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Dublin: 9°C Tuesday 26 January 2021

7 key factors that inspired Leicester's Premier League title triumph

Steve Walsh’s eye for a player and more important aspects of this incredible story.

Leicester have won the Premier League with two games to spare.
Leicester have won the Premier League with two games to spare.
Image: Rui Vieira

1. Experience

ONE OF THE more important-yet-underrated aspects of the team, Leicester’s experience was key in winning the league.

There was a point in the season, where it was looking like a four-horse title race between the Foxes, Tottenham, Arsenal and Man City.

Many people dismissed Leicester’s chances on the basis that many of their players lacked the experience of winning big trophies.

Yet those who made the assertion overlooked the fact that Leicester were in a title-race-like scenario last season, when they needed to win the majority of their remaining games to avoid relegation back to the Championship, after only one season in the top flight.

That situation was arguably more intense compared to having to challenge for the title, as they were never expected to do the latter, and the players’ futures weren’t on the line if they failed to triumph this season.

Moreover, whereas Tottenham have the youngest squad in the Premier League, Leicester have a highly experienced team, with the likes of Wes Morgan, Jamie Vardy and Robert Huth well accustomed to the demands of English football at this point in their career.

Therefore, the experience told in the run-in — Leicester showed impressive mental strength, going on a 10-match unbeaten run following their potentially devastating last-minute loss to Arsenal back in February. By contrast, a nervy Tottenham ultimately collapsed, as they let a two-goal lead slip on Monday night amid an error-prone, ill-disciplined display against Chelsea.

2. Steve Walsh’s eye for under-the-radar gems

Soccer - Pre-season Friendly - Lincoln City v Leicester City - Sincil Bank Head of recruitment Steve Walsh has made some highly astute purchases. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Leicester’s co-assistant manager and head of recruitment Steve Walsh was undoubtedly a key figure in their success.

He was the man that went to watch the then-relative-unknowns such as Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and N’Golo Kante, convincing sceptics that they were worth the gamble and bringing them to the club amid little fanfare.

Christian Fuchs, Robert Huth and Shinji Okazaki were other important recent purchases.

Leicester’s total summer/January spending this season amounted to approximately £27 million — considerably less than the £44 million, plus £5 million in potential add-ons, which Man City spent on only one player: Raheem Sterling.

The Foxes also managed to recoup £7million through the sales of Chris Wood and David Nugent to Leeds and Middlesborough respectively.

Moreover, somewhat ironically, three of Leicester’s more high-profile recent signings – Daniel Amartey, Yohan Benalouane and Gökhan Inler — have struggled for first-team football, as supposedly lesser names have kept them out of the first XI.

3. Sticking with the same core group of players

Manchester City v Leicester City - Barclays Premier League - Etihad Stadium Wes Morgan has featured in all 36 of Leicester's matches this season. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Whereas he was once known as the ‘Tinkerman’ for his erratic team selections and often unusual tactical approaches, this season, Claudio Ranieri has evolved into a much more predictable coach.

With sporadic tweaks, Leicester have relied on more or less the same formation (4-4-2) and core group of players all season.

Winger Marc Albrighton — the same player who was released by the now-relegated Aston Villa in May 2014 — captain Wes Morgan and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel have each featured in all of Leicester’s league games this season. Meanwhile, Riyad Mahrez, Danny Drinkwater, Jamie Vardy, Robert Huth and N’Golo Kante among others have been virtual ever-presents in the side when available.

The fact that Leicester had no European football to contend with, as well as being knocked out of both domestic cup competitions early, was also seemingly key to their success. On the other hand, their main title rivals, Tottenham, Arsenal and Man City all had European football to contend with, with Manuel Pellegrini’s side also playing the maximum number of League Cup games and winning the trophy after a gruelling 120 minutes of football plus penalties.

Yet even still, by sticking with largely the same XI for much of the campaign, Ranieri has proven that football is a far simpler game than many coaches’ decisions and media assertions would lead people to believe.

4. Playing to their strengths

More than any other side in the league, Leicester have a comprehensive understanding of their weaknesses and strengths as a team.

Their no-risk approach is more reminiscent to Jack Charlton’s Ireland and the Wimbledon team of the late ’80s and early ’90s as opposed to the great Premier League sides of the past.

These comparisons are backed up by the statistics — Leicester are in the bottom three in the Premier League in terms of possession, and the bottom two with regard to pass completion.

But while they may not be particularly gifted technically, what they do have is a strong, well-organised defence and an impeccable work-rate throughout the team, which invariably makes the Foxes very difficult to beat.

In addition, a study in March revealed Leicester were in the top six in terms of distance covered over the course of the season.

And while Ranieri has spoken of how the players were “afraid of Italian tactics” when he first arrived and he consequently allowed them to continue playing more or less as they had been under previous boss Nigel Pearson (with a few minors tweaks such as the insistence on playing 4-4-2), there’s no doubt that the veteran coach has increasingly stamped his influence on the team.

Ranieri has described his coaching style as attempting to combine “the English and the Italian way of doing things,” and these words have certainly rung true this season.

While the Foxes began the season as free-scoring entertainers inspired by Jamie Vardy’s 11-game scoring streak and the brilliance of PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez, by the end of the campaign, they had turned into a formidable defensive outfit — there was more than a hint of the famous Italian Catenaccio style during the recent run that saw them win five out of six league games 1-0.

And to further emphasise Leicester’s significant change in style and approach for the title run-in, of the 34 goals they’ve conceded this season, 26 came in their first 19 games compared with just eight in their last 17 matches.

Hence, the old saying about attackers winning games and defences winning titles seems particularly pertinent in this case.

5. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez turning into genuine superstars

Leicester City 2015-16 Premier League Winners Package Jamie Vardy has scored 22 Premier League goals this season. Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Of the 64 goals Leicester have scored this season, well over half (39) have been scored by either Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez.

They have also contributed 17 assists to boot — 11 for Mahrez and six for Vardy.

So there is no doubt that without the influential duo, Leicester simply would not be in the position they’re in right now.

What makes the story even more remarkable is that both players have emerged from relative obscurity.

Jamie Vardy was a non-league player as recently as 2012 and a famous picture of himself, Harry Kane and Danny Drinkwater sitting on the Leicester bench for a crucial play-off game in May 2013 did the rounds on social media back in March.

So Vardy evidently struggled to adapt to life at Leicester after a £1 million move — in his first season in the Championship, he managed just four goals in 26 appearances, while last season, he scored a less-than-spectacular five goals in 34 games. Reports have suggested that Pearson even came close to selling him to Sheffield Wednesday at one point.

Similarly, Mahrez has had his doubters. The Algerian international somehow managed to slip under the radar of the top clubs, allowing Leicester to sign him up for a reported fee of £400,000 from French second division side Le Havre.

Mahrez had never heard of Leicester before he signed for them, believing them to be a rugby team, and he found the going tough initially. In his first season in the Championship, he made 19 appearances, but only 11 of these were starts, eight of which saw him complete 90 minutes.

The winger is the perfect example of an individual who has rewarded the patience of the coaching staff and gradually gotten to grips with the Premier League — in contrast with his regular heroics during this campaign, he managed just four goals in 30 Premier League appearances last season.

6. Sophisticated recovery methods

One hugely significant factor in Leicester’s success has been their ability to keep all their best players fit throughout the campaign.

Whereas title rivals, Arsenal (Santi Cazorla), Tottenham (Jan Vertonghen) and Man City (Kevin De Bruyne) have all had to do without key players for a substantial period, Leicester have barely had to rely at all on the more peripheral members of their squad.

Whereas there is undoubtedly a degree of luck involved, cutting edge sports science innovations such as their use of a Cryo Chamber unit to aid player recovery have clearly been enormously beneficial to the club’s cause, with players reportedly making use of the technology at least once a day.

“The intensity of football in England puts great demands on the recovery time players have,” Leicester’s head physiotherapist, Dave Rennie, told The Telegraph last month. “If recovery from games and rehabilitation from injury take longer, then that’s less time the coaches have with the players, educating them on the needs of the team.”

“This unit affords us the opportunity to return players to fitness fast. Coaches then get more time with the players to work on the games. It’s become central to a player’s adaptation (their recovery and physical development between matches). It affects the central nervous system and we notice big hormonal changes in players — changes in mood too.”

“From a physio’s point of view I’m impressed with the therapy’s ability to shut down the acute soft tissues injuries much faster.”

7. Claudio Ranieri’s clever man management and ability to create a harmonious dressing room environment

Leicester City players at San Carlo Pizzeria Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri leaves the San Carlo Pizzeria in Leicester yesterday. Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

It’s hard to think of many managers that could have handled Leicester’s improbable title challenge better than Ranieri, despite the manager being effectively written off by many critics following his appointment last summer.

The laidback Italian has continually played down his team’s chances, laughing off suggestions they could win the league as recently as last December. Whether or not he meant what he said, of course, is another matter — the unshakeable self-belief that the Foxes have routinely displayed throughout the campaign would suggest not.

Furthermore, little details such as offering his players pizza whenever they kept a clean sheet appeared to go down well.

And another instance of Ranieri’s astute man-management came at a crucial point in the season in February — the club faced a formidable-looking run of the games against Liverpool, Man City and Arsenal. After the fixtures in question, they had two weeks until their next fixture owing to the fact that they had been knocked out of the FA Cup early on.

Ranieri consequently promised his players that they could take a one-week holiday to Dubai if they gained nine points from these matches. After emphatically beating Liverpool and Man City, they were defeated in unfortunate circumstances by a gut-wrenching last-minute goal against Arsenal.

The Italian coach let his players have the holiday anyway, and they haven’t lost a match ever since.

Accordingly, Leicester have been constantly praised for their unity and team spirit this season, and Ranieri’s amiable personality — he is more or less universally praised by ex-players who once worked with him — has been integral to the close bonds that have patently been established in the club’s dressing room this season.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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