The rise of the Foxes


epa05069281 Leicester Citys Riyad Mahrez scores the 2nd goal ball during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Chelsea at King Power Stadium in Leicester, Britain, 14 December 2015. EPA/TIM KEETON EDITORIAL USE ONLY. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or live services. Online in-match use limited to 75 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications

Leicester City are enjoying life at the top, thanks to in-form players and the Tinkerman

Only last summer when Marseille’s president Vincent Labrune learnt about Riyad Mahrez and his availability (when Leicester City were in a relegation battle in the English Premier League), he didn’t take it too kindly.

“Do you really think that Leicester players now have a place at Olympique Marseille, in this project we’ve got?

“To save time, let me tell you, we try to be professional and qualitative with our recruitment. The probability of us taking this sort of player is zero.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t put up with people taking me for a sucker” said Labrune in an email last year when asked about signing Mahrez.

Six months down the road, Mahrez is the league’s second highest top scorer with 11 goals, seven assists and we find Leicester flying high in the EPL whilst Marseille trail league leaders PSG by 23 points.

Football is a funny game and that’s why we love it!

And the fairytale run of Leicester continued on Monday as two brilliant goals from Jamie Vardy and Mahrez sent them back to the top of EPL table after a deserved 2-1 win over a pathetic Chelsea side whose march to the title last season seems like eons ago.

Football Soccer - Leicester City v Chelsea - Barclays Premier League - King Power Stadium - 14/12/15Leicesters Jamie VardyAction Images via Reuters / Carl RecineLivepicEDITORIAL USE ONLY. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or live services. Online in-match use limited to 45 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications. Please contact your account representative for further details.
Vardy leads the goalscorers chart in the EPL.

Vardy, whose record run of 11 consecutive EPL goals came to an end at Swansea City last weekend, beat Blues goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois with a crisp volley from playmaker Mahrez’s delightful cross after 34 minutes.

Mahrez himself then curled in a stunning second from the edge of the area three minutes into the second half to put Leicester further ahead, continuing a remarkable season where they have 35 points, two clear of second-placed Arsenal.

A simplistic approach from Claudio Ranieri after taking over from Nigel Pearson has been the key but that view can lead to a reluctance to acknowledge some of the alterations that the Italian has made since his arrival.

Let’s take a look at the simplistic changes done by Ranieri that have made an enormous impact.

Ranieri switching Vardy to a centre forward role has been a masterstroke. Vardy was used in a predominantly left-sided role, playing off Leonardo Ulloa and David Nugent under Nigel Pearson but Vardy has been unleashed by Ranieri to great effect this season.

From the start of the campaign, Ranieri recognised that his team’s pace was the absolute key strength that needed to be nurtured. He has embraced the power of the counter-attack. Vardy has been central to this with his prolific finishing.

Inverted wingers, none other then Riyad Mahrez and Marc Albrighton have also contributed to the Foxes good run of form. Albrighton on the left, has been a revelation. He has already started more games this season than in his debut year with the Foxes and had rarely been used as an inverted winger previously in his career.

But Ranieri recognised that playing with two inverted wingers was an effective way of fielding his favoured 4-4-2 formation. Having Mahrez on the other side has been arguably more electrifying, as the Algerian has completed more dribbles than anyone else in the EPL this season.

Finding a way to get Mahrez involved was a challenge for Pearson last season. He was an unused substitute in the 5-3 win over Manchester United last season and it must be remembered that he played only a bit-part role in the team’s turnaround towards the end of last season but Mahrez subsequently showed what he could do in the final few games of last season and has continued that form under Ranieri.

Part of the reason why Pearson went with three at the back was because it allowed him to get the best from Esteban Cambiasso.

The Argentine midfielder was a huge fan-favourite for Leicester last season and the temptation to go in and search of a like-for-like replacement would have been the obvious thing to do but Ranieri saw it differently and opted for energy as a priority in midfield as he wanted to go with just two players in the centre of the park and thus he looked towards Danny Drinkwater.

Drinkwater was on the bench more times than he started last season but is ever-present under Ranieri this season.

The coach deserves the credit for his performances because Ranieri had to get the pairing in the heart of midfield right and boy he got it spot on with N’Golo Kante.

Ranieri has paired Drinkwater with new signing Kante, a fellow hard-worker rather than a conventional playmaker. He’s the one big change Ranieri has made with such pace and attacking minded players. Kante is the key to their recovery.

According to statistics, Kante has made more interceptions than any other player in the EPL this season and ranks third for tackles. Where Cambiasso brought control, Kante brings a form of organised chaos, denying the opposition time on the ball. It’s this work of Kante and Drinkwater that allows Mahrez to break with such freedom. Precisely what Ranieri had in mind.

In short, the Tinkerman has tinkered. He’s done it so well that it looks seamless.

Stanley Bernard, a former Malaysian international forward, is a football pundit in South-East Asia, focusing on the English Premier League and European football.

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