Leicester City: The unlikely EPL champions

Football: A team that defied logic

Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri, overseeing training with his assistant Steve Walsh, has employed an unabashedly unfashionable approach in helping his team, and himself, become Premier League champions.
Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri, overseeing training with his assistant Steve Walsh, has employed an unabashedly unfashionable approach in helping his team, and himself, become Premier League champions.PHOTO: REUTERS
Leicester's Japanese striker Shinji Okazaki getting a congratulatory handshake from a fan as he arrived at the Foxes' training ground yesterday. His non-stop running has fit well with Leicester's counter-attacking style.
Leicester's Japanese striker Shinji Okazaki getting a congratulatory handshake from a fan as he arrived at the Foxes' training ground yesterday. His non-stop running has fit well with Leicester's counter-attacking style.PHOTO: REUTERS

Newly-crowned champions triumphed with an ethos harking back to days of yesteryear

There are a myriad of ways of illustrating how unlikely Leicester City's Premier League title win is. The 5,000-1 outsiders are not just the most improbable champions in the 128-year history of English football's top flight. No such underdogs have ever won a comparable division.

But perhaps the most remarkable is to consider a question from Claudio Ranieri's job interview last summer. The Italian was meeting owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and his son Aiyawatt.

"The son asked me, 'If everything goes wrong, you stay with us in the Championship?' I said, 'Yes, I will stay here,'" recalled Ranieri.

Instead, he will manage them in the Champions League as English champions. After 30 years as a manager and 16 jobs, Ranieri, the man who lost to the Faroe Islands before Greece fired him, has finally won his first league title.

There are similarly unlikely, heart-warming tales across this credibility-defying team, whether Jamie Vardy, who was still playing in non-league football at 25 and set a Premier League record by scoring in 11 consecutive games; or Riyad Mahrez, the £450,000 (S$888,770) buy who feared he lacked the physicality for English football and became crowned PFA Player of the Year.

But beyond the individual stories, there is a rarity value about the collective, about the ethos, the budget, the entire approach to football. Leicester are the throwback champions, both in terms of their willingness to unearth players with lowly backgrounds, and their tactics.

They play an unashamedly direct 4-4-2, a formation that was discredited whenever its proponents were outnumbered and outpassed in the centre of midfield.

Possession was supposed to be king but Leicester have been republican revolutionaries.

They have had the ball for just 44.7 per cent of the time. Since such statistics were first collated, no team had won the division with under 54.1 per cent of the ball. Only Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion have had less of it than Leicester this season but they have inverted the usual winning formula. They average 349 passes a game. Arsenal average 562.

Leicester are an anti-tiki-taka team, one who seem immune to the influence of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta.

When they get the ball, their priority is not keeping it.

No Leicester player ranks in the top 100 of the Premier League for passing accuracy. Their overall pass completion rate of 70 per cent is the joint lowest with West Brom. They rank second only to Watford for inaccurate long balls. They are prepared to take the risk in their attempts to release Vardy on the counter-attack.

Where they have excelled is in the 56 per cent of the game when they do not have the ball, aided by the formidable N'Golo Kante.

The Kante effect is apparent in the numbers. As an individual, he averages the most tackles and interceptions per game. As a team, Leicester do. Theirs has been a triumph of fitness, organisation and concentration, rather than technique.

They have an old-fashioned division of responsibilities. Everyone can appear a midfielder in their skill-set these days. Not at Leicester.

Their centre-backs, Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, are out-and-out stoppers, seemingly plucked from an earlier generation. Others' full-backs double up as wingers. Christian Fuchs and Danny Simpson are rarely found in the final third.

And they play every week. In an age of squad rotation, Leicester are the exceptions.

Ranieri has made 27 changes all season, the fewest of any manager. His starting XI seems set in stone. Leicester have that least fashionable of things - an established team.

But then they fly in the face of everything that seemed to signify success. Their preferred team cost just £22 million. Their wage bill last season was the 17th biggest.

Their players often have humble origins. Ignore the names and nationalities, they could be champions from the 1970s. But even then, this tale would have seemed strange.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2016, with the headline 'A team that defied logic'. Print Edition | Subscribe