So, it was not all a weird dream; Leicester really did win the Premier League. They took on the established elite and not only lived to tell the story, but they became the story. The history-makers must now embark upon the uncertainty of the second chapter. Sunday’s Community Shield final was the foreword.
Defend deep. Counter-attack with pace. Score. Win. It is the blueprint which inspired the most remarkable league-title victory of the modern era. Simple but effective. Reductive but destructive. Archaic but somehow modern. Leicester have no need to change a winning formula, but surely their opponents have finally created a plan of their own to counter it?
It was a view many shared. “Leicester will struggle to replicate their stunning run to the title last season now that teams are wised up to the tactics employed by Claudio Ranieri,” said Rio Ferdinand last week, discussing the counter-attack as if it was Rinus Michels’ Total Football. “How are Leicester going to deal with teams who know exactly what to expect? Can they still produce the results they did when people know to expect Vardy to be running behind, Drinkwater to play balls into the channels for him?”
Necessity may be the mother of all invention, but consistency is the father of Leicester’s success. For those in doubt as to whether Claudio Ranieri would attempt to change a winning formula, the starting line-up told all. Just 11 players made 30 appearances or more for the Premier League champions last season; ten of them started. The other, N’Golo Kante, was replaced by Andy King, the club’s longest-serving player. The departed Kante has been replaced almost like for like by Nampalys Mendy, who impressed in his brief cameo.
‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ was Ranieri’s motto when leading a band of misfits to a league title. Despite claims of Leicester being ‘found out’, he has no reason to change that. On Sunday, the Foxes were close to their lethal best: Defend deep. Counter-attack with pace. Score. Save for Zlatan, it might well have been another win. With just 41% possession, they had ten shots on goal to United’s nine. This was not strong enough evidence to suggest Leicester have been found out. On another occasion, they would be lifting more silverware. But defeat on this stage will not deter the club from what they know best.
Lightning almost struck yet again at Wembley. Lightning, of course, will be the word most often used to describe a forward line of Vardy, Musa and Mahrez, supplemented by Gray. Club-record signing Musa has impressed in pre-season, and will add considerable threat to an already impressive attack. Vardy showed signs that he can replicate his poacher’s form, and while Mahrez was nowhere near his best, the Algerian was still effective.
Leicester’s approach is no top-secret weapon; they have been playing the same way since last September. Tottenham knew it when they challenged them for the title and tripped up at the finish line; Arsenal knew it when they soiled themselves at the halfway point; the Manchester clubs both knew it when they parted with their respective managers as a result. And each club will know that Leicester will not change their ways this season. The onus is not on the Foxes to redesign themselves, but on the rest to provide evidence that they can be countered.
“How are Leicester going to deal with teams who know exactly what to expect?” In the exact same way, as it happens. Even though an opponent has identified your approach, there is no need to change unless they show they can nullify it completely. Lionel Messi would not transform into a deep-lying midfielder just because Phil Jones knows he’s a tricky little b*stard, and Leicester should not adapt a winning formula unless someone changes the numbers.