The level of Leicester’s success is unprecedented in the Premier League era – going from a newly-promoted club rooted to the bottom of the league, to reaching the summit of the table in less than 12 months. It’s a staggering achievement. But what they’re doing is not revolutionary. Or rather, the way they’ve achieved success isn’t revolutionary. We’ve seen it before. Quite recently, too.
Southampton’s turn around under Mauricio Pochettino wasn’t quite on the scale we’ve seen from the Foxes so far this season, but there’s a parallel. They went from being freshly-promoted whipping boys, shipping a lot of goals every week to finishing 8th after sacking the manager who got them promoted.
Leicester’s performances this season have been predicated on a number of simple factors that they share with the Saints squad of that time: pressing high up the pitch, simple defensive discipline, transitioning the ball quickly from back to front, forwards playing with creative freedom, and consistent team selection based around a spine of players who have played together for a number of years.
The similarities go even further than that if you look at the specifics. Both sides have an English centre forward with a rags to riches story who is blossoming late in his career. A fleet-footed creative wide player. A tough-tackling French midfielder. A journeyman centre back adapting well to top flight football after a career predominantly spent in the lower leagues. On both a macro and micro level, there is an uncanny resemblance between the two.
What’s also striking is that Leicester and Southampton both centred around a core of 4 or 5 players who played in the Championship with their respective teams before establishing themselves as top level professionals – Schmeichel, Morgan, Drinkwater, Vardy for the Foxes; Fonte, Schneiderlin, Lallana, Lambert for the Saints.
The sense of cohesion and development as a collective, as well as individually, seems integral to their team’s success;teambuilding is often overlooked in terms of significance but is a vital facet of playing at the highest level. Look at the modern footballing dynasties of Barcelona and Manchester United – each of them built sides with a nexus of players who broke into the first team together and were then selected consistently and allowed to grow as a unit.
The appointment of softly spoken, tactically focused, principled coaches made all the difference for Leicester and Southampton – they picked the right gardeners to nurture their flowers and allow them to bloom. Both clubs also adopted a shrewd approach to recruitment, forgoing wholesale changes [unlike Liverpool and Spurs] and instead adding players after rigorous assessment who complemented the existing squad. This is, of course, reliant on having a well established blueprint of the way you want to play and a good idea of the players you need to execute it effectively. Pochettino and Ranieri have succeeded where Adkins and Pearson were struggling, and achieved a considerable turnabout in fortunes with largely the same resources at their disposal. Rather than looking for quick fixes, they exercised restraint and showed faith in the potential of their existing players to reach beyond their current abilities.
This perhaps goes some way to negating the view that managers are ultimately insignificant; an accusation that has been frequently levelled at Pep Guardiola in the wake of his impending appointment at Manchester City. Harry Redknapp said the game is about “great players rather than great managers”, a statement that probably says more about his own ability rather than about the nature of management.
Both teams showed a significant improvement in form, style, and position in the league table, while individual players have developed tactically, technically, and physically at perplexing levels. Clearly strong coaching and leadership had some influence on this – Lallana, Lambert, Schneiderlin and Vardy have all gone from languishing in the lower echelons of the British football pyramid to becoming senior internationals under the tutelage of effective coaches.
Karl Marx famously said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce. Although you’d struggle to construe Pochettino’s tenure at Southampton as a tragedy, there would have been few who would have considered the thought of Leicester City as title challengers as anything other than farcical 6 months ago. But their success has not come out of the blue. It has been grounded in the same basic principles of team-building, player development and tactical astuteness that delivered results for another traditionally unfashionable club just a few years ago. The quick blue Foxes may have jumped over their lazy title contenders but they have done so via a well-worn path.