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Dublin: 5°C Monday 17 May 2021

What's the secret behind Leicester's astounding Premier League success?

We chat to local journalist Rob Tanner about the Foxes’ meteoric rise.

Leicester City's Jamie Vardy celebrates scoring.
Leicester City's Jamie Vardy celebrates scoring.

Updated at 1.05

IN THE PREMIER League’s history, 97% of the teams who have amassed 32 points or more from their first 15 games in the season have finished in the top four (Newcastle in 1994-95 are the exception).

Should Leicester follow suit, it would be a remarkable achievement, given their limited resources in comparison to the top clubs.

One punter is even set to succeed in a 1000/1 bet if they beat Everton on Saturday afternoon and consequently top the league at Christmas.

So we’ve decided to speak to Rob Tanner of The Leicester Mercury in an attempt to ascertain how they’ve pulled off this unlikely feat.

How do you explain Leicester’s current position?

I don’t think anyone would have predicted it — it’s hard to put your finger on one particular reason. They’ve gone from a side that looked like certainties for relegation to a team that’s top of the Premier League and could be top at Christmas

The team spirit, togetherness and camaraderie within the group is extremely strong. They showed that with the greatest of great escapes last season, where they won seven of their last nine games.

They’ve also added a lot of technical ability — people like Riyad Mahrez, who’s on top of his game at the minute, and Jamie Vardy is in the form of his life. So the combination of the ability and that team spirit has put them in good stead for the season.

Were you one of the many skeptics when Claudio Ranieri was named as Nigel Pearson’s successor as manager?

I was a bit apprehensive about the appointment. It was the response among many of the fans as well. I’m not saying I predicted this was going to happen, but when I looked at his track record, there were smaller clubs at the start of his career that he developed — Calgiari more than anybody — and then you realise that perhaps he was the right fit for Leicester City at that time.

The key for him has been keeping Nigel Pearson’s assistants Craig Shakespeare and Steve Walsh. There’s been great continuity there, so despite losing the figurehead, there wasn’t too much disruption to the way City operated and went about their business.

What has Ranieri added to the team that wasn’t there in Pearson’s time? Has he changed much tactically?

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Leicester City v Queens Park Rangers - King Power Stadium Nigel Pearson was relieved of his duties as Leicester manager in the summer. Source: Stephen Pond

In terms of tactics, he said he wasn’t going to change too much about how the players approached the game. He obviously identified early on that they were a very mobile, counter-attacking side, and they probably developed that even more.

He has brought in other tactical changes. They’ve gone back to a flat-back four, they’re a little more secure with that. It’s basically a 4-4-2 that they’re playing. So tactically, he’s made a few changes.

He’s a different character to Nigel Pearson as well. We see the smiley gentleman who starts every press conference by shaking hands with everyone. He’s very laidback, jovial and jokes a lot with the media. Nigel was a bit brutal as we saw on a few occasions last season.

But behind the scenes, there’s a different side to Ranieri — he can be very forceful in the way he puts across his point. It’s the Italian way, he’s very emotional, whereas Nigel put his arm around the players, cajoled them and was like a father figure to them in many ways. So there is a contrast between the two.

Can you see Vardy and Mahrez staying at the club for much longer?

Certainly in the January transfer window, I expect them to stay, although next summer may be more of a test. Mahrez is the one that’s got the massive amount of potential. He’s the one that I think that could end up at a big club. He’s got fantastic technical ability and has his whole career ahead of him. If he goes, he’s going to command a massive fee.

Jamie Vardy is slightly different, as he’s almost 29. He’s probably in the prime of his career now. So any club that comes in wouldn’t be willing to pay a massive amount for him. His biggest asset is his speed and obviously, as he gets a bit older, that will start to recede. But if he went to one of the top sides in England, and so long as they played to his strengths, I think he’d still be scoring goals. He really has come on leaps and bounds. But Mahrez is the one that everyone thinks is going to be a major international star.

Are there any other players in this success story that have really stood out?

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - West Bromwich Albion v Leicester City - The Hawthorns Danny Drinkwater has been one of Leicester's less heralded players. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Absolutely! Those two (Vardy and Mahrez) have been commanding the headlines and rightly so, as they’ve contributed 26 goals. But it’s been the team behind them that’s been getting them into the goalscoring positions. Danny Drinkwater has been absolutely outstanding in central midfield this season. There were a lot of fears when Esteban Cambiasso decided not to re-sign for the club that they were going to lack that midfield general. Drinkwater stepped up to the plate and so has N’Golo Kanté, the young lad they got from Caen in the summer. He’s only five foot five, but my word, he loves a tackle. He still leads the stats on ball recovery, and at the end of last season, he led the stats for the top five leagues in Europe. He’s a tenacious little player.

Left winger Marc Albrighton, a free signing, has been excellent with his supply of crosses. And Robert Huth is the other one — he’s been a very commanding figure. Unfortunately, City are going to be without Drinkwater and Huth for Saturday’s trip to Everton, so maybe we’re going to see how important they are to Leicester.

Are there any obvious weaknesses in the side? Squad depth perhaps?

People are obviously talking about them as title contenders and you have to — 16 games into the season and they’re top of the table. There are other clubs that have bigger squads and more resources than Leicester. Ranieri’s said that he’s not looking to add to his squad at all in the January transfer window, which surprised me a little bit. When you’re strong, you strengthen again, and they’ve got a great opportunity to qualify for European football, so they have to seize that opportunity. So the squad is a concern.

The other concern, from their play, is defending set pieces. They’re not the biggest team. Morgan and Huth are big lads that can mark, but after that they struggle, so that’s probably their achilles heel.

How far can they go in the league, do you think?

Swansea City v Leicester City - Barclays Premier League - Liberty Stadium Riyad Mahrez is expected to command a big fee if he leaves Leicester. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

My feeling is that they probably won’t win the title, although there’s a stat that in five of the last six seasons, the team that’s been top of the league at Christmas has won it. If they can come through the Christmas period and into the New Year, then yes, you’ve got to consider them as title contenders. But if they could qualify for the Europa League or even Champions League, it’d be fantastic. In terms of the title, I think there are stronger squads that will probably show them up in the second half of the season.

This must be the best Leicester team you’ve ever seen?

This is my seventh season covering Leicester and my first season was when they were promoted back to the Championship from League One. It’s quite remarkable when you consider they were in the third tier of English football eight years ago and here they are top of the league. It’s been a dramatic transformation, but it’s been building for three or four years.

People like Kasper Schmeichel, Wes Morgan, Vardy himself has been here three seasons, so the core of the squad has been here for a while. It’s been good for development, because a lot of them are young lads — they didn’t have a lot of Premier League experience when they came into the division last season, but they’ve really flourished now. They’ve a lot of confidence and it’s been really good to watch.

The last time we spoke we were talking about the possibility of Martin O’Neill taking over at Leicester. It looks like the best thing for the club now that it didn’t happen.

Soccer - Martin O'Neill File Photo Ireland boss Martin O'Neill was linked with the Leicester job in the summer. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

He didn’t really want to spoil his legacy at Leicester City and I’m quite glad about that as well, because the time he had at Leicester City was the most successful in the modern era — people talk about the side of the 1970s that were the great entertainers, but they never actually won anything. Martin brought silverware to the club, so he’ll always be treasured at Leicester City. You can’t look back, you have to look forward and that’s one thing City do well. They focus on the future, and under Ranieri, it looks like a bright future.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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