Eye On EPL

Ranieri resists being 'Tinkerman' and Leicester profit from stability

With merely nine games remaining in the season, Leicester City are perched atop the English Premier League (EPL) table, five points clear and with the prospect of winning an unlikely title firmly in their own hands.

In a strange season in which top teams are struggling with inconsistency, the Foxes have benefited from staying mostly injury-free. Having just the EPL to focus on has also been a major factor in their unexpected title tilt, with nearest rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal having to play more matches due to European commitments.

Yet a major reason why Leceister, who were so close to relegation last season, have exceeded all expectations could be due to manager Claudio Ranieri resisting his notorious tinkering ways.

 

Contrary to pre-season predictions, the Italian has mostly stuck to the same players, and if changes are made, usually just one person - often striker Shinji Okazaki - is dropped. This allows Leceister to play 90 minutes of high-tempo, free-flowing, counter-attacking football consistently.

They have employed the same starting line-up eight times in the league so far, eclipsing Arsenal (five) and Spurs (four).

While I feel the players should receive most of the praise, some credit should also go to Ranieri. When he came to the club, he saw the potential of the players at his disposal, adapted his strategy accordingly and allowed them to enjoy themselves on the pitch.

While I feel the players should receive most of the praise, some credit should also go to Ranieri. When he came to the club, he saw the potential of the players at his disposal, adapted his strategy accordingly and allowed them to enjoy themselves on the pitch. His faith in the same players has reaped benefits.

His faith in the same players has reaped benefits, with Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez in particular maintaining their scintillating form through the season.

While Ranieri knows his best striker is Vardy, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has played Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck up front, to mixed results. Manchester United also seem to field a different team every time they take to the pitch, with goalkeeper David de Gea, defender Chris Smalling and striker Wayne Rooney the only constants.

Ranieri recognises his best team and does not see the need to tinker. Gokhan Inler, a Swiss international who had played for top Italian side Napoli, came in during the off-season, but has hardly featured as Ranieri stuck with his tried and tested line-up.

His side's understanding on the pitch is fantastic. I experienced this when I was playing for Singapore Armed Forces FC, when we were four-time S-League champions.

I had team-mates who were with me for almost four years, and we understood where others wanted the ball, when they wanted it to be played; everybody was cheering for one another and were hungry for three points every week.

That is what Leceister this season is all about. Of course, part of being able to field a consistent line-up is fitness, and Leicester have been lucky on that front, despite not having the deepest squad.

Look at Arsenal, a big club with a big budget - their season has been disrupted by injuries to key players such as Cazorla, Francis Coquelin and now Peter Cech.

Even Spurs have had injuries to players like Jan Vertonghen, but they are a good young team and still have the chance of getting closer.

Having said that, Leicester were lucky to get Ranieri as a coach. It is like a match made in heaven: He came close to winning the league with Chelsea before he was sacked to make way for Jose Mourinho, so hopefully he will be motivated to win the league as payback.

As the season reaches its final stretch, I have no doubt that Ranieri will continue playing the same XI, barring any injuries. It would be tactical suicide to change a winning team, especially in this crucial period of the season.

Yet with Leceister set to juggle European commitments next season, it will be interesting to see whether he will revert to his old "Tinkerman" ways.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2016, with the headline 'Ranieri resists being 'Tinkerman' and Leicester profit from stability'. Print Edition | Subscribe