Over the last decade, soccer has increasingly become a sport for the big spenders. A look at the top leagues around the world show that there have been only 3 such instances over the last decade when one of the richly endowed teams hasn’t won the title. Three out of forty championships (across England, Spain, Germany and Italy) – that is an extremely low return and points towards the growing monopolization of the sport by the deep pockets of global business magnates.
This is what makes Leicester City’s 2015 season a wonderful achievement and defies logical reason. Sustaining form over an entire season of 38 games is no mean feat, considering that they were up against the bottomless coffers and resources of the Big Four in England. Only four clubs had lifted the Premier League trophy in the previous 20 years (Man United 11, Chelsea 4, Arsenal 3, Man City 2). Leicester City sure made a Goliath-like entrance to that winners club last season.
Let’s take a closer look at the team and how they won the title against all odds, literally beating 5000:1 on the books.
Stable squad of players devoid of major injuries – One of the key aspects of this team was that they were able to scrape through the long English season making only 27 changes to the starting XI. To provide some context, the champion makes 94.5 changes in a season on average, Chelsea in the previous season made 86 inspite of their world class team. This resulted in only 18 players starting a game for Leicester in the season as compared to 23, 22 and 20 for Arsenal, Man City and Tottenham respectively. This stability and player rapport held them in good stead as the team was able to churn out consistent performances week in week out.
Leicester FC have been one of the pioneers in using data analytics over the 11 years that it has existed in the Premier League. They used data analytics and performance metrics to track player fitness, performance levels and preemptively address the injury issue plaguing other top teams. This helped the team understand their strengths, weaknesses and creating a personalized performance program for each player.
Playing style – Widely considered obsolete, Leicester used the much maligned 4-4-2 formation as the perfect foil to their rapid counter attacking style of play. Ranieri came up with the perfect system for the group of players he inherited at the start of the 2015 season. Leicester had a tendency to stay on the backfoot out of possession with a tight pressing style throughout the game. As soon as they won the ball through their press, they would launch a counter attack transitioning from defence to attack utilising the speed of the attackers – Vardy, Mahrez and Okazaki through a simple long ball or a diagonal pass into space. In the age of possession style football, this contrarian system helped them score the 3rd highest goals tally for the season. A solid defensive line along with Kasper Schemeichel deserve special mention as they were under constant pressure against the possession based teams.
Element of Surprise – Most teams were not prepared for Leicester’s modus operandi. They were often caught off guard by the frequency of the long diagonal balls played with the attacking players creating havoc using their speed and accuracy on the ball. Teams were not able come to terms with the fast paced direct nature of Leicester’s football and in the time that they took to adjust, Leicester would already be in front. Any efforts at a comeback would just prime them for the knockout blow as possession based attack played directly into Leicester’s strategy of counter attacking direct football. With teams using the offseason to study and come up with disruptive strategies – sitting back and counter attacking, Leicester have not had much success this season playing their way and are currently languishing at the bottom half of the table.
Rocky & Million Dollar Baby – Two of the greatest sports movies ever made. The common thread running through both was, an underdog with a massive chip on their shoulder rising against all odds to do the unthinkable. The 2015-16 sporting season seemed to follow a similar script for Leicester City demonstrating once more that sport is perfect fodder for the dreamers.
There is something about an underdog story, something unexplainable which brings a smile to the sports fan. Isn’t this why we watch sport in the first place?