Since the end of November, Leicester City have never slipped lower than second in the Premier League table and still, for so much of the campaign, many have expected an inevitable collapse.
Now, with eight games to go, they’re five points clear at the top. In some quarters, the club’s inexplicable turnaround from relegation candidates to title favourites has been treated as nothing more than a novelty but such an attitude belies the fact that Leicester have succeeded where so many high-profile and experienced teams have failed.
So, how have they got it so right?
Damien Comolli is a former Director of Football with Liverpool and Tottenham and a Strategic Consultant with Prozone’s Performance.LAB.
“When a team has success, it always comes down to management and recruitment”, he says. From a management perspective, the first thing Claudio Ranieri did when he arrived at Leicester was make sure he didn’t get in the way of what the players had been successful at. Essentially, that was the team dynamic — things like days off and other off-field elements.
As he did at Monaco, he organised Leicester very well defensively and it’s why they’ve conceded so few goals.
And because of his experience, you can feel the calmness he brings to what is an incredible situation.”
The situation has garnered plenty of headlines owing to the glittering performances of a number of discount signings, most notably Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.
How can a team be set to win a Premier League title with their two prized-assets having cost less than £1.5m combined?
An example of astoundingly astute talent-spotting or merely missed opportunities from other top-flight sides that should’ve known better?
“When we talk about recruitment, always put things in context because it’s too easy to criticise”, Comolli says.
“Leicester signed Mahrez and Vardy when they were still in the Championship so it’s a lot easier to sign a player for that level for very little money and then help the player to grow and develop.
If you’re a Premier League club, have you got two or three years to wait for those players to develop? The answer is no. And probably, if a Premier League club would’ve gone for Mahrez and Vardy two or three years ago, both players would’ve struggled because they wouldn’t have been ready. Those players grew as the club grew. Last year, if Leicester had been relegated, nobody would be talking about them.”
The Leicester story pulls at the heartstrings and it’s easy to get carried away. Owing to the success of summer signings like N’Golo Kanté, a £5.6m arrival from French side Caen, the presumption is that the club are recruiting in radically different ways. Their use of computer system Wyscout has come in for particular praise, as has their scouting network.
But recruitment is a complex area, argues Comolli.
“Last year, people were talking about how Chelsea did so well in bringing back Nemanja Matic. They said Cesc Fabregas was an excellent signing and that Diego Costa was a great choice. Now, Matic isn’t playing, Fabregas is struggling and everybody is saying they should sell Costa.
Everybody uses WyScout so there is no real innovation from Leicester regarding that. But they’re well advanced in terms of technical analysis — scouts who aren’t at games but who are looking at videos and looking at the crossovers between the video and data. They must be doing that very well and they’ve been successful at it.”
In November 2014, Comolli was in Dublin to speak at the Web Summit. Naturally, the conversation was dominated by his thoughts on analytics and data — things that are easily monitored and scrutinised in football.
But he bemoaned the one, great intangible. Turning to the audience at one point, he said: “If there’s someone in the room who can, in the next five years, measure team chemistry, please contact me”.
It was, he said, the untapped resource and the ‘next big thing’ in sports science research. “We’ve made great progress in being able to measure team chemistry and team cohesion with Prozone and a company based in Australia called Gain Line – they’ve done a lot of work in trying to understand it”, he says.
“Leicester are a good example of stability and that’s the key to it. Nigel Pearson should get some credit for his work because he put the team together and they’ve managed to keep it together. Yes, they’ve made some good signings but the nucleus of the team has been there for a while. That stability and the dynamic of the players, plus the very good man-management from Ranieri has kept the team cohesion at a very high level.”
The stability has been helped by a lack of injuries. From their 30 Premier League games, 11 players have featured more than 20 times. There was an early exit from both Cup competitions and no European football either — another crucial piece of the puzzle.
“It is absolutely huge — like it was for Liverpool in 2014”, Comolli maintains.
“It gives you an incredible comfort because the players have time to recover in between games. If a player picks up a knock, it takes three days. But if you only play one game per week, the player is available for the next one. Statistically, players pick up a lot more injuries during games than in training so the less games you play, the less injuries you get.
Tactically, it makes a huge difference too. You can go through strengths and weaknesses of the opponents, players have time to watch individual tapes of their opponents. When you play three times a week, you don’t have time to do that. Or you do it but only at 20% or 30%.”
To consider Leicester’s seemingly improbable success means an inevitable dissection of their competitors’ shortcomings.
Where has it gone wrong for them?
“The day Manuel Pellegrini announced he was leaving was when Manchester City lost the league. In terms of results, they’ve collapsed”, Comolli says. “Since that happened, they’ve played five league games and won one — that was against Aston Villa at home.
But I thought they lost their team spirit before that. The game at Leicester - which is a turning point of the season - the players didn’t want to run for each other. When a striker was making a run, he wasn’t doing it to open the space for somebody else.When Pellegrini took Silva and Aguero off, both had words for their manager which we’d never seen before. Losing even 5% of that time spirit at that level, when the competition is so fierce, is detrimental.”
Another complaint levelled at Arsenal, in particular, has been the lack of leaders in the side, that the North Londoners lack the fierce competitiveness and aggression of a Martin Keown or a Tony Adams type-figure.
Comolli issues a withering response.
“It’s a fraud”, he says.
“It’s an easy excuse and one usually used by pundits or the press — I’ve never heard it from managers or players. Nobody was saying Manchester City lacked leaders when they were winning the league and it’s the same group of players. Did anyone say Chelsea lacked leaders last year?”
With the traditionalists floundering, where would a Leicester triumph leave the Premier League? Should we treat it as a remarkable once-off and simply enjoy it or prepare for something similar to happen again?
“In the modern history of the top-five leagues in Europe I don’t think a team has won the league being the 20th-ranked in terms of percentage of successful passes. Leicester are 18th in terms of possession. Their average possession per game is 44.7%. That’s unheard of. Is this repeatable? Is it sustainable? Data tells us it’s not. It goes against everything we’ve seen in terms of statistics recently.”