By Andrew Thompson, @AFCBvB1410
Leicester City are on the brink of a magical run in the Premier League not seen in England since Blackburn were crowned champions back in 1995. Rovers’ run, lead by England and Premier League icon Alan Shearer, is the only instance where a club outside of “the big four” lifted the Premier League trophy since British top flight was rebranded. As each weekend passes, and Leicester keep seeing out results, more and more have begun to ask not how Leicester will win the league, but when.
In an age where Football is ruled by corporate sponsorship, mammoth television rights deals and the notion of spending to compete has now drawn closer to becoming the status quo, Claudio Ranieri’s men are bucking the trend that a level of requisite superstardom is necessary to embark on a successful domestic campaign.
A quick survey of the Foxes’ first-team will reveal not one single player big name player (well, at least before the season began), but rather a hodge-podge of players either looking to establish themselves at a top level or veteran role players who are consigned to their career’s soon reaching their completion in just a few years time – the truth? It’s been the perfect blend for the midlands club and it’s the reason they sit atop the English footballing summit with just seven matches to spare.
Everyone knows the Cinderella stories of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, coming from the bottom rungs of the football ladder to now finding themselves at the forefront of Premier League achievement, but Leicester’s dynamic attacking duo are just one cog in a very unfashionable wheel. Many fail to mention the influence of Marc Albrighton, once considered to be an Aston Villa reject (oh, oh the irony in that statement), has provided a vital source of creativity on the left side of the Foxes tactical deployment. Japanese international Shinji Okazaki, once a key component for Mainz 05 in the Bundesliga, now partners the high-flying Vardy upfront, and even though he’s only netted five in twenty-nine, his work rate and ability to create space for those around him has been vital. N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater, another pair who’s emerged from obscurity, can surely be considered one of the most effective and efficient midfield tandems in the country and their achievements this season has earned the pair call-ups for England and France respectively and potentially a role to play at the Euro’s this summer.
Most importantly, and perhaps almost ignored, has been Leicester’s Old Guard at the back. Christian Fuchs, Austrian international and veteran of the Bundesliga was seen as a transfer coup for the club this summer and he’s certainly delivered, putting in one strong performance after another to the point where it can be postulated that he’s been the best left-back in the league this season. Danny Simpson has had resurgence in his career this season patrolling the right side of the defense, and the center-back pairing of Robert Huth and West Morgan, along with Danish international keeper Kasper Schmeichel, complete a defensive core for the club who’s average age is a shade under 30-years old.
If you were to compare Leicester’s first-team to the majority of clubs in the Prem, you’d never expect them to pull off the season that they have. Considering the fact that Leicester narrowly staved off the drop last season by winning six of their last eight league fixtures, it’s clear to see that their run this campaign is a direct result of the spirit, belief and hard work they put forth at the tail end of last year to keep themselves in the top flight. Though Nigel Pearson and the club parted ways in the summer to make room for Ranieri’s arrival leaving question marks, let’s not downplay just how massive he’s been for them on the touchline this season, with the Italian headmaster most of all being given credit for not trying to change the identity of the players and the core values that existed before his arrival at the King Power Stadium – that hard work can close the gap against talent.
This isn’t just about Leicester however, and even though a successful push for the title could go many different ways, one of which could be a one-and-done season the same as Blackburn, the potentiality of them winning the league could shed some light for other clubs who populate the worlds most watched club competition. As an Arsenal supporter, I have sat back and watched this all unfold and asked the question what has Leicester done that we haven’t. Our first-team is vastly superior from a talent level at literally every position on the pitch bar maybe right-wing, but it’s our lack of mental strength in many of our performances this season that have hurt us, whereas Leicester have not only remained mentally tough throughout, but they are not stricken with privilege like the big clubs who are accustomed to occupying the top of the league.
Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool are all clubs blessed with the ability to spend to improve, but are often blinded by the individual ability of the players they bring in rather than questioning if the player is the right fit for the club. Gunners supporters have not seen the best of Mesut Özil until this season once he was utilized properly by Arsene Wenger, Brendan Rodgers mismanaged countless players at Liverpool and now Jürgen Klopp is trying to piece back together the shattered piece of pottery that is Anfield. Louis van Gaal has brought in many players under his short stewardship a Old Trafford but only a few of those players have shone well, while the likes of Marcus Rashford, bread by the club, has outperformed Memphis Depay, who for many was one of the best up and coming talents on the entire continent as recently as last season. The moral of the story is simple – it’s not always who you buy, it’s why you buy them and how you plan to use them. This is a notion that Ranieri and Leicester City have embraced and the proof is surely in the pudding – building a team shouldn’t only ever be about buying as many over-priced players you can wrap your hands around.
If you look at many sporting success stories across all fronts, the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team, Montpellier’s run to a Lique 1 title, the Chicago Bulls in the mid 90’s and others, the constant theme always turns up – a small handful of gifted players surrounded by role players. In much the same way it’s like many occupations in life; surgeons could not do what they do without the support network of nurses they’re surrounded with, a big trial lawyer could not win a case without the legal team behind the scenes. It may be fashionable to have an XI glistening with the best and brightest in the mold of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, PSG and indeed Manchester City, but it’s not the only formula for winning.
The fabric of the footballing world has indeed shifted in the last decade or more, with money being foundation that many have chosen to build their house, and by extension a culture surrounded by the almighty Pound (or Euro) has taken up residence across the beautiful game. This, however, is what makes stories like Leicester City so important to remind us that, at the very core, football is about camaraderie, work ethic and setting goals you can achieve united as one collective rather than a conglomeration of prima-donna’s. There is still time for them to drop off and their story could well dissipate into a dream unachievable, but should Leicester do the unthinkable, it will not only be great for the Premier League and football as a whole, but it’ll serve as that reminder we so often need.
Andrew “Drew” Thompson is our resident Bundesliga Hipster. His blogs can also be found at A Bergkamp Wonderland, OOTB and Full90Gooner. Drew is always up for a debate, so message him on Twitter at @AFCBvB1410