“Ialways tell my players to find the fire within themselves. A chance like this will never come round again. Seek that fire, don’t be ashamed of it. And they are not ashamed; if anything they demand to dream.”
Claudio Ranieri provided some beautiful soundbites this week in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. Freed from the second-language constraints of his fun-drunken-uncle press conference English, Ranieri spoke about Leicester’s season in a way that was fluent and affectionate, but above all strangely gripping.
Gripping in part because we haven’t really heard much so far from the man at the centre of English football’s emergent Premier League folk tale. And gripping mainly because Leicester’s season is something that really does seem to need explaining.
The simple facts of games won and goals scored won’t do it here. It isn’t enough that at the Etihad last week Leicester simply looked like what they are, the best team in the country this season, with the two best attacking players, the best tactical plan, the most compelling spirit and the best – by a mile – defensive midfielder. It seems Leicester have to mean something too.
To date, opinion on this meaning has divided into two camps. On the one hand Leicester are a modern fairytale, evidence of the raucously jumbled brilliance of the Premier League and the redemptive power of sport. Ranieri’s comments were pitched this way in Corriere Della Serra. “In an era when money counts for everything, I think we give hope to everybody,” was the key line, the pull quote. Fire. Magic. Intangibles. This is the language of the fairytale option.
At the other extreme Leicester’s success is something more grave, evidence of the chronic mediocrity of the Premier League. For the richest teams, finishing second to Leicester should be an indelible spot of shame. There have already been dark mutterings about the ease with which Real Madrid , Barcelona or Bayern Munichmight swat aside England’s own-brand champions next season. Who knows, perhaps even with the same ease they’ve been swatting aside Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool for the last five years.
There is, of course, another take on this. Albeit one that only really emerges after you’ve blinked a few times, jabbed a biro into your own arm as penance for failing to predict the most unlikely title chase of the last 55 years, and absorbed the surprisingly prosaic reality.
The fact is Leicester aren’t really a fairytale at all. Or at least to see them as such – flukish, magical – is to miss the best part of what they’re doing. Just as to see a cautionary tale here is also to miss the point. Which is that Leicester are simply a really good team. Rather than something to wondered over, they’re a model to be copied and learnt from, an entirely sensible, quietly retro-ish lesson in how to build and nurture a group of players.
It is a most unexpected title-chasing quality in a season that was meant to be all about more and better and newer, gaudy new dawns, the TV deal splurge. As it turns out the team five points clear at the top of the league have often fielded six starting players who were with them in the Championship two seasons ago, players who have been allowed, by accident or design, to grow and develop in the same space.
Part of Ranieri’s success has been simply to allow this team to run on. “When speaking to the players, I realised they were afraid of Italian tactical approaches. They didn’t seem convinced and neither was I. So I told the players that I trusted them and would speak very little of tactics. It was important to me that they all ran hard, just as I’d seen them running towards the end of last season.”
Running hard: maybe this is what Leicester mean. Except, one of the most striking things about them right now is the lack of extraneous running, the refusal to look like a team playing above itself, the discipline simply to defend in a blue-shirted double bolt in between those collective forward surges.
Consider for a moment Wes Morgan, the great throbbing brain of the Leicester defence and an unassailable front-runner for most improved player in the league. Morgan may grapple and bump but most of the time he barely moves . At one point in the first half at the Etihad he found himself performing a bullocking dribble down the left wing exchanging one-twos with his forwards, a rare moment of total Wes-Ball. Otherwise he simply covered and blocked and warded off, the well-guarded sweet spot in that defensive rump.
Don’t call it a fairytale! Leicester beat Manchester City because they were a more convincing elite modern-day football team, better organised, better on the ball, more incisive. Similarly, the idea that Leicester would naturally struggle in European competition seems baseless.
In the last 10 weeks they’ve beaten Manchester City, Liverpool Tottenham and Chelsea playing the same kind of tightly knit, tactically sound football you might see in the Champions League group phase, or the late stages of the Europa. There is no reason to assume this same group, playing this well, can’t compete. Similarly, the players themselves aren’t the nobodies they’re sometimes portrayed. Robert Huth knows what a Premier League title run-in feels like from his Chelsea days (Arsenal, Sunday’s opponents, have only Petr Cech and Danny Welbeck who can say the same). Shinji Okazaki has 47 goals for Japan. There are Belgian, Argentinian and Swiss league winners in that squad.
A fairytale title chase would be a team of window cleaners plus the odd unfulfilled genius. These are solid top-tier players, B+ players who have together made the step up to A+. Danny Drinkwater didn’t rise though the Fergie-era United academy and play for England age groups without being a seriously talented footballer. Fulfilling that promise isn’t a fluke. It’s intelligence, application, good coaching.
If the magic-Leicester stuff tends to obscure the merits of continuity and careful planning rather than indiscriminate celebrity additions, it also goes to the heart of what might happen next. Leicester’s players will know better than anyone they don’t need magic dust to win the league from here. The fear isn’t that the wardrobe will stop working, the carpet cease to fly. But simply that they might start to deviate from that well-executed plan.
Leicester need nine more everyday Premier League victories to take the title. Win or lose they have already provided a glorious reminder of some rather overlooked virtues, an old school triumph for a fine team playing at its well-grooved peak. Call it brilliant. Call it instructive. Just, you know, don’t call it a fairytale.