How Leicester City Won The Premier League
Claudio Ranieri could easily pass off as a university professor. Someone who the students adore, someone who always has time for people, is affable, witty and gives out the “Mr Nice Guy” vibe. Till yesterday, he was Clark Kent without the alter ego of Superman. Over the last nine months, however, Ranieri has been nothing short of a superhero. Masterminding what is arguably one of the greatest sporting triumphs of all-time, the Leicester City manager has made everyone eat the proverbial humble pie.
When Ranieri was appointed the manager of Leicester in July 2015, several football pundits wrote him off immediately. Former England striker Gary Lineker tweeted, “Claudio Ranieri? Really?” whereas Michael Owen tipped Leicester to get relegated. It’s not as if Ranieri doesn’t have pedigree – he has managed some of Europe’s top clubs, including Chelsea, Juventus, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid, amongst others. Yet, the tag of “The Nearly Man” has always been attached to him.
Perhaps it’s a reason why Leicester being crowned champions makes for a more fascinating story than it already is. Here is a manager whose appointment was met largely with disappointment, and it was expected that the journeyman Ranieri – he has managed 15 clubs across Europe – would barely be noticed. But here we are, in a state of shock, awe and disbelief at what he’s managed to achieve.
What makes the Leicester story great are the several fascinating threads it weaves in. In the last seven years, Leicester have been relegated to League One (the third tier of English football), almost made it to the Premier League, won the Championship (second tier of English football) and made it to the Premier League. Then they almost got relegated again, before becoming the champions of England. It has been a rollercoaster ride in the truest sense.
Look at the key players: Kasper Schmeichel, the goalkeeper who has been a rock at the back. Jamie Vardy, a striker whose goals have been pivotal in Leicester’s march to the title. N’Golo Kante, the midfielder who makes it look like Leicester are playing with twelve men. Riyad Mahrez, voted as the best player in England, an unknown quantity until recently. Marc Albrighton, the winger who has dazzled on the right side. The captain, Wes Morgan, who played in lower leagues till the age of 30. Leicester players have a backstory and nowhere in their life were they were expected to be champions. Vardy was a semi-professional four years ago. Schmeichel bears the burden of the legacy of a famous father, whereas Albrighton wasn’t considered good enough for a terrible Aston Villa side.
Ranieri’s genius has been in getting all these players to play to their potential. The beauty of Leicester’s triumph lies in the simplicity on which it has been built. There hasn’t been an emphasis on tactics or buying “star” players. Ranieri built a side which is extremely hard working and each player knows his role and plays it to near perfection. Ranieri combined the traits of two of English football’s finest managers – Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho – pretty shrewdly.
In the first half of the season, Ranieri got Leicester to play a cavalier brand of football. They were adventurous going forward, solid in the middle of the park and relied on the guile of Mahrez and Albrighton on the wings. Ferguson’s all-conquering Manchester United side won the Premier League by having a similar attacking ethos.
If the first half was on all-attack mode, Leicester flipped the switch and adopted a more pragmatic approach to winning games. Taking a leaf out of Mourinho’s book of management, they became difficult to beat, conceded very few goals and eked out narrow victories. Ever since February, when they dismantled the league title favourites Manchester City, Leicester barely put a foot wrong. It was also perhaps a pivotal moment in their season, when people genuinely started taking them seriously. Till then, they were a good story for English football, but without a fairy-tale ending.
If there’s one thing that Leicester have in common with the big clubs of English football, it’s that they too have a billionaire owner. But that’s where the similarity ends, as unlike Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who has pumped millions of dollars into Chelsea, Leicester’s owners have been frugal with their spending. Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the business magnate who launched the King Power chain of duty-free shops, bought Leicester City in 2010 for $57 million. The Thai owner has quietly gone about his business, and his best decision was was to hire Ranieri. They haven’t turned Leicester into a brand or a marketing vehicle, and seem genuinely interested in making the football club a well-run organization.
Football – particularly the English league – has become a money-driven behemoth over the last two decades. What makes the success of Leicester a great story is that they’ve defied all the possible odds to become champions. You will have to go back 18 years to see a similar story unfolding, when FC Kaiserslautern won the Bundesliga in Germany after being promoted from the second tier. But those were different times – money wasn’t the overriding factor in deciding who wins in football. Leicester’s entire team cost less than what Liverpool paid for their underperforming record signing (32 million pounds), Christian Benteke. They haven’t had a sugar daddy owner who didn’t rest till he made the team into champions – like Sheikh Al Mansour did with Manchester City. No crazy money was spent on buying superstars or household names. Leicester’s magnificent title win has been built on the simple foundations of how team sport has been played for years – hard work, commitment and a desire to overcome the odds.
It’s unlikely that Leicester – or for that matter any other club – will replicate this stupendous achievement. But in a world where heartwarming stories are becoming a scarce commodity, Ranieri and Leicester City have proven that even impossible dreams can be realized. In his first spell in English football, Ranieri was given the moniker of “Tinkerman” for changing his lineup every second game, as manager of Chelsea. Twelve years later, the Tinkerman has become the Superman and Leicester City will go down as one of the greatest sporting stories of all-time.