power” – two adjectives that the Premier League is almost unanimously associated with. Whenever a promising player is signed from a league outside of England, when the predictable interview questions come along, their answers about what sets the Premier League apart invariably refer to the fact that the pace of the game and the players are faster and stronger. Leicester City typifies that style, in traditional positions like center-back, midfield, and centre forward, they have employed traditional Premier League players. Tall, strong, and imposing centre backs that barely possess passing range beyond simple and utilitarian side-footers, quick, mobile and tough central midfielders that crave a good tackle and have an eye for a key pass. Traditionally, the Premier League game values hard work and determination over technical prowess and craft. A few too many Premier League teams might be guilty of trying to reinvent the wheel in terms of personnel and playing style of late, but Leicester are doing a good job of proving that the old methods still have merit.
Now, some might say that teams like Manchester City, Arsenal, and the rest of the supposed powerhouses in the league possess those same kinds of players. In some instances they may, but in a lot of instances the top Premier League teams have been doing their best impression of the possession-based football that has found success in Spain and Germany. When Pep Guardiola took over at Barcelona, he refined and perfected the controlling and meticulous nature of possession-based football. The Catalans closed down quickly, starved their opposition of possession and elected to take goal-scoring opportunities as close to the box as possible.
In recent years Manchester City and Arsenal in particular have been guilty of imitating that same style, to varying degrees of success, or lack thereof. Manchester City have won a couple of league titles, but one could argue that if you pour almost half a billion pounds worth of transfers into a team over six years that that’s the least they should be doing.
In direct contrast to the style and flair that one would associate with the technical Spanish football that has infiltrated England’s top league, Leicester have adopted an incredibly pragmatic approach to the game – where a strong work ethic combines with each player taking care of the responsibilities associated with his position and leaving his team mates to do what they are good at. No fancy False 9 4-3-3 systems, no ball-playing centre backs masquerading as attacking midfielders, no focus on champagne football. They simply work hard.
If one looks at the successful English sides of years gone by then the similarities begin to emerge. Certainly, each had their crafty magicians; Fowler and Owen at Liverpool, Giggs, Cantona, and Beckham at Manchester United, Henry, Ljungberg and Pires at Arsenal. However, those talented and mercurial goal scorers were supported by a strong group of hard working players that ran themselves into the ground to win back possession and cover defensive gaps. While the rest of the league has tried with occasional success to replicate the mesmerizing control practiced by continental giants like Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Leicester City are playing like a team that would fit right in at a mid 90s FA Cup final.
In players like Huth, Kante, Drinkwater (practical advice as well as an outstanding player), Albrighton, Almatey, Ulloa, and Okazaki, the Leicester Squad possesses hard workers that provide a steely platform for the sharp edges of Vardy and Mahrez to work their magic on. They’re a far cry away from the trendy “Total Football” system employed by other European clubs and adopted by several Premier League teams, too. Those teams require each player on the pitch (including the ‘Keeper) to be technically proficient and capable of functioning effectively in almost each outfield position.
While that kind of system has its merits it requires world-class talent in every position to earn trophies. Now, that’s no slight on Leicester’s squad, they definitely have a few world class players, but each player focusing purely on his position rather than becoming effective at all aspects of the game has made Leicester favourites to win the league and is a hallmark of the Premier League in general. Teams like Manchester City and Arsenal should definitely be given pause when with their budgets and resources are outmatched by sheer grit and focus, especially when both teams have been accused of showing soft bellies and a lack of drive at key moments. Indeed, one could argue that Arsenal have almost become a meme for their inclination to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Several times over the last few years, they’ve appeared favourites to finally lift a Premier League title again, only for the occasion to seem to overwhelm them.
Leicester City are currently four games away from possibly one of the most impressive Premier League title bids in the competition’s history. They sit in first place, 8 points ahead of their nearest rivals; Tottenham Hotspur (although Spurs have a game in hand). While there is a fair argument that Leicester haven’t had European competition to distract them from the league, a squad that was in the Championship two seasons ago deserves tremendous credit for a title charge this convincing after nearly being relegated less than 12 months ago. It’s not settled yet, but a lot of neutral fans are keenly watching as this dramatic underdog story unfolds, which may yet conclude in a historic addition to the names of Premier League winning teams. If they are successful they may provide a timely reminder of what made the Premier League so unique in the first place, a reminder that may resonate strongly with waning powers like Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool.
Claudio Ranieri: Ranieri made over 300 appearances in his own playing career, but his managerial efforts have been far more extensive. His career started almost 30 years ago in 1988, and his former employers include the likes of Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Monaco and almost every Italian club to have won the scudetto. He hasn’t been considered a world class manager, but his achievements with Leicester this season are going to make a lot of people reconsider.
Jamie Vardy: AKA, Hamez Vardinho. Formerly of Conference side Fleetwood Town, the pacey English forward has gone from no-name player to a starting option for England at this year’s Euros. He’s currently vying for the top-scorer accolade, his pace and unusually consistent finishing have both been a massive asset for Leicester.
Riyad Mahrez: The Algerian winger has proved as much of a break out player as Vardy has, possessing a little more craft and guile in his left foot than his faster attacking partner. His ball control and ability to create chances has combined fantastically with Vardy’s tendency to make opportunistic runs behind opposition defences. He’s notched 16 goals and 11 assists in the league, each impressive stats worthy of a league winner.
N’Golo Kante: Kante has gained notoriety as the season has progressed for being essentially the best central midfielder in the league at the moment. His passing range is good, he works tirelessly to break up opposition attacks, and he can create chances for his team mates if need. Definite shades of Patrick Viera in this great French midfielder.
Robert Huth: Although he had a decent spell at Chelsea, many thought when the 31-year-old German signed for Middlesbrough in 2006 that his time at the top had come and gone. But, following a long stint at Stoke City the journeyman center back found himself at Leicester City, probably unaware that he would be getting a chance at Premier League glory once again. His no-nonsense (occasionally brutal) defending style has made Leicester’s defense one of the most robust in the league.