Fleeting Foxes

Best time in their history? It’s been 15 years since they’ve reached the #1 spot.

They’re top of the table. For the first time since October 2000. In a probably the most bizarre Premier League season in years; a season so bizarre, that makes Tottenham, Stoke City, Glen Johnson and Kyle Walker look better than Chelsea and Eden Hazard. Prior to their lead in those extraordinary circumstances, they’ve: managed to win a BPL promotion; nearly got relegated in their freshman 2014/15 season; pulled off a miraculous escape by winning eight out of the last ten league games; sacked the manager who was an architect of that miracle; let go of a veteran midfielder who ran the show for them in the previous campaign – and finally, they brought four new, first-team regulars! Quite a ridiculous way to earn the league lead after 13 gameweeks – but, then again, Leicester City are quite ridiculous leaders, averaging 2.15 goals per game and having sixth worst defensive record in the Premier League.

This all would never happen if not for Claudio Ranieri. I remember the guy when he moved to Spain to take charge as Valencia boss. I wasn’t convinced by that decision- neither Italian players nor coaches were really that much of a success in La Liga. It changed when I saw VCF in motion. Aggressive, attacking style of play based on Gaizka Mendieta’s various skills and Claudio López’s lethal goalscoring ability – that was truly something. After winning Copa del Rey for Los Che in 1999, Ranieri has become famous as one of the few managers to switch their jobs in favour of a club they’ve… just trounced less than 48 hours ago! It was Jesús Gil’s Atletico, where the Roma-born commander-in-chef experienced a total financial and sporting disarray. They got relegated with players like Hasselbaink, Valeron, Baraja and Solari in squad – but not with Ranieri in charge, as he resigned before getting sacked.

 

The guy returned to the scene as a surprise package, following a rather big revolt in Chelsea FC’s dressing room – an uprising against Gianluca Vialli back in the pre-Abramovich times. Some big names like George Graham, Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle and Gianfranco Zola were linked with CFC job – yet, it was Claudio, who got it in the end. Frank Lampard, William Gallas, Claude Makélélé, Joe Cole, Damien Duff… those parts of the future José Mourinho’s winning team were all brought to Stamford Bridge by Ranieri. And once everything was set for made-in-Russia takeover, the Italian boss was again, gone. He went back to Valencia, just to experience his first full-scale, managerial disaster. He went for Italian-import players: Moretti, Di Vaio, Fiore, Corradi. Big mistake – all those players came very close to ruining their careers at Mestalla. Humiliated, Claudio has finally come back from the Spanish exile.

The trouble followed him. Two failed Scudetto challenges (with Juventus and Roma); an unsuccessful rivalry with his Chelsea successor José Mourinho (who, in a way, seems to be Ranieri’s shadow); a short, troubled reign in an ageing, declining Nerazzurri team following The Special One’s departure; amazing run at Monaco, getting promoted back to Ligue 1 and losing a title race despite snaring 80 points just a year later; finally, another mid-crisis adventure, with Greece national team – the team that finished dead last in Group F of Euro 2016 qualifiers, right below Faeroe Islands. When Thai LCFC owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha offered Ranieri the job at King Power Stadium, he knew he was appointing an experienced, but still unfulfilled man. The seven years of famine have ended for him, though; some great abundance for a change was just behind the corner.

During his first few months in England, Ranieri didn’t really bother to fix the negative aspects of LCFC play. Under Nigel Pearson, that team has conceded 55 goals in 2013/14 season, averaging 1.44 goals lost per match. Thirteen games into this season, Foxes are averaging 1.54 goals in Kasper Schmeichel’s net per 90 minutes of football – and, by the looks of it, it’s not supposed to get much better in the future. Against Arsenal, they’ve let Alexis Sánchez score some of the easiest goals in his life; against bottom-of-the-table Aston Villa, they’ve given a lesson on how not to deal with long-shot threats. Even notoriously sloppy front lines of Stoke have managed to squeeze two past Foxes – but that wasn’t what really bothered the Italian manager, as he cheekily employed Robert Huth as his first-choice centre-back. No – he really did have other ideas; ideas team around him weren’t prepared to deal with.

As we speak, Leicester are boasting the third-worst ball possession ratio in Premier League (only ahead of Sunderland and West Brom), along with easily the worst pass accuracy (71.5%). They’re not just free to take the risks while dealing with the ball – they’re embracing it, while, at the same, they insist that being on the ball does not really matter. In a way, this is a variation of what Diego Simeone has been preaching while in charge of Atletico Madrid. The difference is that Ranieri’s team takes much more risks. With Jeffrey Schlupp being recently tried as a winger, Foxes have transformed into a 3-4-1-2 in which their defenders are often times left to their own devices and forced to play one-on-one marking. Whenever that actually happens, their team already gets in trouble: but the point of Ranieri’s strategy is to win the ball back long before such situation occurs.

This is it: they key to Foxes’ success. Winning the ball back: again, again and again – preferably, in the opposition’s half. With the average of 22.4 interceptions per game, they’re well ahead of any other Premier League team in terms of sweeping the loose passes. That would not have been possible without the French workhorse N’Golo Kanté. Last season, this ex-Caen midfielder has emerged as the most determined, tenacious ball chaser in Europe, making 177 tackles through the entire Ligue 1 season. The transfer to England looked like a bit of risk since Leicester brought in the experienced Gökhan Inler from Napoli – yet, it’s Kanté, who got the nod ahead of his Swiss colleague. Unlike the predecessor Cambiasso, who used to emphasize the deft side of the game, the current LCFC ball-winning midfielder is a volcano of energy – and his label of ‘new Makélélé’ doesn’t really seem ridiculous today.

This bloke will find you and dispossess you.

Once he, or his midfield partner Danny Drikwater, are able to restart the relentless attack Foxes are committed to – that’s when the width, the pace and individual skills of their partners come into play. Winger Marc Albrighton (1 goal and 4 assists this season) had already few glimpses of class last season; this season, he’s having time of his career while his former club, Aston Villa, are on a brink of relegation. His right-wing counterpart Riyad Mahrez has already risen to become the biggest Premier League revelation of the fall. The Algerian’s skills closely resemble those of Arjen Robben: same blistering pace, same ability to dribble (he went past his man 54 times in just 13 matches!), same tendency to cut inside on his stronger, left foot. In a world that marginalizes the impact of old-school wingers, seeing these two is almost an equivalent of the time travel.

Upfront, it’s all about Jamie Vardy these days. This 28-years old lad is currently on the way to break Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of 10 consecutive games with a scored goal in BPL. Less than four years ago, he used to bang goals for Conference Premier team Fleetwood Town; less than five years ago, at the optimal striker’s age of 23, he was considering a retirement from football while breaking his back working daily job in a factory. It’s almost unheard of that a talent of this calibre could’ve been missed by all top-profile clubs in the age of modern-day scouting, video highlights and football agents. Today, the guy is on 13 goals in 13 games, he has absolutely ripped apart Newcastle last Saturday and will be looking to give few problems to Manchester United’s injury-prone backline next weekend. Even van Nistelrooy has messaged him already on Twitter: he wants record to be broken this year.

 

At the moment, Vardy has everything he needs to accomplish the unthinkable. The pace is there: he clocked a speed of 35.44km/h against West Ham in September. The clinical finishing is there: he gave no chance in hell to Rob Elliot just two days ago with a powerful, near-post strike. The intelligence is there: he often plays in-between the marking zones of the centre-backs, beating the offside traps to feast on the passes played from the deep. Even the proverbial, positive selfishness is there: at St. James’ Park, he had a chance when he could’ve and should’ve passed to Mahrez for a tap-in, but he went forward himself instead, allowing the goalkeeper to claim the ball. In the days, when all those traits come together with a combative, fighting spirit of the lad, David De Gea should feel the pressure already – because that bloke will be out to get him next Saturday.

Against Newcastle, it was easy. The Magpies are currently everything Leicester are not: awful on the attack, terrible at delivering crosses, completely devoid of confidence and, most importantly, making way too many individual mistakes to even consider the all-out attacking style Foxes are imposing. For about half an hour, they were holding on purely because LCFC weren’t too hasty to open the game. Ranieri learned his lesson: too many times before, his players would tire their legs too early with a balls-to-the-wall football, leading them to struggle in the late stages of matches. This time, they could allow themselves to wait because their rivals are horrible at taking the initiative while it’s being given to them. So when Vardy eventually pounced just before the half-time whistle – Newcastle were double-time screwed, as their opponents have managed to score while conserving the energy.

Once the Ulloa goal went in, the game was decided. It was a masterclass of a move from Ranieri to start the Argentinian ahead of Okazaki, as he was the one to put NUFC in the world of pain when those teams met in May. Just like six months ago, Magpies were clueless on how to mark the target man – and he eventually scored from a free header; a header so free, he could pretty much figure out the meaning of life and the Poincaré conjecture problem before putting Mahrez’s cross away. Steve McClaren reacted to that disaster by giving a chance to Papiss ‘one-goal-per-ten-games’ Cissé. The rest was misery: already by the point when Okazaki scored, not a single Newcastle player could even care less about what the final result will be. To me, that spells only one thing: relegation. After all, both Bournemouth and Norwich are already in the process of bucking their ideas up.

But can Leicester beat United and establish themselves as more than just a temporary fluke? Louis van Gaal’s team has nearly been robbed by the referee this weekend, following the ridiculous penalty call for Watford. MU are very unconvincing, but they’re bringing the results on more consistent basis than anyone else – except… Leicester. LvG’s heavily-defensive style is hard to break but, on the other hand, they’re retaining more possession than any other BPL team – and if they continue doing that, they’ll be playing straight into Foxes’ hands. Still, with Martial and Rooney both expected to recover from their health issues, it will be Red Devils, who’ll come under pressure to prove themselves as worthy title contenders. They’ll even be the favourites to win this Saturday; but, until then, let’s just cherish one of the oddest English top-flight leaders in the 127-years-long history of the competition.

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