Many discussions about English football centre around blueprints. Rather than letting teams or players create their own identities over time, what gets spoken or written about is that teams should look at whatever flavour-of-the-month team is doing at any moment in time and use their ‘blueprint’ to craft an identity.
At present it’s Spurs that are seemingly the team that everyone should be copying; with Spurs having a good league season and several Spurs players impressing for England in a friendly win over Germany a few weeks ago.
However, for all the good Spurs have done so far this season, they haven’t actually won a competition since 2008; so it may be a wise move to wait and see if Spurs can turn a good season into consistently winning trophies over a few seasons before copying them.
Arsenal fans may still be holding out hope, but realistically the Premier League title will go to either Spurs or Leicester City this season.
There have been many articles written about Leicester’s unlikely league challenge this season. Some have been articles where the author has been trying to fathom how Leicester are doing this. Other have focussed on the romantic aspect of Leicester possibly being the first first-time winners of the top division in England since 1978. A truly strange one I read today was about how Leicester’s season now means no manager has any excuse about it not being possible for a team to challenge in the future.
What I haven’t seen though, are articles explaining how the Leicester blueprint is one to follow.
There’s a reason for that; Leicester are winning while playing a style of football which is generally considered to be wrong and far too simplistic for the modern game in a set of circumstances which is unlikely to happen again.
Over the past few years conventional wisdom in football has been that possession is key. Control the ball and you control the game. Keep the ball moving and eventually space will open up that you can then exploit.
That’s not what Leicester do. They are currently the third worst team in the league in terms of possession, with only Sunderland and West Brom having lower possession percentages. Leicester are the second worst in the league in terms of pass completion and are one of the worst teams at passing in Europe’s five top leagues.
Yet none of Leicester’s failings in terms of passing and keeping the ball have affected them at all; they are seven points clear at the top with 6 games left to play. So Leicester have found a way to counteract teams who are able to keep the ball for long periods of time.
It was always the case that the best teams at keeping the ball could be stymied by a team who just sat deep and defended. That has grown into teams now beginning to press higher up the pitch and then quickly turn defence into attack.
What Leicester have done all season is defend deep, draw teams onto them and then their midfielders have been brilliant at breaking up possession and Leicester can quickly counter-attack. Both N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater have turned their excellent club form into international call-ups for France and England respectively.
Leicester aren’t counter-attacking any more than they did last season, but what has changed is that they are being much smarter with the ball when they do, fully utilising the pace of Jamie Vardy and the skill of Riyad Mahrez, with Mahrez and Vardy having scored 35 goals between them.
While it’s possible for other teams to emulate what Leicester are doing on the pitch, what’s happened off the pitch cannot be replicated as it’s thanks to a thoroughly weird set of circumstances that Leicester are in this position in the first place.
For example, if Leicester hadn’t have pulled off a remarkable run of results under Nigel Pearson’s management to produce one of the all-time great escapes from relegation last season, Leicester wouldn’t be in the Premier League at all.
If James Pearson and two teammates hadn’t then filmed themselves using racist and derogatory language during an orgy with some Thai women on Leicester’s post-season trip to Thailand, he wouldn’t have been sacked by Leicester; and his father, Nigel Pearson, wouldn’t have irreparably fallen out with the owners over his son’s sacking and would probably have still been Leicester manager.
Similarly, If the Faroe Islands didn’t pull of what is the greatest shock in International football history (in terms of the disparity of their rankings at the time) when they beat Greece, Claudio Ranieri may not have been sacked by Greece and may not have been available last summer.
There is a huge element of luck about Leicester this season. I don’t mean that in a negative way. Every major achievement in anything has an element of luck attached to it. Whether it’s lucky breaks that go your way or that bad luck doesn’t go against you.
Leicester have had both this season, but they deserve a lot of credit for making the most of those lucky opportunities when they have arisen in games.
It cannot be denied that Leicester have been hugely lucky with injuries this season. In the Injury table, where 1 player out injured for one week = one point, Leicester have 69 points, the second fewest amount of injuries this season, with only Swansea having had fewer. By contrast, Newcastle have had the most injuries with a whopping 351 points, with Liverpool in second with 241.
When you consider that other teams have much greater quality in depth than Leicester do; that may not seem like such an advantage. However, In contrast to other clubs, Leicester have been lucky in that the injuries they have had have also not been to key players; 8 of their regular players have only missed 2 or fewer games this season through injury.
Of the 32 games Leicester have played in the Premier League this season, Vardy has played in all of them, Mahrez has played 31 times, Drinkwater has played in 30 games and Kante has started 27 games and came on in 4 more.
There has also been an element of luck in that Leicester have hit form at the best possible time, as many of the teams usually around the top end of the Premier League have all been unable to find any consistency.
Chelsea imploded at the start of the season, Arsenal have done their usual act of shooting themselves in the foot at key times and Manchester City have proved that for all the money they spend, they are still reliant on a few key players, who have all missed big chunks of the season. Other than that, Liverpool have been hamstrung by injuries to just about everyone and Manchester United are still mired in transition.
Again, it’s to Leicester’s credit that they have taken advantage of the problems other clubs have had, and it’s not their fault if other teams couldn’t get themselves together, but while you may expect one or two teams to have problems a season, you couldn’t have predicted that so many of the Premier League’s better teams would struggle.
If Leicester win the title this season, and there’s still probably a few twists left, it will be an amazing achievement, but it also smacks of an achievement that will be totally unique to this team on this occasion.
An achievement where the stars have aligned and an unfashionable manager playing unfashionable football managed to get a team who collectively hit form all at the same time and managed to make them greater than the sum of their parts.
And that’s not something that can be replicated easily, so I don’t think the Leicester blueprint will be one people think clubs could, or should, follow.