EPL: Can Leicester do it?
As players and staff at Leicester City take advantage of a 13 day break in their calendar, Ticketbis thought that now would be a good time to take stock of their remarkable season and answer the question that everyone has been asking, can Leicester City really win the Premier League? The Foxes have passed through their latest batch of testing assignments with resound success. In their last three games Claudio Ranieri´s charges brushed aside Liverpool and Manchester City with consummate ease, and were denied a spirited draw at Arsenal´s Emirate´s Stadium by a 95th minute winner from England striker Danny Welbeck. In the build up to this run of three crucial fixtures in 12 days, pundits had been saying that this was the crucial test of Leicester’s season, that only if they came out of these three encounters unscathed could the world truly begin to believe in the Leicester City dream.
This ‘test’ came hot on the heels of another of the media-ocracy’s tests of Leicester’s credibility as potential champions – a run of fixtures over Christmas that included a trip to Old Trafford at the end of November, and then a December run-in including fixtures against Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool and Manchester City (and Swansea, but no-one was too worried about that).
Yet as winter turns to spring and Leicester are still top of the table, and looking forward to a run of matches against more modest opposition, the general consensus seems to be that Leicester are in with a real shot at what would be a most unlikely league victory. Many bookmakers even have them down as favourites.
And it is easy to see why. Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy have formed the most effective attacking partnership in the league, the latter is odds-on
favourite with many bookmakers to win Premier League player of the year, though it is Mahrez who has arguably been the more thrilling and effective player over the course of the season. The fabulously named Daniel Drinkwater and his partner N’Golo Kanté have bossed much higher-profile opponents in midfield. While Robert Huth and Wes Morgan have been giants at the back, the latter as club captain and revelling in the rehabilitation of his reputation that 12 months ago had him dismissed as a journeyman defender.
It’s not just the players
Yet as well as their players have performed, a huge amount of the credit goes to manager Claudio Ranieri. The sexagenarian admitted that when he first arrived at the club he encountered a playing squad nervous at the appointment of an Italian, a football man schooled in the culture of catenaccio who would bombard them with confusing tactical instruction and dull as ditch-water (or should that be Drinkwater?) training sessions. By his own admission, Ranieri reacted to this apprehension with a much more laid back ‘if-its-not-broken-why-fix-it’ approach.
Leicester have stuck to a basic tactical plan of sitting deep and catching opponents on the break with the lightning speed of Vardy and the silky skills of Mahrez. Despite (or perhaps thanks to) its simplicity, the game plan has worked wonders, particularly against ‘bigger clubs’ who have often fallen right into the Leicester trap by committing too many men forward in a doomed attempt to break through the Foxes’ defence, leaving space behind for quick, direct passes from the back for Vardy, Mahrez and co. to exploit.
An easy run-in?
So as they head into a run of on-paper easier fixtures, still with a lead at the top of the table, Leicester may appear to some to be on the home strait. Sides such as Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United have failed to counter Ranieri’s brilliantly simple tactics, in grand part down to their own arrogance and failure to adapt their own style. ‘Smaller’ clubs, however such as West Brom and Crystal Palace, both of whom Leicester face in the coming weeks, will have no qualms about themselves defending deep and denying the space that Leicester’s forwards have until now so adeptly exploited.
Facing down a dogged Tong Pulis defence will be a very different challenge than exploiting the wide open expanses of Anfield or the Etihad. As the end of the season draws closer, Arsenal, Manchester City and a transformed Tottenham Hotspur will all keep the pressure on the league leaders. While teams down in the lower reaches of the table will be fighting tooth and nail to avoid relegation. Yet such is the confidence flowing through the club right now, the diligence of Ranieiri in deflecting as much pressure as possible away from his players, and the flaws and packed schedules of the chasing pack, that not only should every neutral be hoping that Leicester go on to win the league. They should expect it too.