Football: Foxes likely to be caught by top dogs

N'Golo Kante (in blue, vying with Manchester United's Anthony Martial for the ball), is a superb ball winner who is instrumental in Leicester's game plan to attack with speed.
N'Golo Kante (in blue, vying with Manchester United's Anthony Martial for the ball), is a superb ball winner who is instrumental in Leicester's game plan to attack with speed.PHOTO: REUTERS

Leicester are 2nd in EPL but history shows underdogs lack staying power to last distance

The surprise packages keep on surprising. Every week comes laden with the expectation that Leicester City's glorious run will end.

It has not. A team - nicknamed Foxes - tipped by some to finish 20th sit second on goal difference.

The minnows are surrounded by superstars in the standings. Since April, their form has been better than anyone's. In a spell straddling the summer, they have won 15 of 23 games, taking 51 points.

It is ever harder to dismiss this as a brilliant blip.

 

They have flourished under very different managers, Nigel Pearson and Claudio Ranieri. Indeed, while Pearson built a team with a formidable spirit, Ranieri merits credit for taking them to another level.

The Tinkerman's changes have been few but effective. He has dismantled the Englishman's three-man defence to play with a back four, either in a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formation.

He has signed N'Golo Kante, the all-action ball-winner who has made the most interceptions in the Premier League this season.

He regains possession so Leicester can spring quick breaks.

Their ruthlessly effective game approach seems a throwback.

They do not believe in possession for possession's sake. They have the division's lowest pass completion rate, yet only Manchester City have scored more goals.

They counter-attack at pace, aided by the season's great success story. Jamie Vardy's journey from non-league to Premier League took little more than three years.

He scored five goals in 35 games last season. He has 14 already this.

It is an outlier. If Riyad Mahrez, whose seven goals and six assists make him the most productive winger, exudes more class, Vardy's remarkable, record-breaking run poses the question of what happens when he loses momentum.

Because, logically, he and the club cannot sustain this form.

There is a difference in resources and raw materials. Leicester spent £17 million (S$36 million) last summer and are competing at the top of the table with the Manchester clubs, who spent £280 million between them.

Like several others, Vardy was in the Championship 20 months ago.

Leicester may have lost only once this season but are yet to face City, Liverpool, Everton or Chelsea.

Moreover, theirs is a risky formula. They have gained 10 points from losing positions, which is a testament to their spirit, but also indicates the need for brinkmanship.

They are not built on solid foundations - with only two clean sheets, as few as bottom club Aston Villa.

Meanwhile, opponents are likely to devote more attention to stopping Leicester. Indeed, on Saturday, Louis van Gaal played a back three seemingly to try and halt Vardy. It did not work for Manchester United but, if others sit deep, they may negate his speed.

If Vardy has been ubiquitous, others have been as involved.

Leicester have eight ever-presents, either as starters or substitutes, and a further two who have played in 13 games.

Sooner or later, injuries, suspensions or dips in form mean their squad will be tested. Little has been seen of Swiss international Gokhan Inler but Ranieri has fewer alternatives in other positions.

And, logically, footballing normality will be restored.

The trend for early-season overachievers is for them to average around two points per game in their golden spell and closer to one a match thereafter.

As it is, Leicester's run is unrivalled for a decade since David Moyes' unfancied Everton stood second in December 2004.

Since then, at this stage of the season, the top two positions have been occupied by favourites.

But while Moyes' men held on for fourth place, Southampton were third last December and finished seventh.

That seems a more probable scenario for Leicester than following Everton into the Champions League qualifiers, let alone becoming perhaps the most improbable champions since newly promoted Nottingham Forest in 1978.


£17m

What Leicester spent on players in pre-season.

15

Leicester won 15 of their last 23 Premier League games.

14

Jamie Vardy, the EPL's leading scorer, is powering Leicester with 14 goals in 14 games.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2015, with the headline 'FOXES LIKELY TO BE CAUGHT BY TOP DOGS'. Print Edition | Subscribe