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The mundane genius of unlikely champions


I generally dislike the usage of the word “miracle” while describing sporting achievements. It seems like we are tainting the achievement with a connotation of not being fully deserved. The word ‘miracle’ also indicates the likelihood of a freak accident, or extremely good luck being involved. And indeed some of the famous “miracles” in sport – Miracle on Ice, Istanbul 2005, Greece at Euros 2004, Miracle of Bern – all are one off events requiring just enough luck, just enough of an accident or unlikely run for a short period.  However, winning the title in the highest tier of one of the major football leagues in Europe requires the team to perform exceedingly well, home and away over the course of 38 matches and 10 months. That’s an awfully long time to get lucky.

Another word often bandied about carelessly is the word “genius” – the likes of Messi, Federer, Cobb, Bradman – geniuses who seem to transcend everything the world has seen before. The sweeping generalisation and proliferation of the word in usage with regard to freaks of nature like those names also are at the heart of another injustice in the perception of sports – we tend to have only one definition of genius. This definition of genius is compelling and awe-inspiring for it focusses on the amazing acts these people pulled off – that yorker that went for six, that impossible angle on the backhand, that overhead volley from 35 yards out. However this definition of genius is not the only one that exists. There is also making that precise pass, the small one twos, that crucial interception, getting back that deadly first serve, fending off the impossible-to-play ball – consistently and reliably, again and again and again over a long period. No-one will talk about this distinctly un-sexy aspect of genius, but this mundane, everyday genius is what makes an ordinary player good, and a good player great. Leicester’s victory was very, very unlikely to say the least. And in unlikely victories – this mundane genius is the driving force behind success – doing the small things right, even perfectly, and consistently over a long period of time.

It is unfair to say that the Foxes didn’t get lucky at all. Yes they were lucky – but only as having no major injuries or egregious decisions going against them – the kind of luck which evens itself out in the long run. If one were to really push the definition of luck, they were lucky to also be the small, underdog team – they had no other distractions and the accompanying illusions of greater glory, few international stars (and thus fewer players going on international duty) – all things that are normally held against teams worked for them.  

Most of what Leicester achieved can be attributed to one sly fox – that genial, funny Italian guy who has never won a league title – Claudio Ranieri. In his quite eventful career – right from Cagliari to Atletico to Chelsea to Juventus to Inter and now to Leicester he has built a solid reputation as a shrewd manager. No-one, not even Ranieri at his most jovial, dilly ding dilly dong mood would have ever looked at his portfolio of clubs managed and thought he would win at Leicester. On the other hand, Leicester turned out to be the perfect club for him. He inherited a set of solid but under-rated players. He did what every great manager does first – take a long hard look at the ragtag bunch you call your first team and really, truly acknowledge the gaping holes, and then fill them. He bought some great players languishing in clubs and leagues well below their capability (most prominent of whom was Kanté). He then earned the team’s trust and respect. He used a philosophy which was easy to understand and relatable for the 14th place side from the 2015 season. He didn’t ask them to change their world view or play total football, he set down the basics and built a simple strategy to play to their strengths while still not taking risks and avoiding defeat at all costs (surely the first thing on the mind of any relegation threatened / mid table side).

The strategy used was perfectly suited to the constraints of Leicester. They didn’t have squad depth (much like pretty much every club in England not named Chelsea or Manchester City), but they did have a solid playing 11. It was essential for this playing 11 to play as much as possible for Leicester to do well. Ranieri achieved this through some brilliant philosophical calls. By playing a very deep defence and ensuring that his players don’t have to move too much on the field – he ensured they didn’t tire any more than absolutely necessary. His defence played with remarkable discipline and kept their shape throughout – they held their line, crowded the box, marked their men, and never let their ambition for glory or flashiness or attention get in their way. Then we come to the midfield and that beast of a midfielder – Kanté.

Ngolo

Years ago, in the early 2000s I remember the Galacticos of Real Madrid winning the UEFA Champions league at will and one of the pundits on TV said that undoubtedly Vicente Del Bosque’s first name on the team sheet was not Raul or Figo or Zidane or Carlos – it was either Flavio da Conceição or Claude Makélélé. Kanté is in the similar vein – he can run all day, had phenomenal positional sense and breaks up play better than anyone. This is the second crucial piece in the jigsaw – the defence lies deep, teams try to speed past them but can’t because Kanté intercepts at will and cuts off most sweeping movements.

This now puts pressure on the opposing teams to throw people forward to counter the crowd of Leicester in their own final third – and herein comes the coup de grace – with bigger, better teams desperately trying to beat lowly Leicester and crowding into their half, one of the Leicester midfielders launches a ball forward for their three lighting fast attackers – Vardy, Mahrez and Okazaki.

troika

They play brilliantly off each other – one draws the defenders like a magnet and sets it up for the other to slot it home, a third follows up unmarked to pick up the crumbs if at all. End of the day – Leicester don’t concede and they score on the counter – works well, conserves energy and avoids injuries. All simple things, but done perfectly every single game, every week, by everyone in the team. Champion material.

The whole process of figuring out the winning formula is ridiculously hard, but what’s even harder is turning a team like Leicester into a winning machine which will see it through and actually win the title. Stories of truly great teams like Newcastle and Arsenal throwing away big leads (1996 and 2003 respectively) to lose their titles are told with much glee by fans of a particular club in the North of England – and by contrast to think that a bunch of players expecting a relegation battle would be able to keep their heads and actually win a prize they never even considered possible shows a lot of credit is due to them.

In my view the key of all this is humility and discipline. They were over-achieving but didn’t go nuts on the celebrations when they were close. Instead they put their head down, forgot about the match they just won and trained for the next one. The players worked always only towards the next match – and thus broke the season into bite sized achievements while remaining calm and relaxed. The humility is exhibited by the fact that they were thrilled to be there at the beginning of the season and are thrilled to there now.

Kanté used to walk to practice when he moved here. The club gave him a used car and he is ecstatic about it – he drives it to work even today. Mahrez still gets his haircut at the local shop like everyone else in this town. Vardy is very much still the same person he was when he played in the Conference and merely being the top striker in the country hasn’t blown away the memories of his roots. They do not have airs or an aura – they did not dream, they just chugged along and went forward – towards the most surprising result in English football has ever seen – one win at a time.

The team and the manager have shown extraordinary heart and character, and as their recent strong run at the crunch time shows, they have also exhibited that rare ability shown only by great teams – that of playing badly and still winning. There are times to grind 1-0s and there are times for the 4-0 demolition – and no team in history has ever won a top tier football league title in Europe over 38 games with only the later.

Leicester showed everything any big team would be proud of. What Leicester City F.C. pulled off, was not a miracle, it was the greatest exhibition of mundane genius ever seen in the history of English football.

 

Image Credits:

www.espnfc.com
www.thesun.co.uk
www.leicestermercury.co.uk

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