Starting to believe yet? With just 15 games left of the Premier League season, Leicester City are three points clear at the summit of the table. After Arsenal toiled in a manner only they can against Chelsea and Manchester City dropped points against West Ham United, the Foxes capitalized with a resounding 3-0 win against a very capable Stoke City outfit.
Once again, talk turned to when Claudio Ranieri’s side are going to let their momentum slip and when, inevitably in the eyes of some, they’ll fall back down the table. After all, with the form of early-season stars Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez tailing off in recent encounters, the swagger has seeped away a little from the Foxes’ forward forays.
But even though the attacking vibrancy isn’t quite there at the moment, it’s been overlooked that a little further back on the field, they’re actually improving in other facets. And they’re progressions that will ultimately be crucial to any eventual success the club has.
Recent wins have epitomized these developments. Not only did Leicester do a professional job against Stoke, who have been very impressive themselves this term, but the league leaders went to Tottenham Hotspur, coped with their industrious pressing supremely, got through difficult spells and won 1-0 via a well worked set piece. To see the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen toil was testament to the Foxes, who have replaced a dwindling panache with some new-found pragmatism.
What you could guarantee during the early weeks of the season when playing Leicester was that their swashbuckling, counter-attacking football would stretch games into a frenzy, and chances would inevitably come your way. But Ranieri has tightened them up with the pressure biting in a key spell of the campaign. In their last six games, including matches against Stoke, Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester City, Leicester have conceded a meager two goals. A run of matches which included Manchester United, Everton, Liverpool and Manchester City before Christmas could have easily knocked this side off course. But they’ve battled through, regrouped and retaken their spot at the summit.
Their recent wins have been based on a newly-found defensive fortitude, and at this point, that’s not something prevalent among their title rivals. Arsenal, as was evident against Chelsea, remain brittle at the back. Manchester City, with Eliaquim Managala and their inspirational skipper Vincent Kompany sidelined, are equally unreliable when it comes to keeping opponents out.
The Foxes are uncomplicated in how they defend, too, meaning it’s repeatable for the remainder of the campaign. There’s no great tactical masterplan coming to fruition on Ranieri’s part; they simply seek to take pressure off the back four and the goalkeeper as quickly as possible.
In Kasper Schmeichel they possess a goalkeeper who is growing in stature every week; in Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, two center backs who are uncompromising in their approach. Whether it’s coming and taking crosses or clearing balls expertly from the channels, they’ve been astutely removing the defensive duress a counter-attacking style can often heap upon teams.
From there, the rest of the XI does their work mechanically. N’Golo Kante can carry the ball through phases, Danny Drinkwater can distribute expertly, Mahrez and Marc Albrighton tuck in, while Vardy and Shinji Okazaki will run down every pass launched forward into space.
So while the likes of Vardy and Mahrez have endured a natural drop off, they’re still contributing in general play. They’re still putting the opponents under pressure, still helping keep a defensive shape and remain a critical outlet for the team when games are stretched. There are absolutely no passengers in this squad.
These factors should also give Leicester fans encouragement. Because they’ve shown even without their star attackers carrying this side to thrilling wins, they can still get by. Indeed, looking at the squad available to Ranieri it’s pretty impressive, with the likes of Leonardo Ulloa, Gokhan Inler, Andy King and Jeffrey Schlupp all only playing supporting roles this term.
Additionally, in Demarai Gray the Foxes seem to have landed a January bargain who will add further verve to their attacking endeavors, while 21-year-old Daniel Amartey looks another smart acquisition from Copenhagen. Two youthful, energetic players like those two can give everyone at the club a massive boost.
Of course, there are many reasons why Leicester can’t go on and lift this title, with a lack of championship-winning experience being the most pertinent one. But as we move toward the final third of the Premier League season, the reasons for why they can pull off what’d be a miraculous triumph are growing in number.
The Foxes face a defining spell of games in the next few weeks, with Liverpool heading to the King Power Stadium before trips to Manchester City and Arsenal successive matches. They’re fixtures which are difficult at first glance, but for a side that has found some impressive fortitude in recent outings, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t approach the clashes with a confidence befitting of their status as league leaders.
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