Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Foxes eye the finishing line

AS LEICESTER CITY HOME IN ON THE MOST UNLIKELY OF TRIUMPHS, THEIR SIMPLE WINNING FORMULA REMAINS UNBROKEN

Leicester City won another nervy game 1-0 on Sunday, their fifth such victory in six matches, to move seven points clear in the Premier League with half a dozen games remaining.

Southampton could count themselves unlucky having caused the Foxes many problems and the Saints had two plausible penalty appeals for handball waved away.

This is truly a season to savour.

Perhaps Leicester have King Richard III's spirit on their side, after the Yorkist monarch was reburied in the city's cathedral a year ago. The Saints tried hard in the end but succumbed to this season's favourite fairytale.

So Claudio Ranieri's men must choke three times and Tottenham Hotspur win all their remaining matches for the magic spell to be broken. The start of season 5000-1 fantasy is becoming a reality.

LEICESTER'S FIXTURES       v      SPURS' FIXTURES

Sunderland (18th) AWAY         Man Utd (5th) HOME
West Ham (6th) HOME        Stoke (8th) AWAY
Swansea (15th) HOME         West Brom (11th) HOME
Man Utd (5th) AWAY           Chelsea (10th) AWAY
Everton (12th) HOME          Southampton (7th) HOME
Chelsea (10th) AWAY          Newcastle (19th) AWAY

Leicester's run-in looks slightly harder, particularly their last three games, while Spurs have a key hurdle in their away trip to a resurgent Chelsea. Who knows what will happen in this most unpredicted of seasons, but it seems the Foxes will be first to the finish, although their margin of victory will be less than seven points.

What seems remarkable is how the rest of the league has not figured out a way to defeat Ranieri's charmingly simple counter-attacking style by now.

To be fair, Leicester do have three outstanding individuals in high-speed raiders Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez and box to box motor N'Golo Kante, who collectively run so much and so fast it feels like they have more then eleven players on the field.

Pace will always be a potent weapon on the break and if you are going to move men into the opponents' half, like pieces on a chess board, as you must in order to score goals, you will always leave room behind you to be exploited on the counter by your rivals.

The key therefore is managing both attack and defence and if Leicester's aces are speedsters, sitting back en masse might well be the best way to nullify their running threat. That sounds like catenaccio, an Italian playing style Signor Ranieri knows only too well from his homeland.

As expected of counter-attackers, the league leaders do not dwell on the ball. They sit third to last in the Premier League when it comes to ball possession, with only 45.4% of the match under their control; only the struggling Sunderland and West Brom keep the ball for less time.

Spurs and Man Utd by comparison enjoy 58% of possession, Man City 59% and Barcelona wannabees Arsenal are top of the ball-keepers with 61%.

Keeping the ball seemed to be the perceived wisdom of modern football as taught by Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, Fabio Capello's Milan and Bob Paisley's Liverpool, the three outstanding European club sides who spring to mind.

But a counter-attacking game-plan executed well is clearly more than enough to top a league, as Leicester have proved.

If you are playing a team who are swift on the rebound you have to be on red alert for a possible break and ravenous when it comes to winning the ball back, closing down high up the field ('gegenpressing') to stop them gaining a numbers advantage.

That of course requires high levels of fitness and concentration but is not impossible, which makes it curious why only Arsenal (twice) have managed to defeat them.

The Gunners' 5-2 win at Leicester back in September was an unusually open game where Leicester conceded five but also looked dangerous on many occasions, hitting the woodwork as well as netting twice.

But Arsenal were just as lethal on the counter however and pierced the Foxes backline many times as well with their clever and quick passing. In Alexis Sanchez, the Gunners fielded one of the league's most skilful individuals, who was bang on form and bagged a hat-trick.

There is no great mystery about the Foxes' new-found fortune. Leicester play a compact 4-4-2 with central midfielders Danny Drinkwater and Kante providing tight cover for their back four and accelerating transitions from defence to attack.

They are a vertical as opposed to horizontal side, who get the ball forward into dangerous areas very quickly and have three or four skilful fast dribblers who create goalscoring chances.

From goalkeeper Kaspar Schmeichel's fast distribution and the back four's propensity to hit Mahrez and Vardy from deep, to the eagerness of Marc Albrighton to feed the danger men and Shinji Okazaki's hard running up front in support of Vardy, the whole side is set up to strike on the break.

They have looked somewhat vulnerable to crosses and an aerial assault at times, but their devastating counter-attack has hauled them to victory again and again.

There is of course another argument which states that Leicester are only ahead of the rest because the big teams - Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and the two Manchester giants, have all stumbled and underperformed in their own ways this season. Tottenham are their only real threat for the title.

Other factors count too in the East Midlanders' soaring ascent: They finished 14th last season so started 2015-'16 with a psychologically clean slate: No pressure to succeed and a new manager to impress.

The new boss has slipped into the job remarkably smoothly having failed spectacularly in his last job in charge of Greece. Ranieri wisely retained three key coaching staff from the Nigel Pearson era and only tinkered slightly with the playing style, based on the resources available to him.

In doing so he has given the team the confidence to play an Italian-esque catenaccio & counter game which he felt was the way forward having studied videos of last season's performances.

He stresses he only played to the team's strengths in choosing their modus operandi this season and did not try to convert them to any preconceived idea.

"If I don't have fast strikers I don't play on the counterattack," he explained. "In Roma I played another way, in Monaco I played another way."

Ranieri has clearly motivated his squad in an extraordinary way so that a spirit of enjoyment and enthusiasm was running through their veins before successively positive results increased the team's self-belief.

The transformation of players like Albrighton and Robert Huth from rejects to table-topping performers looks a lot like what Brian Clough did at Nottingham Forest in 1978, the last time a wholly unfancied team took the grand prize in England.

That magic chemistry which occurs when all the stars align above a modest club is impossible to buy.

"There is a good electricity between everybody," confirmed Ranieri. "The chairman, the fans, the staff, ourselves. We stay very united."

Off-field everything has clicked too: The scouting has also been outstanding, most obviously in paying only £400,000 for Mahrez from a second division French side, while the Thai owner with the unpronounceable name has kept out of first-team affairs and against Southampton, endeared himself to supporters by buying them beer and donuts.

The 64 year-old Ranieri is using all his experience to bring the right man-management to the Foxes. He gives his players two days off per week and tries hard not to overwork them:

"They so need to be relaxed and not harassed," the Italian told Corriere dello Sport last month. They expect calm and respect in the dressing room."

He seems amazingly calm himself for someone on the brink of pulling off the biggest upset in English football in almost 40 years. But inside his head, the much-travelled Roman must be feeling the pressure to put the icing on the cake.

At the start of the campaign, Leicester were flying under the radar but come the final stretch they have lost the element of surprise, which explains their narrow and nervous victories.

Nevertheless, Ranieri is well aware his team are being willed over the line by millions of neutrals worldwide, which does place some weight on their shoulders.

"In an era when money counts for everything, I think we give hope to everybody," he said,

"A chance like this will never come around again."

What a tale will be told if they do make it to the finish in first place.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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