No one could have anticipated that coming into the final quarter of the season, Leicester City would be sitting two points clear at the top of the table, having won more than any other team. After sacking the popular Nigel Pearson and replacing him with Claudio Ranieri, the Foxes were many people’s tip to go down at the beginning of the season. However, the Italian has instilled a never-say-die attitude in his players, which has seen them come from behind to pick up points on many occasions. Leicester’s high-octane, direct, counter-attacking style of play has made them the league’s second highest scores, winning them matches and new fans along the way.
Ranieri arrived back in England with somewhat of a tarnished reputation, largely due to his poor spell as the Greece national team manager. The ‘Tinkerman’ has found his feet quickly on his return to the Premier League though, where he last managed Chelsea in 2004. Pearson left Leicester in very good shape – as proven by their superb run of form at the end of last season, picking up 22pts from their last 9 games to avoid relegation. Earlier on in the season many were claiming it was more Pearson’s work that had them at the top, but nobody can deny Ranieri’s achievements at this stage of the season.
While Pearson’s work shouldn’t be forgotten, it’s clear to see that Ranieri has built on his predecessor’s foundations and taken the club to a whole new level. Leicester’s success this season has come from their ability to counter-attack from deep with both speed and intent. Although the club only have an average possession percentage of 46%, their pace and precision from the turnover has more than made up for their lack of possession. Fast, direct, purposeful counter-attacking football is quickly becoming one of the most effective tactics in modern football, and Ranieri’s Leicester are executing it perfectly and reaping the rewards.
Though Ranieri was responsible for bringing neither Vardy nor Mahrez to the club, there can be no question that the two have improved immensely under their new coach. Vardy in particular appears to be an almost new signing, and was on a goal scoring run so rich it has seen him break Ruud van Nistlerooy’s previous record of scoring in 10 consecutive games. The former non-league striker is clearly thriving under his new manager having scored 19 goals this campaign. Mahrez has arguably been more impressive than Vardy this season, being not far behind Vardy at 14 for the campaign. His ability to run with the ball and create chances has proved a nightmare for opposition defences; having provided 10 assists this season, second only to Mesut Ozil’s astounding 18. Both Vardy & Mahrez’s improvement has been remarkable – Football Index has them at 16 & 22 respectively at time of writing – above the likes of Karim Benzema and David Silva.
Though Vardy and Mahrez have taken the bulk of the plaudits this season, there have been some strong, consistent performances from other members of the squad. The defensive midfield due of N’Golo Kanté and Danny Drinkwater have proven solid in the middle of the park, breaking down opposition attacks and starting the transition forward. Marc Albrighton too has been another strong performer – comfortable on both the left and right side of midfield, his crossing has been exceptional this season.
Leicester’s finish to the season will depend much on the fitness of their players, as the Foxes do not have anywhere near the strength and depth of the clubs around them. An ambitious but also realistic objective for them would be to finish the season in the top four. But who knows, with this Leicester squad constantly defying the odds.