Claudio Ranieri’s appointment as head of unfashionable Leicester City in July after a dismal and short-lived spell in charge of Greece raised some eyebrows, not least because the Italian had not managed a Premier League side since 2004. Few, if any, could have forseen him storming the pinnacle of English soccer.
After being sacked by Chelsea to usher in the Jose Mourinho era, Ranieri managed in Spain, Italy, France and subsequently Greece, where he lasted just four games.
An embarrassing home defeat for Greece by the Faroe Islands in November 2014 appeared to put Ranieri’s stock at an all-time low but Leicester’s ambitious Thai owners were ready to hand the 64-year-old another crack at management in the most popular league in the world.
That move now looks all the more astute with Leicester top of the league more than halfway through the season and continuing to defy those who thought their unexpected title challenge would naturally start to tail off.
Leicester, three points clear of Manchester City after 23 games, could scarcely now be more fashionable, the shooting star in a league so long dominated by names such as Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. Almost forgotten is their great escape last season when, having been bottom at Christmas, they won seven of their last nine games to beat the drop.
Under Ranieri, Leicester deploy a relentless counter-attacking game spearheaded by the dual attacking threats of playmaker Riyad Mahrez and striker Jamie Vardy.
“The thing with Leicester is they can mix their game up. They grind teams down, they adapt to situations accordingly. Primarily they sit back and hit on the counter with the pace of Mahrez, (Marc) Albrighton and Vardy,” former Leicester captain Matt Elliott told Reuters.
“I think it’s fair to say Ranieri has brought some game management and a little bit of nous to their play. You can see it from afar, everyone knows their jobs, they are well drilled.”
Vardy, given licence to roam by Ranieri, is the league’s top scorer with 16 goals and it is his partnership with Algerian international Mahrez, who has contributed 13 goals and numerous assists, that have paid rich dividends for Leicester.
THE LOOSE CANNON
Nicknamed “Loose”, as in loose cannon, by his team mates, England international Vardy broke a Premier League scoring record with goals in 11 consecutive games in November.
While Vardy’s value has soared, the reported 400,000 pounds ($570,000) Leicester paid to French Ligue 2 side Le Havre for Mahrez one year ago appears to be another bargain with his value now put at around 11 million euros according to transfermarkt.com.
Having earned the nickname ‘Tinkerman’ at Chelsea for constantly rotating his squad, many thought Ranieri would make wholesale squad changes when he arrived but this has not happened.
Ranieri also retained his predecessor Nigel Pearson’s backroom team, including head of recruitment Steve Walsh, the man credited with bringing Vardy and Mahrez to central England.
Walsh had also scouted little known midfielder N’Golo Kante and persuaded Ranieri to buy him from Ligue 1 side Caen.
The energetic Kante has formed a telling partnership alongside Danny Drinkwater in front of Leicester’s back four — Ranieri’s one tactical change was to revert to a four-man defence from Pearson’s favoured three.
“For us he’s very important – he’s our engine. He’s like a battery. Every day he doesn’t stop. Also in the training I say ‘N’Golo, slow down’ and he’s up and down, up and down!” Ranieri said of the Frenchman who made the most tackles across the top five European leagues last season.
Kante and consistent left back Christian Fuchs, the Austria captain, have been the most impressive of Ranieri’s signings with Japan striker Shinji Okazaki also adapting well to the Premier League.
But Switzerland captain Gokhan Inler and Tunisian defender Yohan Benalouane, the pair acquired at a cost of 10.6 million pounds before the season started, have had fewer opportunities to play.
Many still expect Leicester to drop away as the season rolls on to the business end; but for for former captain Elliott, a top-four finish would be a remarkable achievement.
“I think they can stay in the top region. Winning it is a long shot. Champions League is a possibility,” he said.