By Drew Farmer
In 2014-15, Leicester City spent 21 weeks mired in the English Premier League relegation zone, and only preserved their top-flight status after pulling off an incredible escape by winning seven of their last nine. Nearly 12 months on, Leicester have sealed their first ever English Premier League title, using that great escape momentum to reach the pinnacle of English football.
By the time this Premier League season ends, Leicester City will have spent 25 weeks in first place. Since mid-January when Leicester drew 1-1 with Aston Villa, the Foxes haven’t looked back and continually put distance between themselves and nearest rival Tottenham Hotspur. To Spurs credit, they did everything they could to keep pace. Yet, every time Leicester looked likely to slip up, they did the opposite, looking more impressive along the way.
With three losses this season – once to Liverpool and twice to Arsenal – Leicester have been the definition of consistency. Manager Claudio Ranieri, hired by Leicester after the club had sacked Nigel Pearson, was considered a dull choice. The Italian was even criticised by former Foxes’ player Gary Lineker as “uninspiring”. Those words will truly have been eaten by Lineker now, as Ranieri has finally won his first top-flight title, after years of being the bridesmaid.
Ranieri favoured a 4-4-2 formation in 32 of the Foxes’ games, so far this season. His choice to pair two strikers was a blast from the past. Together the partnership of Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki combined for 27 Premier League goals. Striker Leonardo Ulloa added a further six, three from the bench and three from starts.
Ranieri’s ability to focus on the team’s strengths and minimize their weaknesses, allowed the striker partnerships to thrive. While Vardy was more of the out and out striker, Okazaki contributed more defensively, able to help his midfielders when the team lost possession. Ulloa was capable of holding up play and keeping possession.
Possession was something Leicester saw little of, averaging only 45% possession per game, favouring to hit opponents on the counter. The club’s early February destruction of Manchester City was a perfect example of Leicester’s counter attacking prowess.
Picking up the ball at the halfway line in the second half, N’Golo Kante eluded two Manchester City defenders, before finding Riyad Mahrez free. The midfielder got away from two City defenders before thumping his shot into the back of Joe Hart’s goal. That goal and subsequent win, proved to everyone that Leicester were legitimate title contenders. It was also one of the most exciting goals during the league season.
Mahrez, an Algerian international, was bought by Leicester for £400,000 from French second division side Le Havre. The wide-man has already been voted PFA Players’ Player of the Year and Africa Footballer of the Year. Mahrez’s 17 goals and 11 assists were key, and many of the goals from teammates were teed up by the winger. Now valued at over £15 million, Mahrez has developed into one of the premier attackers in English football.
While Leicester’s title win is the exception rather than the norm, the club showed the heavyweights what really “Money Ball” is. The team’s scouting network uncovered highly capable players, and placed them with an experienced coach. Repeating the feat next season will be far more difficult than achieving it in the first place. Despite money flooding the English game thanks to television contracts, it may be sometime before another Leicester City reach the top of English football.