Leicester City mean business – and they’re making it clear. After their first three Premier League matches of the 2015-16 season, Claudio Ranieri’s men currently sit at the top of the table with 7 points – far above the likes of Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.
Now, sure, it is still far too early in the season to make grand predictions of success. But, for Leicester, the reasons to get excited go well beyond the last three games. In fact, their current form is only a measure of consistency for a team that accumulated seven wins in its last nine matches last season.
Leicester have now scored 29 points out of a possible 36 – a feat that is nothing short of mesmerizing for a team that was playing second division soccer only a little over a year ago. They have only lost once in their last 12 matches.
On Saturday, the Foxes retained – at least momentarily – their position as leaders by drawing 1-1 against Tottenham, in a match they did not dominate in terms of possession, but managed to control with a solid display. The foxes looked organized on defense, and were hard to contain going forward, particularly around the flank of Riyad Mahrez, who scored their only goal.
“I think the match was a very tactical match. It is normal, Tottenham kept possession of the ball but I think we and them created the same number of chances on goal. I think 1-1 is the right result,”said Ranieri after the match.
Ranieri was somewhat shy when asked about whether he felt Leicester were a significantly better team than they were at the same time last season (at that point, Nigel Pearson was the head coach). “It could be, it could be,” said Ranieri. “I’m very happy.”
The fact is, however, that in the past 12 months the Foxes have proven to be a squad that defies the pre-conceived notions of the archetypal recently promoted Premier League team – under the management of Ranieri as well as under that of Pearson. Rather than a shaky backline, they possess a solid defensive system, and instead of going for an all-out counter-attacking style, they prefer to slow down for a more precise and controlled offensive play.
And for that, two attributes have been key: confidence and consistency. Leicester have always known that their ideas are ambitious for a relatively low-budget team – yet they have stuck to them. And that has paid off.
Just like last season, they surprised many by signing seasoned veteran midfielder Esteban Cambiasson from Inter Milan, this summer they have made headlines by signing Swiss National Team captain Gokhan Inler and €11 million-rated Japanese forward Shinji Okazaki (from Napoli and Mainz respectively). And just like last season, they remained loyal to a risky 3-4-3 formation, this time around they have stayed committed to a very old-school 4-4-2 that, with a few polishing touches, has given them results.
Though his resources are limited, it seems Ranieri has been able to pick out his signings with precision in order to add talent to the team where they need it the most this season. And he has done so with balance. In his current team, the right flank is occupied by the explosive Mahrez, while the left is taken up by a more technical Marc Albrighton. The forward area is shared between a physical James Vardy and a more creative and malleable Okazaki.
After the match against Tottenham, Ranieri admitted that he was happy with the result, and praised the “fantastic spirit” of his players, for getting an equalizer only seconds after giving up the first goal of the match. He also spoke wonders of Mahrez who, alongside Albrighton, has probably been the team’s best player this season.
But he probably has himself to thank for his players’ form as well. Last year, for example, Mahrez scored four goals in 30 matches, playing in a more advanced central position in midfield. This season, he has four goals in 3 games.
In the end, the magnificent form of Leicester is undoubtedly a combination of exemplar work from all the players, coaches, and club executives that have been involved in club decisions in the past two years, a system of labor that narrows down to a single certainty. Leicester are brightening up the Premier League, and they look like they are here to stay.