They had swept teams aside with attacking verve before. They had won games through the sheer power of will and recovery. They had beaten fellow title contenders. But Leicester had never ground out a victory. They had never entered a game as overwhelming favourites and exited with three points. They had never ground out a win the way that champions do. Until now.
There have been a number of watershed moments in the most remarkable of seasons at the King Power Stadium. A comfortable 3-0 win over Newcastle in Newcastle saw them top the table for the first time since August. They were considered as title contenders after beating Chelsea 2-1 the following month. A late, battling victory over Tottenham in January was impressive. Liverpool and Manchester City were swept aside within a week of one another in February.
But each breakthrough moment has required a qualification. A but. An although. A however. The players could not maintain this form. Their confidence will drop as soon as they lose one match. It’s nice, but it’s Leicester. Leicester. They will fall away like the rest of the pretend contenders.
‘Now comes a different test of Leicester’s title credentials,’ wrote Ian Watson in Friday’s Big Weekend. ‘Do Leicester have the variety in their attack to break down less ambitious teams who will gladly sit in their own half?’ The Foxes may have just faced Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal, but a home game against relegation-embattled Norwich was the most imposing test of their title credentials thus far. Leicester had overcome teams, they had dominated teams, and they had defeated teams with a simple but ever so effective counter-attacking style. But they had not been treated like champions. No opponent dealt with them in the same manner as a Manchester City or an Arsenal. No side had prioritised defence over attack.
Norwich, with a defence more porous than every Premier League side except Sunderland, sought to change that on Saturday. They defended resolutely against the league’s leading goalscorers. The visitors made 16 tackles as Leicester failed to break them down at the King Power Stadium. Jamie Vardy was anonymous; Riyad Mahrez was thwarted at every turn. Captain Russell Martin led by example, making 18 clearances. Norwich ceded 59% of the possession, but utilised a deep five-man defence to counter Leicester’s biggest weapon. The Foxes had previously thrived by focusing their strengths on their opponent’s biggest weakness. Now they were the Goliath to Norwich’s David.
For Alex Neil, it so nearly worked. The visiting manager recognised his side’s glaring weakness – defending – and reacted. Norwich were composed where Leicester looked panicked. Norwich were effortless where Leicester looked burdened. Norwich were concentrated where Leicester looked erratic. Cameron Jerome and Nathan Redmond forged the best chances of either side – until the final minutes – while Vardy, Mahrez, Shinji Okazaki and Marc Albrighton struggled. This was the wobble everyone had predicted since August, just six months late.
The relief upon Leonardo Ulloa’s 89th-minute winner was palpable throughout the King Power Stadium. The players, the fans and the manager entered a state of collective delirium. Claudio Ranieri’s part should not be overlooked.
‘There are two Claudio Ranieris. There is the current edition, the lovable, eccentric Italian who has assembled a squad of misfits and led them to the top of the Premier League table in late February. Then there is the madcap buffoon who couldn’t resist making constant changes to his side. Or, to give him his proper nickname, ‘The Tinkerman’.
My description of the Italian on Wednesday involved a tongue being inserted firmly into cheek, but the inference was all the same. Ranieri had worked wonders this season, yet his reputation in England was marred during his time at Chelsea. The ‘Tinkerman’ moniker was rarely used in a positive context, but that version of the 64-year-old had not been witnessed at Leicester. The Italian sought instead to cultivate momentum, changing his starting XI the fewest number of times of any Premier League manager this campaign.
On Saturday, the Tinkerman returned. But not the Monaco version, this was the new and improved 2016 edition. Ranieri started with a 4-4-2 formation but changed to a 3-4-3 in the dying embers of the game. N’Golo Kante was taken off to consternation, as was the impressive Okazaki. Two controversial changes, ones which Ranieri had sought to avoid thus far. Daniel Amartey also departed, with Andy King, Jeffrey Schlupp and Ulloa introduced. Ranieri had rolled the dice, put it all on red and went all in. This was the gamble which would define his and Leicester’s season.
Ten minutes later, Ulloa converted Albrighton’s cross. A draw would have felt like a defeat to Leicester, particularly in terms of their title hopes, but Ranieri precipitated victory. The Italian has fostered a reputation as a man manager this season, but his tactical influence is rarely discussed in the same terms as Arsene Wenger or Mauricio Pochettino. His gap over his two rivals is increased to five points.
Leicester’s season has been one defined by Vardy, by Mahrez, by Kante. By individuals on the pitch. But while the actors have been impeccable, the director deserves the utmost credit. The players might have got Leicester this far, but the manager might get them over the line.