Manuel Pellegrini led his team out on Saturday evening as they faced table toppers Leicester City hoping to get a win and go top of the table themselves on goal difference. 60 minutes and 3 smashing Leicester goals later, he knew the title race got that much harder for the Citizens. A late goal from Aguero proved to be the only consolation for Pellegrini as Tottenham and Arsenal both won their respective matches and overtook them in the table. Roberth Huth claimed the brace, but it was Riyad Mahrez who really outfoxed City with his dazzling skills and his only slip on the night was probably the stumble he took while celebrating his well taken goal.
There was not a hint of negativity in Leicester’s game on Saturday, as has been the case throughout the year. Everytime the Foxes got the ball, it led to a swift attack, as they swarmed forward in numbers. And they were equally swift in reorganising and winning the ball back when they did lose it. Highly paced, highly entertaining counter attacking football is what Ranieri has brought to this team and they are executing his plan with brilliant efficiency. Any other season and this season would be considered a fluke but this is what Leicester has brought to the table throughout the season. Rarely has their quality of play or commitment levels dropped and it shows in their position in the table.
This match was what really epitomised the ongoing season of the Premier League. Relegation favourites Leicester City turning up and ruining the party for the upper class elite of English football. Taking on the big guns with all their money and glamour and going at them hard. Their story is one straight out of a blockbuster movie – underdogs fighting their way to the very top of the game, turning the heads of the same men and women who wrote them off. It’s Rocky Balboa all over again. Football has, for the last decade or so, mostly been dominated by the rich and very rarely have the underdogs managed to pull themselves into the top four, let alone mount a title challenge, atleast in England. Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City are the only three teams to have lifted the title since Arsenal’s Invincible Season in 2004. In fact ever since the Premier League era began, Blackburn have been the only team to really pull an upset, winning it in 1995.
To put things in perspective, Leicester City’s spending this summer amounted to a total of 22 million pounds. That is less than half the amount Manchester City spent on Raheem Sterling, who was barely involved in the happenings on Saturday. “In an era when money counts for everything, I think we give hope to everybody.” says Ranieri. And this couldn’t be true. When asked if Leicester have the support of the whole country, Arsene Wenger wholeheartedly agreed, saying that fans of every club apart from the current top four were backing the Foxes. He continued to say “But Leicester are a fantastic example that football is not only about just spending the money. It’s the quality of work and it’s important to think that the quality of the work can get you there. Leicester are a very good example for our league.” It would be hard to deny the quality of work. Leicester players have been tireless, and Ranieri who was known as the Tinkerman in his time with Chelsea has chosen to stick with one starting eleven and that has worked out very well for them. Even then, signs of tiring have not been seen, and nothing exemplifies this better than Jamie Vardy’s streak of 11 consecutive matches in which he scored, breaking Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record.
Juergen Klopp’s Dortmund became footballing heroes all across the world when they broke the Bayern monopoly in Germany and won the league twice, having almost gone bankrupt a decade before that. They almost made the full dream come true when they reached the final of the Champions League, but lost out to their rivals from Munich. But they had some quality players in the form of Robert Lewandowski, Shinji Kagawa, Ilkay Gundogan, Mats Hummels and the young Mario Goetze, and later Marco Reus and were amongst the frontrunners to challenge Bayern for domestic competitions at least. Atletico Madrid under Diego Simeone won La Liga in the 2013/14 but fell short of a double when local rivals and Spanish giants Real Madrid beat them in the final of the Champions League. But they too have had a history of quality players, most notably an assembly line of world class strikers, and were one of the strongest contenders to break the Ream-Barca stranglehold on La Liga.
But Leicester City’s run in the league this year is truly the closest you will come to seeing a footballing David take on the Goliath. Ofcourse, upsets happen, and probably most frequently so in England. There have been teams impressing before, pushing much above their weight, shrugging off suggestions of relegation and finishing strongly in the top half of the table. But from being favourites to go down at the start of the season to being the bookies’ favourites to win the league in February? Not in a long time has a story like that come to be in football.
Nottingham Forest in the late ’70’s were probably one of the greatest underdog stories in the history of English football, and probably world football as well. Under the leadership of the eccentric Brian Clough, Nottingham Forest first won promotion to the top division in 1977. Then they went on to make history as the first and only team to win the league the year after getting promoted and didn’t stop there as they went on to win two European Cups in 1979 and 1980.
Leicester’s major signings in the summer included a free transfer of former Schalke FC left back Christian Fuchs, Shinji Okazaki and N’Golo Kante, a relatively unknown midfielder from FC Caen. The highest profile signing was probably that of Gokhan Inler, but the Swiss midfield has barely seen any game time, with the brilliant partnership of Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kante dominating the midfield spots. Ranieri has taken Leicester back to a classic 4-4-2, with Mahrez and Albrighton providing support from the wings while Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki disrupt the opposition defences. In an era of possession football and tactical domination of the midfield areas, Leicester have gone back to the basics and it is working brilliantly for them.
Ranieri’s men play a very direct brand of football, getting the ball from the back to front as quickly as possible. 69% of their total passes have been forward looking ones, and this is the highest number in the top four in the league right now, with Arsenal, City and Tottenham all averaging around 64%. It is important to not that they have also attempted lesser number of passes than the other three, highlighting the direct nature of their game. Quality of finishing has been another area in which Leicester have excelled. While they possess the lowest shot accuracy ratio among the title contenders, they have managed to convert 14% of their total shots, while the other three have only managed to convert about 10% of their chances. To further stress on how clinical they have been, they have also taken lesser shots than the rest of the top four.
Their performance this year has been boosted by confidence and the ability to play without pressure. Even now, until a few games back, Ranieri spoke only of how the team’s main goal was to steer clear of the 40 point mark and hence secure safety. They are a bunch of players enjoying their game, knowing with every win that they are closer to achieving something very special and are reveling in that knowledge instead of letting it weigh them down. Without the added pressure of huge price tags, they have a sense of freedom and are expressing themselves accordingly on the pitch.
Leicester are giving us hope. Hope that football can once again be a stage for inspiring stories and magical moments. Where you cannot just predict the climax ten games into the season. Where dreams can come true if you really work for it. A fairytale season may seem like a term not be too far off from the truth for Leicester, but a fairytale is everything it is not. This is the culmination of a team playing wonderful football with equal measure of flair, efficiency and hard work and regardless of the outcome at the end of the season we should all feel fortunate enough to be witnessing this spectacle and be grateful to Ranieri’s warriors.